'Private Eye' and the angels
ON October 25, 1961, a somewhat scrubby new magazine hit some of the bookstands of Britain. It was called Private Eye and it indulged in what you might call a sort of low-class. upper class humour. Messrs. W. H. Smith and Sons did not approve.
The magazine had to make its way without the use of the biggest outlet for sales in the country. Now. ten years later, Private Eye is still without the Nihil Obstat of W. H. Smith— understandably so.
It still has the power to outrage and thus put obstacles to ordinary, decent people getting their magazines in the most convenient way—but it sells some 75,000 copies of each of its fortnightly issues, a figure that puts it ahead of the weekly journals of influence like the Spectator, and it has some quarter of a million readers.
It should not, however, be lumped together with the socalled "underground press," your Oz and the like. These latter set out to subvert: Private Eye sets out to scourge (and to make you laugh). It is in this country unique. Over in France there is a thing called Le Canard Enchoine. Both possibly perform a valuable function in the body politic (besides that of making you laugh),
Originally Private Eye aimed simply to amuse. The group who started it included Richard Ingrams, the present editor: Christopher Booker, author of that serious look at the sixties. "The Neophiliacs"; William Rushton, the cartoonist and television semi-sage and Paul Foot, one of the fighting (not to say crusading) Foots who have held liberal principles aloft over more than a quarter of a century. They were all at school together at Shrewsbury.
Their humour was, and is. to a large extent public schoolboy humour, sharp, smutty and somewhat careless about who gets hurt. Part of what urged them on was that they thought Punch, with the end of Malcolm Muggeridge's reign, had ceased to fulfil its function. So they set out to make the jokes they liked, and if a sufficient number of other people liked them too, well and good.
For some two years, thanks to the satire thing of those days, people on the whole did like the jokes, though by June 1962 the paper had to be bought into continued existence by Peter Cook and Nicholas Luard. Its value was a modest 1,500.
Then came the Stephen Ward affair. It had two considerable effects on Private Eye. One was that that curious character Claud Cockburn, who in the thirties ran a much pored-over subscription magazine called The Week, joined the team, brought with him a major minor scoop among the looming shadows of that extraordinary period and sent sales rocketing to 80.000.
The other effect of the hounding down of Stephen Ward was that Richard In
grams became extremely angry. Anger was pretty much of a new element in Private Eye, and it has been an element that has endured. By the lurid light of the Ward affair Mr. Ingrams saw our politicians from a new angle: they were no longer just funny, they were squelchingly hypocritical.
From that point on. Private Eye has had a dual character. On the one hand it has made jokes, good if vulgar, and on the other hand it has hit out, often savagely, at the hypocrites and humbugs. It is here that it is perhaps doing the State some service.. Occasionally its swings maY be misdirected, but generally they can be seen to be right on target.
The complexities of society make us all (well, almost all) hypocritical on occasion. It is easy to think about the image and then act or speak in a way reasonably relevant to the distorted thing the pressures of society have produced but failing to sec the reality behind it. (Example : It's easy to froth out a platitude about "the housing situationbut when your neat phrase is applied to an actual family who all have to live in one small room it can be seen to be brutally unfeeling).
So there are plenty of targets. Unfortunately they are not all hit as cleanly as they might be because of that very dual nature of Private Eye. When, you ask as you read its pages, is a joke not a joke?
I put this point to its editor, and he agreed that it is a problem that the magazine suffers from. They try to get round it by keeping some of the totally serious items, such as the fact-backed exposures that Paul Foot conducts, to certain parts of the paper.
On the other hand Mr. Ingrams finds that this ambiguity can have a certain shock effect of its own. Read a fatuous statement by a politician 'and your very uncertainty as to whether he actually said it or whether it was put into the mouth of an alter ego under a similar name points up the real fatuity of the person attacked.
But the blend, after an initial considerable decline in sales, seems now to be successful. "We kind of stumbled into it." Mr. Ingrams said to me. But if he did so, it is now quite clear that, whatever Private Eye is, it is his life.
Modestly he says that "anyone can do this," but, barring the fact that by no means everyone can make good jokes, he is, I think, wrong. It is not, in fact, all that easy to be rude about people. Anyone, perhaps, can be rude once. But to go on being rude requires a certain toughness of mind.
You have to think about the person you are being rude about, and when you start thinking you are apt to think of the whole person and not just the attackable aspects. And then you wonder whether you are hurting, and whether you should.
