Interview with Knife of Knife & Packer

Last Christmas, my girlfriend bought me a year’s subscription to Private Eye. I quickly became a fan of its brilliant writing, spicy exposes and most of all, one of its cartoons – a colourful strip called ‘It’s Grim Up North London’- written by a magnanimous duo called Knife & Packer.

Based around two Islingtonites called ‘Quin and Jez, ‘Grim’ is a witty pastiche of North London’s fluffy middle class, who, for a number of years, have flourished under New Labour’s tutelage, propagating Pesto in the process.

Prescott’s bloated assertion that ‘Everybody’s middle class now’ way back in 1997 is lampooned in its series of cheeky sketches and surreal situations.

As Private Eye celebrates something of a cultural resurgence after the recent Carter-Ruck affair, we thought we’d talk to Knife of Knife & Packer (real name – Duncan McCoshan) about Islington, working for the ‘Eye and most importantly, what the future has in store for ‘Quin and Jez.

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Duncan McCoshan & Jem Packer

So, who are Knife & Packer and what do you do?

Knife & Packer are Jem Packer and me, Duncan McCoshan. I do the drawing and Jem does the writing, although that’s only become a clear definition in the last six months to a year really. We both come up with ideas but Jem comes up with them more now. We’ve been working quite a lot on children’s books.

How did you both meet and how did you start working together?

We met through a friend – a flatmate of mine. His brother was up in Edinburgh with Jem, billed as a double act called Dallas & Packer at the festival. This was back in the 90’s. Jem had done some comedy writing for things like Week Ending, and I had given up a job at a bookshop. We were both looking around for work. I had sent in some gags to the Spectator and Michael Heath had taken a couple of those, but we were both looking for things to do and we kind of pulled our resources together to see what we could come up with.

In fact ‘Grim’ was one of the first things we did. We had tried three or four ideas before then, but that was the first one that stuck. So we kind of got lucky early.

‘It’s Grim Up North London’ your monthly strip published in Private Eye, is a fantastically sarcastic take on Islington’s trendy contingent. What inspired you to start writing it?

Well we were both living in Islington at the time. I did a gag for the New Statesman and it was a ‘Grim’ type setting. [There was] a guy sat at a desk with his wife running in saying ‘Sainsbury’s are out of pesto!’ and the caption was ‘It’s Grim Up North London.’ I think Jem’s brother bought it [from us] and put it on his wall. [Jem and I] were both looking at it and thought ‘maybe that could work as a strip!’ So from then, the characters were almost right first time, and oddly enough, they actually look like us! I did the first one and my wife said ‘that’s you and Jem isn’t it?’ I said ‘No! No!…have your latte and shut up!’

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Used courtesy of Private Eye. All Rights Reserved.

Did you feel at odds with your old locals?

With the Islington lot? No not really. Jem was born and brought up in Islington -he went to a local school [and] he’s got a lot of old Islington in his blood. He remembers useful shops, instead of Estate Agents and Shisha boutiques.

We all partake in it, but like to think we are standing outside of it a bit. Our ‘Grim’ book ‘Better Latte Than Never’, came out in 2001 and was a compilation of the first 100 strips or so. A lot of [the references] aromatherapy, coffee, etc has become mainstream now. At the time it was new and probably a bit of a New Labour thing.

It’s interesting you say that, do you think that Quin and Jez are significant of a class that has flourished under New Labour?

Yes I think it definitely is. It’s true that in the first strip I think we quoted them as ‘New Labour Cronies’ and I think that’s why it tickled those at the ‘Eye. That Blair and Brown meeting at Granita put a stamp on it from the word go really.

Political, social and economic factors mean that culturally, we are seeing an end to the fluffy, consumerist lifestyle ‘Quin and Jez are representative of. Do you ever see a point where you may have to kill them off?

