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The First 50 years
There are only a few things you can count on these days, and they are: taxes, death and the fact Private Eye will publish their fortnightly magazine, currently number: 1320. Compared to the prestigious list of loyal customers who without fail re-new their annual subscription as if the importance of it is on par to settling the Wiltshire Farm Foods delivery fee every two weeks - Compared to the fossilised old subscribers, I'm a new kid on the block. Only just getting the gist of the intellectual quips from four weeks ago - some call it a slow digestion, I refer to it as restricted code to those comic loving folk who're more at home deliberating in gentleman's clubs than watching ER with their loved ones. I tend to slide nicely between the two, or you could say trapped - I smile politely at the quips and satire as if I'm addressing journalistic royalty - a deeper respect is warranted just because the institution has embraced the magazine shelves for fifty years, and in those five decades the actual structure of the comic style magazine hasn't aged, or developed, but then, you cannot improve on a format which doesn't need a revamp - just by thinking about modernising 'Private Eye', borders on defacing a John Constable painting by adding an ice-cream van on 'The Hay Wain' - One should not think of such atrocities. Macqueen's fifty year tribute simply delves into the fascinating five decades of reporting, he captures the enormity of the achievement via publishing a fortress of a book; by which he leaves no stone unturned; it's quite unusual in today's climate whereby journalism has been put in the spotlight due to the phone hacking scandals at NI (News International).
I couldn't help but think that the fifty year edition concept of an 'A to Z' was a slap happy quip, which started as jest but gathered moss as the journey move onwards. Adam Macqueen engineered his position at the 'eye' initially in 1997 on work experience and like many journalists before him he'd found a place at 'eye' to polish his craft - so it was fitting Macqueen seized the moment and researched the archives like a trooper he is, delivered with a robust and enthused account of the 'eye's' first half century in existence. And in true 'Private Eye' spirit of the 'eye', its family had a say. Contributions were called on by all the journalistic and satire family, who'd, crept out of the archive woodwork, exhumed from being a platform for dead epidermis and fried brain cells. A grandiose project to commemorate an institution's satire - borne from a shoe box in Soho in 1961 - a collection of high-brow public school chums tinkered on the comic format in a bid to appeal to like-minded gents whom sarcastically get their meat and drink of current affairs from a grubby A4 magazine, that looked as if it originated in a Hyde Park lavatory prior to stabling. No place like Gnome! - Founders: Christopher Booker, Richard Ingrams, Willie Rushton and Peter Usborne, adopted their own mini-satire rags while students residents at Oxford and at the famous University of Shrewsbury. They were full of the enigmatic frivolities of the swinging sixties and with no bounds engaged in 'free expression' via the language of satire in cartoons and side-splitting character pseudo - the scrappy magazine deserved a fitting head quarters; the perfect place was Peter Cook's place, a 'Club for the Establishment'. An untouchable armoured bubble was formed around the magazine for the delinquent adult - Outliving its sister rag 'Punch' - the self-regulatory premise behind the 'eye' lives on, duly because the journalism do not suffer a fool gladly approach is at the core of each edition. Characterisations spring an air of truth, which is refreshing in the land of immorality, lies and greed. The quips clever as they are have an old 'Gin Lane' quality to them - derived from Hogarth way back in 1751, satire embracing honesty. Politics and current affairs catapulted into the stratosphere of humour.
Unquestionably Macqueen didn't dither on any historic content that compromised 'Private Eye's' position i.e. James Goldsmith and beach whale Robert Maxwell swung the mighty sword in a quest to decapitate the head off the 'eye', to no avail, albeit it was not a comfortable time. Not many press institutions would dig up the unsavoury past, especially when it is a fifty year celebration of survival and tributes to the sixty plus caricaturists / cartoonists whom brought the spirit to the 'eye'. Macqueen made sure no stone was left unturned, nor was it biased or an inflamed 'pat on ones' back gentleman club' parade of the finest journalists and quirky pen pushers that there ever has been on the planet, smoking Cuban cigars and ' guff, guffawing' at old quips from the late 1960's, yes, some are still present today. You can't beat the oldies; they'll love it too much.
Regardless of political persuasion, what is consistent is the 'Eye' ability to make political satire viable to the political spectrum - humanity as satire and it conquerors all. The 'Eye' survival is a testament to the deep routed ideology that resides in all of the team. You kind of still feel the fore fathers' of Rushton, Ingrams, Booker and Usborne, 'brothers in arms' styled gospel, echoing around the walls at 'Private Eye'. Emblematic wordage on a plaque above doorways set as a reminder of what it is to be an 'Eye' family member. This is very much alive in most successful institutions, although what glues the 'Eye' as an unbreakable unit is creating humour itself, out of diverse scenarios. Will Self who once was an 'Eye' cartoonist sums it up perfectly: "there is a love of their own clique" - Ingrams himself has commented: "journalism done by a gang of friends". Now I assume he was meaning the item slots of 'Glenda Slag. Fleet Street Gold Meddler' - 'Dave Snooty and his new pals' - 'The Adventures of Mr. Millibean' (not forgetting his blow-up doll of a wife) - 'E J Thribb (aged 17.5 years)' and the 'Artful Dodger'. Each segment embroidered in a cajoled class origin, hardly disguisable; which could've been written or drawn up by any of the 'Eye' band of brothers / sisters. Ian Hislop as wealthy and as popular as he is; is a covert establishment lover, without the odious sounds of buffoon politics and shambolic mishmash of balls-ups and the pandemic disease of Whitehall incompetence - the 'Eye's' job would be that much tougher - Their in-jokes, that much less potent. Not that they're publishing the same jokes 1320 times, that'll be unthinkable; albeit, it didn't discredit the professionalism of Bob Monkhouse. And like an old-school institution it is; the 'Private Eye' needs the establishment more than the establishment needs the 'Eye'. Ingrams was an establishment man - whereas Rushton's witticisms was laced with an addictive arsenic a gregarious snipe that drew in the readership, Bron Waugh sat on the same leaf, the sermon came from Craig Brown. The man doing as he was told, Mr. Adam Macqueen will no doubt be crouching at his work-pod on MS Word XXXX5 in 2061 doing exactly the same A to Z on the 'Eye's' First 100 years - Ah, the joy of familiarity.
