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Member Name: hogsflesh
Private Eye the First 50 Years: An A-Z - Adam Macqueen
Advantages: A good chronicle of the magazine's history
Disadvantages: Could do with more cartoons and such
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.
Summary: A good book about a great magazine
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