I think I would like to know about it all the same

Julian Barnes

  • The ‘Private Eye’ Story: The First 21 Years by Patrick Marnham
    Private Eye/Deutsch, 232 pp, £7.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 233 97509 8
  • One for the Road: Further Letters of Denis Thatcher by Richard Ingrams and John Wells
    Private Eye/Deutsch, 80 pp, £2.50, October 1982, ISBN 0 233 97511 X
  • Sir James Goldsmith: The Man and the Myth by Geoffrey Wansell
    Fontana, 222 pp, £1.95, April 1982, ISBN 0 00 636503 5

In Abel Gance’s film Napoleon there is a brilliant sequence in the Revolutionary Bureau of Indictments. The walls are stacked to the ceiling with the files of known, suspected, possible and deeply fanciful enemies of the Revolution; some are bulky, well-researched dossiers, others the constructions of dishonest, mean-spirited score-settlers. This key office of the new masters exudes smugness, oafishness and fear (might it be their turn next?). Every so often, a clerk is winched up towards the ceiling on a precarious pulley system, a file is taken down, and another execution is assured. Once your dossier has reached the Bureau there is no way of avoiding the tumbril – except one: in the corner of the office sit a pair of humble, twitchy, freedom-loving scriveners, who are quietly eating their way through one of the indictments.

The offices of Number 34 Greek Street must often appear like this in the sweating imaginations of a surprisingly large number of people. Nescafé society lives in fear of the time its file is called for; groping publishers can now expect a metal-edged ruler to come down and chop off their hands; homosexual vicars and provincial scoutmasters dread the day when some anonymous tip-off – a letter signed with a false name and address is always good enough – will cause Private Eye’s pitiless stare to be fixed on them. ‘If they’re dead they must be Vietcong’ has its local variant in ‘If they’re in the Eye they must be guilty.’ To some it must seem that the only way to avoid our modern version of the guillotine is to infiltrate some strong-jawed typist into 34 Greek Street and have the relevant folder munched away.

It has been a remarkable transformation. Twenty years ago the Eye was a struggling lampoon which would cheek the Home Secretary and run for cover: now it has become a moral Domesday Book in which sins are recorded for the edification of the future and the gratification of the present. The puritanical Richard Ingrams, who neither smokes nor drinks, and lives a scandalously chaste life, appears to many like some rumpled, corduroy-jacketed Robespierre (though Robespierre was a sybarite by comparison, diluting his water with wine). How has this change come about? How has the school sneak, who spent years flicking bits of inky bunjee at everyone, suddenly become a prefect?

In two ways. First, this reputedly anti-Establishment magazine has always lived comfortably within the body of the Establishment. By birth, education and marriage, most of its main contributors are respectably upper-middle-class (Osbert Lancaster recently dubbed Ingrams ‘a terrible snob’); it was founded with private money, and now, like other flourishing firms, boasts a pension scheme and a company villa in the Dordogne. Secondly, as Patrick Marnham demonstrates in the course of his amiable and rambling volume, the magazine has always been a highly permeable organisation. Where once its politics were leftish, its stance investigative, and its key influence Paul Foot, now its politics are rightish, its stance prurient, and its key figures Nigel Dempster, Peter McKay and Auberon Waugh. The radical lampoon has become required reading on the magazine syllabus of every Sloane Ranger.

Moreover, the Eye, that fearless exposer of the faintest mafia, now runs a comfortable little establishment of its own. Consider how this book might appear to an outsider: a history of the Eye, written by a long-term staffer of the Eye and co-published by the Eye. Reviewers? Auberon Waugh in the Daily Mail; John Wells twice, once in Harper’s and once in the Times; Christopher Booker in the Spectator; Malcolm Muggeridge in the Daily Telegraph; Candida Lycett-Green (who was in love with Ingrams at Oxford, speaks adoringly of him in this book, and once worked for the Eye) in the Standard. Nor are the paper’s smallest private squabbles denied space in the press. Marnham asserts in his book that a change came over Ingrams when he gave up drink; Ingrams replies to the charge with a two-column article in the Spectator. Marnham asserts (perhaps jokingly) that Auberon Waugh is ‘partly Jewish’; Waugh spends much of his review dwelling on the fact that Marnham is fortyish and unmarried (thereby inviting Daily Mail readers to draw their own conclusions).

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