Subsistence Journalism

E.S. Turner

  • ‘Punch’: The Lively Youth of a British Institution, 1841-51 by Richard Altick
    Ohio State, 776 pp, £38.50, July 1997, ISBN 0 8142 0710 3

On 19 October 1844 the overweight William Makepeace Thackeray – if his travel diary tells the truth – laboriously climbed the Great Pyramid of Cheops and pasted up banners advertising Punch, ‘thus introducing civilisation to Egypt’. The Egyptians put up with this sort of thing. Thomas Holloway, the great pill-maker, is supposed to have introduced eupepsia to Egypt by advertising his product from the same vantage-point. Punch at least seems to have established a lasting reputation along the Nile, because it was by those shores that the young Mohammed Al Fayed eagerly turned its pages and developed, as he says, an indelible affection for British ways. Four years after the 151-year-old magazine folded, the Harrods pharaoh revived the title on a budget which, according to the author of this book, would have been ‘beyond the fantasising powers’ of Punch’s founders. But the founders would have boggled at many other developments in the history of their threepenny comic, not least the fact that, early this century, it could claim to have had five knights on its payroll – two editors, two cartoonists and one Parliamentary correspondent. That was the biggest Punch joke of all.

It is time to declare an interest. Though never on the staff I contributed to Punch over a span of 53 years, withdrawing my labour after the penultimate editor left. As a member of the Table I was entitled to a hot meal once a week for life, or for the duration of the magazine. Under certain editors we were expected to pay for the hot meal by making suggestions for the political cartoon, or ‘large cut’ as it used to be called. It was a numbing ordeal, proving only that a good cartoon cannot be hatched by a committee. Critics had been mocking that cartoon for long enough; a typical effort, as one of them said, would show Mr Punch in white flannels greeting a cricketing kangaroo with ‘Oh, jolly well played, sir!’ It is not a subject on which one likes to dwell. But Punch paid well, which was a valuable bonus when one’s income fell to a shilling a day in time of war; and its prestige was such that merely to have written for it that week was enough to win over an otherwise hesitant officer-selection board. Today a boasted connection with the Al Fayed Punch would be no way to win military advancement.

The reputation of Punch was always curiously high in America, though as Anthony Powell, its one-time literary editor, has pointed out, British advertisers were not supposed to know the extent of its circulation over there. So it is no surprise to find that the Ohio State University Press is behind this immensely long and thorough investigation into Punch’s first ten years. American university presses, as I have pointed out before, seem eager to tackle aspects of British history which would be spurned by British publishers. Without a doubt, Richard Altick chose the best decade of Punch to study, for in many a later period momentous events went unnoticed in its pages and a social conscience was not easy to detect in the weekly output of ‘subsistence journalism’ (Altick’s phrase). By contrast, the 1840s were rich in significant events – from the repeal of the Corn Laws to revolution in France, from the Irish famine to the railway shares mania. It was a time when Army officers still obeyed the ‘Chrisless code’ of duelling, when judges sat drunk on the Bench after dinner and the Post Office opened anybody’s mail.

Nearly eight hundred pages devoted to explaining, glossing and ‘contextualising’ old jokes, good and bad, will strike some as excessive, but the book is essentially a refresher course in the social history of an age, and it is an age in which the author treads sure-footedly. He is neither an owl nor a scholiast, though occasional lines of enquiry might suggest as much. For example, either he or a helper went to the fatigue of counting how many times a picture of somebody cocking a snook – that is, putting thumb and fingers to the nose – appeared in those first ten years. This meant hunting not only through the cartoons but through all the fidgety decorations round the text, including those heroic dropped letters infested with imps and elves. The total came to at least seventy – ‘surely,’ says Altick with modest pride, ‘the oddest statistic to be found in any modern work of scholarship’. Even the young Queen was discovered insulting the Windsor shopkeepers with a gesture ‘ineradicably associated with ragamuffins’ and ‘cognate with such verbal expressions as “Does your mother know you’re out?”, “Has your mother sold her mangle?” and “You can’t lodge here, Mr Ferguson.” ’ Altick could have added that we now have a generation which has probably never seen a snook cocked; the universal gesture replacing it requires only two fingers, or one, and the cognate expression is ‘Up yours!’ We also have a generation which will not know why Mr Ferguson could not lodge there, and for once we are given no explanation (Partridge says this brush-off was inspired by an ill-famed Scots sot whom no landlady would accept). ‘Has your mother sold her mangle?’, according to Altick, was a common put-down dating from about 1838. For a comic poet it made a useful deflationary last line.