But sometimes you should indeed. There are those among us who need a lot of toetreading and in Mr. Ingrams and his fellow pen-thrusters we have a group of people with a toughness to match some of the hides they need to pierce.
Mr. Ingrams is in no doubt about those hides. Politicians, he reckons, are pachydermous. "Go into one of their houses." he says, "and what do you find? The savage cartoons that have been drawn about them framed on the walls. They're proud of them."
Yet he noticeably jibbed a little when I praised to his face this quality of toughness, and I would guess he is not entirely happy about it. He was quick to say that he did not bear grudges.
His savagery is kept for the follies it lacerates more than for the men who perpetrate them. And even with this proviso he will admit to "an occasional twinge" of doubt over whether he has gone too far.
Tradition, he pointed out. plays a large part in the field of invective. Some people are traditional targets and can take it, even too easily, as some politicians do. In the area of the arts, where you might expect exquisite sensibilities, reviews of all sorts can be plainly brutal. "They say to a singer 'You can't sing'." But journalists. once immune from assault. swear horribly at the mere wind of the lash (hence the majority of the notorious Private Eye libel suits).
Do religious figures suffer? Well, there are a fair number of them that probably deserve to, and some have not escaped, though I think that by chance Mr. Ingrams's searching telescope does not swing round to .the Catholic corner of the countryside.
Pondering the field of religion, he said, with an air of mild surprise, that he supposed their attacks here sprang from a basis of the conservative. It is your way-out cleric, your Woolwiches and whatnot, that get the four-letter clobberings.
By chance, too, the Private Eye staff is strongly weighted on the side of the professing Christians. Auberon Waugh, once a CATHOLIC HERALD columnist, is their political correspondent. Christopher Booker, as readers of "The Ncophiliacs" will know. is very much a moralist. Barry Fantoni. one of their most-used cartoonists, is a stand-up-and-be-counted Anglican.
So that it was no surprise to me, watching Mr. Ingrains in the Kee Interview on Independent Television after I had spoken to him myself, to hear him admit, if a touch ruefully, that Private I:se was definitely "on the side of the angels.They would not say it of themselves but there is plainly about them a whiff of crusading puritanism.
Their office, for instance, though it is in Greek Street in the heart of strip-club Soho, is as monastically bare and workmanlike as you could wish. Indeed it lacks even the compensating plain beauty of your decent monastery. Horrid
coloured paint and piles of depressing, dusty papers abound. It might be the headquarters of one of the more earnest missions.
And like all good missionaries the Private Eye team have their moments of Doubt. '1 he magazine is a success. Indeed this very article is part of the process of enveloping it for its tenth birthday in the softly warm arms of the Establishment. Has, they ask themselves in cold moments or under the glare of television lights. has success spoilt Private Eye?
If a scourge becomes a popular pastime. hasn't it lost a few of its hookiest barbs? This, I think. is a mere scruple. They can safely set it aside. There is no sign that Private Eye will leave out something for fear of losing a reader, and nor will it put in anything because "it's just what the readers like."
So long as it continues to be the voice of that small group of irreverent. never grown-up into conformity schoolboys doing their thing it will be carrying out its proper purpose. But how effectively, when it comes to the final count, does it in fact carry out this purpose?
We are accustomed to think that satire is good for society, though many of us will deplore its vigour when actually confronted with it. But how good is satire as a corrector of abuses? Are its effects as farreaching as its aims?
I am afraid to say that they are not. Private Eye has, ever since it first added its reasonably heavy contribution to the things uncovered at the time of the Stephen Ward affair, maintained a steady flow of indictments. But the results have been. by Mr. Ingram's own admission, minimal.
A piece of plain nepotism is documented, for instance, and what is the result? Even the mass circulation newspapers, perhaps feeling it would discredit an image they have been building up, ignore the story. Possibly a question is asked in Parliament and receives a bland reply. And no more.
Or a series of stinging attacks is carried out, like the "Mrs. Wilson's Diary" feature that reflected the personal disappointment of not only the Private Eye team but of many people up and down the land that the advent of a Prime Minister of a different party after the sad days of the ending of "thirteen years of Tory misrule" did not bring clean-sweeping changes.
And what is the result? Mr. Wilson is laughed at certainly, is abused indeed. But he remains in precisely the position he was before.
Mr. Ingrams believes that it was this contrast between the sting of satire at the moment of Creation and the often almost total lack of after-effect which made that sharpest of cartoonists, Vicky, end his life.
That the ills of society cannot be much changed however strongly, wittily and brutally they are attacked is, indeed. enough to give us all our moments of intense depression