Private Eye is one of our oddest national institutions. A cheap-looking fortnightly magazine, it is best known (certainly by people who never read it) as a satirical magazine, by turns malicious and mischievous. It isn't really very funny - some of the cartoons and covers are good, but the bulk of the humour in it is predictable and not terribly good. The Eye's real value is in its serious journalism. It untiringly points out the hypocrisy of the press, the dodgy business deals that underpin most of Government policy, and the relentless decline in standards in British cultural life.
It also carries out serious, high-minded investigations into various miscarriages of justice, and has campaigned tirelessly against such madness as Gordon Brown's love of Private Finance Initiatives (basically, selling public services to companies and then renting them back); tax avoidance by multinationals; local council corruption; and anything else that seems relevant. It often gets it wrong - famously, it has been sued many, many times - and its default anti-establishment position can lead to serious miscalculations, such as the magazine continuing to champion MMR scare stories long after there was any excuse for doing so.
But on the whole the Eye does a great deal more good than harm. It annoys the right people, and is refreshingly free of ideology - it goes after Cameron's Tory government with every bit as much vigour as it went after Blair and Brown.
It's now 50 years old, and this book gives us the Eye's official history. Reading Private Eye can be a slightly annoying experience in some ways - it's full of running gags that can probably be traced back to the 1960s, and it sometimes feels like a club you aren't part of (as per the usual criticism levelled at the mag, a public school sixth form club at that). So this book provides useful background information about where some of the catchphrases come from and what they mean.
It's written by one of the Eye's journalists, but is refreshingly honest about the magazine's past troubles. It's had more than its fair share of legal strife, of course, with evil tycoons like James Goldsmith and Robert Maxwell mounting serious campaigns against it in the 70s and 80s. The nearest it came to bankruptcy was when the Yorkshire Ripper's ex-wife was awarded £500,000 in damages when the Eye printed a story about her receiving payments from newspapers.
But the book is also refreshingly honest about the Eye's self-inflicted wounds. It doesn't brush the MMR thing under the carpet (it's one of the few times the Eye has admitted it was wrong without the threat of lawyers). The first editor, Christopher Booker, was pushed out of his job by his old schoolfriend Richard Ingrams, and attacked the Eye publically on several occasions (both Booker and Ingrams still work for the Eye in spite of all this). Ingrams himself made the surprise announcement that he was appointing Ian Hislop as editor, over the heads of many more senior contributors. While this was the right decision (according to everyone now), Ingrams admitted that he handled the hand-over badly. A number of disgruntled colleagues attempted an office coup, which fell flat.
What was surprising to me (I've only been reading it since the mid 90s) was how much nastiness there was in the magazine when Ingrams ran it. Although it's still reliably rude about cretins like Piers Morgan, the old-style Eye, under the influence of contributors like Nigel Dempster and Peter McKay, spread malicious gossip of the kind the mag wouldn't touch nowadays. There was an unpleasant strain of homophobia, including a column devoted exclusively to outing gay vicars. Hislop has removed all of this from the magazine; he's more interested in serious public interest stories, while Ingrams was perhaps more interested in making mischief for the sake of it. Under Hislop, the magazine has become more accurate, if less sensational. The last really notable controversy was the issue printed in the wake of Diana Spencer's death, which attacked the hypocrisy of the way the media reported it, and was banned from WH Smith for not being appropriately respectful. She was England's rose, after all, although I must have missed the meeting at which that was decided. The book's bang up to date, with Julian Assange's eccentric phonecall to Hislop receiving an entry.
It's great that all this is included. It would have to be, really - ignoring embarrassing incidents from one's past is exactly the kind of thing the Eye attacks other people for. Alongside it are the triumphs, such as being the first publication to out Anthony Blunt as a spy and seriously pursue the scandals that eventually led to the downfall of 1970s politicians Reginald Maudling and Jeremy Thorpe. There's a great account of a drunken raid led on the Mirror's offices by Peter Cook at a time that Maxwell was suing Private Eye. There's perhaps a bit too much of the 'you have to be mad to work here' stuff that people always tell themselves about their jobs, but I guess any magazine that was owned by Peter Cook and has featured Auberon Waugh, John Betjeman and Jeffrey Bernard among its regular contributors has the right to be a bit smug.
The writing style is pleasantly accessible, with not too many in-jokes. It's presented as an A to Z, so it offers an agreeable patchwork take on the magazine's history, rather than a straightforward chronological account. Most of the well-known contributors are featured, although oddly neither John Wells nor Willie Rushton rates an entry of their own. Although there's a huge amount of information, what it perhaps lacks is enough cartoons and covers. While the Eye's regular comic strips are reliably pisspoor, some of the single panel gags are hilarious, and more of the best ones would have been welcome. Likewise the famous photo covers, although obviously some of the older ones would be difficult to understand now (the Eye's website has a seemingly complete collection of the covers).
But there's enough good stuff in there to have kept me smiling through most of it. Private Eye seems like the only publication which actually cares enough to point out the sheer venality, hypocrisy and stupidity of most of public life in this country. Long may it continue to do so. This book is an enjoyable and worthy chronicle of its first half century.