Haha! What Conan Doyle style with them wrestling a very large aubergine and falling over the Reichenbach falls?! Erm, maybe yeah, unless of course they become Cameronised. I don’t know, it depends how you work it – look at [Kerber’s] Supermodels (another strip in Private Eye). The whole Supermodel thing is dead, but Neil Kerber has been very clever and kept it going. Now, it’s more of a celebrity strip really.

I’ve considered putting ‘Quin and Jez in a retirement home, but there are things like the Olympics coming up – which will be good for us. We did some gags about ‘Quin running for mayor to coincide with the first mayoral election. [Jez and Quin] knock on a local’s door and the local says ‘well for starters they’ve closed the day care centre and opened up a coffee shop. The kid’s footie pitch is now a tennis court, and the Prince Alfred pub’s been gutted and turned into yuppie flats.” ‘Quin says “Tremendous I’m your man vote for me! I’ll ensure these great reforms continue!”

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Used courtesy of Private Eye. All Rights Reserved.

What’s the creative process behind the strips?

We’ll come up with a list of ideas – 12-14 at a time – and we’ll mull them over. Jem will instigate them and we’ll push them back and forth between us, adding a line here or a gag there, before we send them in. Ian (Hislop) goes through them and we get a phone call back from them saying which ones they want.

How do you find working for the Private Eye?

Very good. They’re great to work for. They always come back to us quickly – we’re never waiting around. We submit the artwork every two weeks – usually on Thursday evenings for Friday. We used to go into the [Private Eye] office, but we just email it in now. It’s a nice working atmosphere [although] I’m sure we only see the tip of the iceberg, as it were [and] they’re all paddling like mad under the water! You like that metaphor!? Paddling icebergs?!

Are there any illustrators that inform your artistic style?

I’ve always liked Ronald Searle – he’s an influence although you probably wouldn’t see it in my style. All kinds of things really. A marvellous cartoonist called Kliban, he’s a fantastic cartoonist who’s most well known for his cat calendars [even though] most of his stuff wasn’t at all like that. [It was] much more surreal stuff from the Seventies.

With ‘Grim’ I think there is an affinity to be found between the character constructs and the work of writers like Charlie Brooker. Do you recognise that at all?

Yes actually Jem has read quite a lot of Charlie Brooker’s stuff. We like his writing and his take on things really. Definitely. People like Chris Morris, Partridge, Brass Eye, all of that – it’s spot on. I think we have similar targets. The preposterous and the pompous…
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Used courtesy of Private Eye. All Rights Reserved.

That ‘hub’ of writers has a very specific style. Would you say your work is of the same school?

Yeah, maybe. I hadn’t thought of it in that way. Brooker’s about 10 years younger than me, but it’s probably true actually…interesting. A lot of Islington doesn’t seem very ‘real’ – the old and the new. We like to go to the old pubs and tend to shun the Farmer’s Markets. It’s a weird thing but I certainly wouldn’t like to live in a sink estate somewhere.

What do you make of the recent ‘Carter Fuck vs. Private Eye’ episode and does it signal a cultural and political resurgence for the paper?

I think they’ve had a very good 5-10 years. Ian has been quite shrewd. Through Have I Got News For You he’s become the recognisable face of Private Eye and the magazine is known by a lot more people because of it. I think the whole MP’s expenses thing was an absolute goldmine for them.

I think they’ve taken on more of a ‘Paul Foot’ kind of campaigning journalism. We don’t know the machinations of what’s going on at the ‘Eye, but things like [MP’s Expenses] show they are making a conscious effort. With that Carter Ruck business, Hislop is very passionate about freedom of the press and so the ‘Eye will always carry a banner for that.

What advice could you give to aspiring illustrators or cartoonists?

Advice? Crikey! I think they should just send stuff in. We just hit the right note at the right time. Just send stuff out there.

Anything you’d like to plug?

Buy our books! If you have children between 7 and 9, definitely! And keep buying Private Eye.

Many thanks to Duncan for the interview.

Visit Knife & Packer’s Website, and buy their books here.

Kristian

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