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.

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