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On History and Private Eye Magazine

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They say you should never take an important decision when you’re tired, ill or drunk, and I guess this applies to the decision to make a soul-baring entry in an electronic journal. Since Thursday I’ve been down with flu despite having had a flu jab, and it’s even been suggested (impossibly) that it’s the corona virus, presumably based on the willingness of my doctors to diagnose exotic illnesses such as elephantiasis, ebola and legionella (though the last turned out to be true). The time-honoured advice for medical professionals is think herd of horses before you think herd of zebras.

On History

I used to tell students who had succumbed to the seductions of higher education in History, ‘Well, at least you’re still involved with fiction’.

To be an historian is to be obliged to string together a coherent narrative from surviving artefacts and accounts of varying reliability. The amount of subjectivity necessary for this procedure explains the frequent wild variations of opinion among historians, and the constant pull of revisionism.

The ‘facts’ that history produces, it seems to me at least, cannot stand as truth, in the sense that what happens in the course of the life of even a single individual is a complex tapestry of thought, word and deed with consequences that become precursors of other outcomes. The intricacy and subtly shifting hues of these intertwining threads do indeed weave pictures, but to interpret them accurately one would have to be a talented metaphysician, perhaps, rather than a factual historian. Books that show the relationship between these patterns of existence are rightly held up in awe by humanity: works of scripture such as the Bible; works of literature, such as those of Shakespeare. Or works of art: what is the greater record of the Guernica atrocity, Picasso’s painting or any number of historical narratives about it?

What determines the progress of societies or nations is not factual or logical or worldly but resides in such karmic complexity, which is often paradoxical or seemingly contradictory, yet always moral. Wiser cultures have sought to record this not as history but as myths that easily supersede in their power mortal lives and temporal dates.

It can be argued that there is only one reality, which is the present: the past is last night’s dream, the future tomorrow’s fantasy. All histories are constructed—must be constructed—from the present, as must all futures dystopian or utopian.

And I’ll go further: all news items, true stories and factual accounts are similarly false because they involve subjective selection in the present moment. The news, for example, is not raw feed at any point because of editorial prioritization (at news agency level) and an editorial rejection (at a more local level) of wars, natural disasters and atrocities that might impinge on the popularity of the programme or newspaper. Thus viewers and readers, assuming they are being told the truth, don’t realize the extent to which they are being manipulated.

On Private Eye Magazine

This brings me to the matter of this magazine, born from a combination of satire to pull down the proud and a desire to ensure that news is accurate and not compromised by privilege, vested interest or editorial bias and selection.

Perhaps hypocritically, considering what I say about history above, here is a potted history of satirical magazines through my subjective eyes (and from my selective memory). All such seem to have a limited shelf life: they rise, flourish and fall, seldom rising again. Even the mighty Punch started to falter in the 1940s after 100 years, failed in 1992 after being itself parodied by, among others, Spitting Image, was revived by Mr Al-Fayed in 1996 (as a competitor to Private Eye) but failed again in 2002. Mad, having survived the EC Comics purge, became itself satirized itself by National Lampoon in the early 1970s, continued until Al Feldstein’s departure in 1984 with decreasing sales, before losing its way entirely, being bought by DC and staggering along in its present incarnation printing endless Trump skits. National Lampoon itself lost its mojo in 1975 when its best minds left for Saturday Night Live.

When I was at school Private Eye was recommended by my English teacher as being hilarious. I bought a copy but couldn’t make head or tail of the political references. Later in life I started to understand and occasionally was drawn to it, before becoming a subscriber after its 9/11 coverage. In this, as with the death of Diana, it showed itself the sole voice of sanity in a world of mass hysteria.

It has itself been subject to satire—for example, in William Donaldson’s The Complete Naff Guide—and has fallen short in areas where Viz has been sharper, such as in skewering celebrities like Carol Vorderman or political correctness in, for example, ‘The Modern Parents’. In fact the pattern has been one of silently compromising long-held ‘principles’ (its stand against ‘homosexualists’ and ‘wimmin’ being worrying examples) by jumping each time on the rear end of each PC bandwagon as it came along. But, overall, it has kept up a courageously even-handed, fair-minded and balanced view.

That is, until Brexit, which has precipitated a marked bias which the magazine has been made aware of many times but still denies. This attitude should have waned, if not after the referendum certainly after us leaving the EU. But no—see the picture above left of the wretchedly unwitty cover of the last issue, 1515.

I already said in this journal that it would be good for my soul if I stopped reading satire since I believe it promotes negativity in my character. Here was my chance. The cover was the last straw and the letter was sent:

Dear Sir

What a puerile and unfunny cover to Private Eye No 1515. It made me ashamed to be a subscriber.

Back in the days of the death of Diana and 9/11 you were the lone voice of reason, but now Brexit seems to have proved your undoing.

When are you going to accept the reality of the British people’s decision, draw a line and start supporting the best interests of this country, instead of indulging your present attitudes of negativity and denial?

I am surely not the only subscriber who expects a balanced, incisive and mature-minded satirical magazine, not the Fortnightly Dog in a Manger.

I never thought I would say this, but please cancel my subscription.

Yours faithfully, etc.

I don’t expect the letter to be published—they never publish my letters. The last one I wrote complained about the ‘In Search of Dissent’ exhibition at the British Museum, curated by Ian Hislop. It was expensive and underwhelming, with very few contemporary exhibits—the only ones I could remember were a Banksy hoax and a £20 note overprinted with a John Bull Printing Press message, which I suggested Mr Hislop had done himself. The exhibition was held at a time when there was nationwide dissent in many forms, such as fake prostitutes’ calling cards advertising Theresa May and Boris Johnson, but these were conspicuous by their absence.

The editor wrote back to me personally, refuting everything I said. But at least, I told myself, I rattled his cage.

Sadly, with the present letter, at the very last moment I deleted the ‘Please cancel my subscription’ part.


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