When Punch first appeared Grub Street was only just giving way to Fleet Street. Plagiarists and proof-readers no longer slept three to a bed above the farthing pie-shop, but the republic of letters still bore the whiff of Alsatia. One reason Punch survived its slapdash, hand-to-mouth infancy, as Altick points out, was that it kept the party clean, unlike its dirty-minded rivals. ‘We will laugh in the company of our wives and children,’ proclaimed Thackeray. ‘We will tolerate no indecorum; we like that our matrons and girls should be pure.’ At times the magazine may have been little more than a mishmash of bad puns and column-fillers, but it was fit to admit into a middle-class home, even with all that snook-cocking. A hundred years later, when the paper was in the grip of an aloof priesthood, the motto was still ‘We may not always be funny, but by God we’re polite.’ Another reason the early Punch flourished is that its jokes, duly credited, were constantly used to lighten the columns of the Times, a paper which in its early years had been stuffed with ribaldry and hoaxes but was now too earnest to invent its own jests. The Punch political cartoon earned prestige down the generations largely because the daily papers were so slow to carry cartoons of their own. When they also employed funny writers it was the thin end for Punch.

But back to 1841. There was no need now for nonentities who wished to correct and censure their betters to call themselves Cato, Cincinnatus or Amor Patriae, but few would-be opinion-formers used their own names. Punch’s leading writers sheltered behind initials or pseudonyms – ‘Q’ for Douglas Jerrold, ‘The Fat Contributor’ for Thackeray. Gradually the collective views were melded into the figure of Mr Punch, an attention-seeker who gave himself walk-on parts in affairs of state; at times he might be roguish, at others tiresome. At least he preserved his own identity, while the Queen’s ministers were turned into beggars, hucksters, quacks, bandits, windmills, weather-vanes and a thousand other fancies. Often in these early days they appeared as figures from the classics, which all readers above the rank of ragamuffin were expected to recognise. Sir Robert Peel (Sir Rhubarb Pill) did duty as Pandora, Ceres, Phaeton and Sisyphus. However, when the Duke of Buckingham was shown as ‘The Modern Eresicthon’ preparing to eat his own head, the magazine thought fit to explain that Eresicthon of Thessaly, having offended Ceres, was starved into devouring his own flesh. There were even poems in Latin and Greek, without translation. It was as if Punch was being run by the cultivated wits who had mocked the younger Pitt in the Rolliad. Gradually classical allusions were phased out, but the familiar passages of Shakespeare continued to be parodied, often abominably, as they would be for 150 years to come. Old Testament pastiche, a staple of modern satire, was unthinkable.

The social conscience of Punch was Jerrold, a great hater of authority figures, from the knout-wielding, female-flogging tsar of all the Russias down to the keepers who turned away fustian-clad citizens from St James’s Park. His especial butt was the doomed Louis-Philippe, abuse of whom sometimes caused consignments of Punch to be turned away at Boulogne. Jerrold did not see eye to eye with Thackeray, who dubbed him ‘a savage little Robespierre’, but if he was a Robespierre he was not prepared to go all the way with the Chartists. After five years or so he was induced to bank down his fires and let jokes take over from indignation. Thackeray turned in a mass of genial, knockabout stuff, ranging from his survey of snobs to parodies of popular authors. Dickens did not know whether to be relieved or insulted at his exclusion from that gallery. Disraeli, mightily put out at the send-up of Coningsby, never spoke to Thackeray again and took his revenge in a later novel. Friends of Thackeray told him that he was losing caste as a novelist by working for Punch, but he needed the money badly – Vanity Fair did not come out until 1847. The Fat Contributor’s finances plummeted when he lost £500 in the railway mania, after warning his readers not to catch that fatal fever. In 1848 he quarrelled with Jerrold over a cartoon which showed Louis-Philippe as a beggar on horseback, but continued to contribute and to eat his hot meal.

