Fifty pages into her marvellous new book, the illustrator and cartoonist Kate Charlesworth briefly breaks off to describe her Barnsley schooldays. Sensible Footwear: A Girl’s Guide, part memoir, part social history, delights in pastiche, and at this point Charlesworth chooses to depict her new comprehensive via a copy of something she calls Compy — an old-school comic that more than a little resembles Bunty, not least because it concludes with a page featuring a cut-out dress-up doll of the young Katie circa 1961, complete with the half dozen items that then comprised her teenage wardrobe (girl guide uniform featuring a tie that looks like “a feminine hygiene product”, industrial strength girdle, Simplicity pattern pinafore dress for the “fuller teen figure”).
By the time I got to Compy, I was already mightily enjoying Sensible Footwear. Nancy Spain, the gorgeously butch star of TV’s What’s My Line?, had already appeared, as had the cast of a camp new soap called Coronation Street. Frank Marcus’s play The Killing of Sister George had also received its first, but not (as I would shortly find out) its last, honourable mention. But once I’d caught sight of Charlesworth’s retro girls’ comic (“Every Tuesday, price 4d”), I knew I was in love.
Her book, a personal history of British LGBTQ life that begins postwar and ends in the present day, is designed to educate as well as to entertain – and it certainly told me lots that I did not know (I hadn’t heard, for instance, of Arena Three, a magazine established in 1964 that aimed to chart “the misty, unmapped world of feminine homosexuality”). For this reason it’s hard to imagine a reader who wouldn’t enjoy it. Nevertheless, it will surely appeal particularly to those with a few years in the bank. Whether she is watching the cross-dressing Hinge and Bracket, spoofing her beloved D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, or recalling Gay Sweatshop’s edgier productions, Charlesworth, who was born in 1950, puts our shared past on virtually every page.
This isn’t to say that she avoids the struggles, the prejudice and the oppression. All the milestones, legal and otherwise, are here, including section 28, legislation that she and her friends object to with every fibre of their beings. But this isn’t an earnest book. What I most love is its author’s ability to send up both herself and lesbians in general. There is pain in her depiction of her working-class parents and their refusal to accept her sexuality. But she never stops loving them, or they her, and makes excellent comedy out of the stubborn convictions of her mother, who in old age turns against her favourite TV series, Last Tango in Halifax, after it develops a “massive lesbian plot strand!”.
Though Charlesworth seemingly leaves no stone unturned, from Tom Robinson to Brookside, from the Lesbian Avengers to Douglas Byng (whom she draws on an old cigarette card), her capacious book never feels wearying; it is an amazing, joyous panorama to which I could never do justice in a short review. Let me, then, just say this. Sensible Footwear is an instant classic: up there with Bryan Talbot’s Alice in Sunderland when it comes to pageant, and with Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home when it comes to pathos.
• Sensible Footwear: A Girl’s Guide is published by Myriad (£17.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99