Merrily Harpur

Robin Mills went to Cattistock, West Dorset, to meet Merrily Harpur. This is her story.

“My upbringing was in Surrey, although I was born in Buckinghamshire. All the while I lived in Surrey, I was wishing I lived in Dorset, and it’s taken me this long to get here. My father was youngest son of a rector of the Church of Ireland, from County Laois in the Republic of Ireland. He came to England after his education, and was working in newspapers when he met my mother. She was from a Scottish/English family who had been living in France, so they both had a slightly foreign take on England, and although they were very English in their attitudes they perhaps considered themselves a bit foreign. I think that might have rubbed off on us, especially as my mother, who was a witty person, found the English very funny. I have three brothers and they are all very droll in different ways—tremendous company.

I went to boarding school, Headington School, in Oxford. Oxford’s an interesting place to be at school; there are undergraduates everywhere which is just the job if you’re a certain age. I didn’t know whether to go to Art School, or to university to read English which was the other great interest of my life. In the end I chose the latter, because I thought I’d never get round to reading Anglo-Saxon unless I was forced to. I went to Trinity College, Dublin, got a degree in English, and set about trying to live by my wits. I had made a vow to myself, which was that I would never have to set my alarm to make myself get out of bed, ever again, and I don’t think I ever have. It comes from a horror of having to be constrained by anyone else’s timetable, but if I give the impression of being slothful and unreliable I’m certainly not: I get up at 5.30am every morning, and I think that’s because I don’t have an alarm—I get up just dying to start the day.

So I’ve always been self employed; I started off as an apprentice picture restorer, living in a farmhouse in Herefordshire with various artists and craftspeople. About that time I began to get into cartoons. I’ve always had a feeling I could draw cartoons, even at school, and that I could make them funnier than the ones I saw in newspapers. Then I got an agent, and that made a huge difference. They force you to produce a huge amount of work, very quickly, on typing paper, and none of these beautifully crafted images I used to do sitting at a table. And then I suppose my little vow of never having to undergo formal constraints rather went out of the window, because I had to reel off all these cartoons, rather like having to do an exam every day. If you’re working for a newspaper you have to produce a cartoon by say 2.00pm on Friday or else forget it, and you have to produce four or five different ones because the editor chooses the one he thinks is funniest, and you’ve maybe only started that morning.  Luckily I’m quite good at exams.

Getting into cartoons was actually brilliant, especially as it was during the 1980s which was the absolute heyday for cartoons. Most of the magazines had cartoons, and I had a double page spread to myself in Punch every week, when Alan Coren was editor. I was lucky enough to surf that wave in the 1980s, coinciding with the success of  Steadman, Trog, McLachlan, John Glashan and Michael Heath, wonderful cartoonists, when having great cartoons in a magazine seemed to be the coolest thing. Anyway, I moved to London and became—what seemed to me then—rich and famous. My work was based on social satire, and I worked for the broadsheet papers, mostly the Guardian and the Sunday Telegraph. Mac’s cartoon was on the front of the Sunday Telegraph, and I was on the back, quite annoying really, but he is the best pocket cartoonist. I’ve had several strip cartoons running in newspapers, and they’ve always been on the same subject, which is about London people who move to the country. The idea was to satirise both the London people and the country, so I had a lot of fun at the expense of people who live in “Ye Olde Pigsty”, etc. These days there’s a bit of a dearth of good satire, especially political.

At about this time I learned to fish, thanks to a keen salmon-fishing boyfriend. We used to go to Scotland two or three times a year, but these days I love trout fishing—it’s more skilful—and I’ve been a member of the Dorchester Fishing Club for 12 years. It’s a life support system for me, and it’s what I do in the summer when I’m not painting.

I then found I was actually in a position to sell my flat in London, pay off the mortgage, and buy a house in Ireland. So I moved to South West Cork, the Mizen Peninsula, my idea of heaven because of its remoteness and beauty. I could do that because the fax machine had been invented, and that meant I could still produce the work, while enjoying the blissful freedom of living where I liked. Later of course came email, which was even better. Originally I would drive to the offices of the paper in Fleet Street and put the cartoon on the editor’s desk, so I was one of the first people to have a fax machine, even before the Guardian had one.

South West Cork contained quite a lot of English, Germans, and Dutch people, and after a while I thought I’d prefer a more undiscovered part—the Ireland I remembered from family holidays when I was a child. So I bought a sort of hovel in County Roscommon, in the middle of Ireland, the nearest town being Strokestown which is a delightful backwater. That was marvellous, and I got to know all my neighbours who said I was the first “blow-in” they’d had living there. The local postman was a chap called Pat Compton, who said what we really need is a festival. So we cooked up the idea of Strokestown International Poetry Festival, and I was the first director, a kind of founding mother. And I run it to this day. It’s tremendous fun, and keeps me in touch with Ireland.

In the early 1980s I became very intrigued with the idea that there were big cats roaming the countryside, and started to do research. Perhaps the seeds of my interest were sown by what was known as “The Surrey Puma” which provoked many fruitless police hunts there when I was a child in the 1960s. It’s a very puzzling idea, and one of those that becomes more puzzling the more you know about it. Dorset’s a bit of a hot spot for big cats, although sightings have been recorded in every county. In my earliest research I tried going out looking for them, but quickly cottoned on to how hopeless that was; you are more likely to come across one completely by chance. In fact I’ve written two books on the subject, and could for all I know be a world authority, but the fact remains I’ve never actually seen one. There are many mysteries—you never find one dead beside the road, 85% of them are black, there are no spotted ones; all these anomalies, and yet the sightings are by completely reliable people like farmers and gamekeepers who know very well what they’re looking at. I thought the first book would take me 6 months to write, but there was so much to get my head round, it actually took 6 years. And my head’s still not round it. I do talks on big cat sightings, and I also do talks on hunting; the anthropological and philosophical aspects of it, its history and mystery.

After my mother died my brother and I moved to Dorset. She had been living in Wiltshire, so I’d got to know Dorset a bit more through visiting her. West Dorset’s really an earthly paradise, and no one who lives here, myself more than most, ever stops congratulating themselves on living here, rather smugly. About 4 years ago I sold my place in Cork and bought my cottage here in this wonderful village. I’m still doing one cartoon a week for the London Evening Standard, which is a very welcome bit of regular income, but for the last two or three years I’ve been painting full-time, every day. In fact if there’s a day when I can’t paint I feel quite uneasy. And it’s been brilliant because the work has sold well—about 90% sold in my first Dorset Art Weeks—which has spurred me on even more. I’ve had a lot of help from the other artists here in the village. We sometimes call ourselves, rather cheekily, ‘Tate Cattistock’ ”.