George III notoriously found ‘much sad stuff’ in Shakespeare and Professor Altick concedes that there was some sad stuff in Punch. Teasing Baron Rothschild as a ‘curly-headed Jew-boy’ and laying stress on Disraeli’s non-Aryan features were par for the times, but Altick brands as shrill and deplorable the bigotry displayed by Mr Punch in blackguarding the Pope and baiting the Puseyites as the Vatican’s fifth column. (It is slightly surprising to find that the Puseyites suffered from an expression of dissent rather worse than snook-cocking: the sending of fresh manure through the post – something else for the Post Office to open. One had always thought this to be a practice of our own fallen times.) The Pope’s decision to establish 12 Roman Catholic dioceses in Britain and appoint his first archbishop since the days of ‘Bloody Mary’ was seen as the next thing to a casus belli. A Punch cartoon entitled ‘The Guy Fawkes of 1850 Preparing to Blow up All England’ showed the Pontiff in the starring role, and another had him jemmying open Westminster Abbey. Never before, says Altick, had Punch’s satire taken on ‘the darker hues of vituperation’ as it did that year. Much of the press, however, supported Punch’s line. Thackeray thought the magazine had got carried away by the spectre of a crimson foot emerging from the Flaminian Gate. Writing to a friend, he said: ‘After making a great noise myself I begin to wonder why we have made so much to-do about the Cardinal [Wiseman]. Why shouldn’t he come and set up a winking Virgin in the Strand?’ The great to-do led to the departure of the artist Richard Doyle, an Irish Catholic faced with a conflict of interests. There was even a rumour that he feared excommunication.

Punch’s ‘No Popery’ line did not go down well in hungry Ireland. It is hard to be funny about a famine, though it was easy enough to mock the Duke of Norfolk, who advised the starving to add a pinch of curry powder to their thin gruel to give it a bit of flavour (dukes were in terrific form at this period). One cartoon showed John Bull presenting a shovel and a basket of bread to a starving Irish family saying: ‘Here are a few things to go on with, and I’ll soon put you in a way to earn your own living.’ (How many wags in prandial conclave did it take to think up that one?) An excellent cartoon entitled ‘The Real Potato Blight of Ireland’ showed the hated nationalist Daniel O’Connell as a severely misshapen potato. Thackeray finally lost all patience with the Irish and became more or less converted to Home Rule. Punch’s sympathy for the sufferers evaporated in a Paddy-bashing cartoon which showed a patched Irishman accosting John Bull with ‘Spare a thrifle, yer Honour, for a poor Irish lad to buy a bit of – a blunderbluss with.’

Royalty was given an easier ride than the Church. The print-sellers of earlier days used to depict kings amid phallic symbols and beset by ‘visible expulsion of wind’, as Altick puts it. But the pretty young Queen was not to be portrayed sharing a privy with her prince, nor was her prince, unpopular though he was, to be shown soaring fart-propelled into the firmament. However, Albert was deservedly trounced for his passion for rounding up stags in a confined space and butchering them before dear Vicky’s eyes, a Colosseum-style treat he also staged with hares. The Prince would eventually atone by lending his weight to the Great Exhibition, but in the meantime there was much for which he and Victoria could be needled; such as the adulation of Barnum’s Tom Thumb, a throwback to the Court’s traditional patronage of dwarfs.

There was a zeal in those days for unwrapping mummies, sometimes under the aegis of the Society for the Diffusion (or, as the wits preferred, Confusion) of Useful Knowledge. Punch had quite a good joke about unrolling a mummy which turned out to be a hackney coachman wearing 16 capes, revealing a body well pickled in spirits. Altick’s book is a little like that, as he strips away the innumerable capes of Mr Punch. It is odd that so knowledgeable and discursive a hand refers to a Thackeray drawing entitled ‘HORRID TRAGEDY IN PRIVATE LIFE’ without mentioning that this was the joke which baffled the nation and prompted a rival organ to offer £500 and a free pardon to anyone who could explain it. It showed two little girls – Thackeray’s daughters, as it happened – posing in some obscure nursery game. Long afterwards one of them explained that they had been enacting a scene in which Queen Elizabeth sent Mary Queen of Scots to the scaffold. Had one of those long dropsical captions been lost? Was everyone drunk at the time? We shall never know. Today’s publications have their share of impenetrable joke drawings and it is well-known that any attempt to obtain an elucidation, by letter, phone or e-mail, will fail.

Professor Altick links Punch with Dickens and Carlyle as ‘the leading voices of the slowly awakening English social conscience’, though there were others more active in the legislative field. Comparing Punch with Carlyle, he says that ‘Jerrold never pretended to be anything but a journalist with a keen sense of righteousness, while Carlyle never aspired to be anything less than a philosopher wrestling with the eternities on a ground comprising the entire world of men, if not the cosmos.’ In his Past and Present (1843) Carlyle sounded a blast against the excesses of advertisers, notably those who blocked the streets with placarded vehicles and giant top-hats on wheels. What might he have said about a fat man climbing one of the Seven Wonders of the World and then plastering it with posters of Punch?