There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but next month's relaunch of Punch magazine could be the next best thing - at least for those working on it
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The Independent Culture
Here are two separate stories, serenely travelling towards the point where they intersect, or collide.

In 1841, during an election in which the Whigs were ousted by the Conservatives, Punch published its first issue. The rambunctious wife-beater with the pronged nose had a dissident soul, mistrusting all political parties. But the magazine's initial editorial concluded with an assault on capital punishment: satiric mockery was a more effective remedy for abuses than execution. Radicals, however, soon age. Mr Punch became smug and portly, a member of the Establishment he once bludgeoned. Surviving into the 20th century, he found reality to be no longer a laughing matter. Wan, stoical cartoons in the 1930s showed the bourgeoisie struggling to do household chores without servants. In the 1940s, joking was suspended while the Punch Comfort Fund appealed for donations of food and clothing for our fighting men. At the coronation in 1953, Mr Punch forgot that he was an adversary and turned to patriotic cheerleading: the magazine puffed the "natural and inherited genius of the British people" and their "pre-eminence in all walks of life".

That cocky supremacy did not last long. Britain lost its pre-eminence, while Mr Punch, now a grumpy, grizzled elder, made ghoulish efforts to look modern. A cover in 1960 put him on skis, and in 1971 Punch parodied Playboy, more in envy than in anger. The magazine catered to a beefy, beery notion of Britishness which no longer existed. In 1992, during another election campaign, its owners closed it down. The editor consoled himself by prophesying (wrongly) that the Conservative government would share its fate. In a cartoon, Mr Punch - once an ogre, now an angel - wafted to heaven on a puffy cloud.

The second story is a parallel one. It narrates the decline of Great Britain, whose doughty, quirky spirit Mr Punch supposedly personified. Here too there were belated attempts to modernise, though the fabric remained tatty, the staff fractious. But then a benefactor appeared, who bought the country's shabby-genteel relics - first a castle in Scotland with mountains and ospreys attached, then a so-called palace in Knightsbridge (actually a department store) - and turned them into opulent facsimiles of their former selves. Mohamed Al Fayed gained control of Harrods in 1985; he also owns the royal shirtmakers, Turnbull & Asser; holds the lease of the Parisian villa where the Duke and Duchess of Windsor lived; and sponsors a horse show frequented by the Queen. Punch is the latest side-show in his glossy, spruced-up national theme park. It resumes publication next month, edited by Peter Mackay, perhaps the most notorious of all Fleet Street hacks, the saloon-bar tribune, gossip-scavenger and fact- refiner rebaptised McLie and McHackey by Private Eye, which solemnly subtitles him "the world's worst columnist".

This is where the collision occurs - of personalities, values and agendas. The Punch offices, complete with the lunch table and its royal graffiti (the Duke of Edinburgh learnedly carved a Greek phi, and Prince Charles adorned his C with a crest of moulting feathers), have been uprooted from Fleet Street and deposited in Knightsbridge, next door to Harrods Estates with its window display of bijou rezzes. For Al Fayed, Punch is real estate by other means. "It's the intellectual property value of the name which attracted us," his publicist, Michael Coles, told me. "Punch is a brand name, like the Ritz or Harrods. We can do things with it, product-wise." The editorial offices look out on a warehouse in Trevor Square, due for reincarnation as the Harrods House Hotel. "Very exclusive," Coles predicted. "A home from home for the super-rich. Strictly limousine trade. Definitely no conferees with plastic badges!" I wondered silently whether this was the wrong address for a satirical magazine.

Punch has become a product, a touristic trophy of Al Fayed's imaginary Little England, like Staffordshire dogs or Devonshire clotted cream. It has also been subsumed into his personal quest for immortality. He likes to refer to Harrods as "my pyramids", and (since he would hardly have bought Punch if he had a sense of humour) he is not joking. The shop is his megalomaniac tomb, a retailer's necropolis. In the dim, hushed Egyptian Halls, an automated woman - already immortal - plucks a mechanical harp in a silver barge like Cleopatra's, and a sarcophagus lid installed beneath the escalator seals in the periwigged ceramic poodles and miniature Eiffel Towers with which Al Fayed presumably intends to enjoy himself in the after-life.

"It must not be allowed to die," Al Fayed orotundly said of Punch, and by his decree it will live for ever in his nether kingdom. But do the jester and the would-be pharaoh really understand each other?

In The absence of other obvious qualifications, Peter Mackay must have been chosen as editor because he looks like the magazine's mascot. The founding editor, Mark Lemon, was a bearded Victorian sage. Despite the rorty antics of the puppet show, his first editorial announced his intention to be "a teacher"; in photographs, he seems incapable of smiling. But Mackay's face is creased and crinkled by decades of nihilistic merriment; sometimes it disappears altogether as he throws his head back and opens his mouth to vent a wheezing spasm of laughter, which convulses his roly- poly body. He specialises, as Lemon said Mr Punch should do, in "rude and boisterous mirth". His practical jokes often reduced Fleet Street colleagues to tears of rage, and, when we met, he was chuckling contentedly over a mishap reported by one of his prospective contributors. "This fellow was doing a story about those South American churches where they handle snakes. And at the church he visited, the man who was handling the snakes" - here Mackay's middle began to heave like a bellows - "got bitten!"

"Did he die?" I asked.

"No, no," gasped Mackay, "but it didnae do him much good." He shrieked at the fun of it. He is a Scot, who attributes his whimsicality to the Nordic bleakness of his native land. "I once had to give a talk to a club of Aberdeen University graduates in London. They seemed all to be gynaecologists, very drab and grey. But I told them a Scottish joke, about a farmer in the far north-east, where I also come from, who goes out one night and sees his daughter up on a hayrick with one of his labourers. He asks the man, 'What are ye doin' up there wi' my lassie?' The labourer says, 'I'm having my way wi' her.' And you know what the father replies? 'Well,' he says, 'you've got a bonny night for it.' "

When Mackay recovered from his paroxysm, he wondered aloud why this was funny. Its cruelty, I suggested: the father couldn't care less. "Anyway," said Mackay, "those gynaecologists lapped it up. They howled, they pounded the table." Mackay himself did both all over again, regurgitating the sally.

Hilarity is his considered response to a career which has been, as he said, "a complete joke" (the joke being on his employers). "What I should be doing is running a small farm in Banffshire - though I wasn't even good at that. But I was quite quick, and fairly good with words, so here I am." His break came accidentally. He sent a letter defending US bases on the Clyde to the Scottish Daily Express, which promptly offered him a job; John Junor summoned him to London. He contributed scurrilities to Private Eye, very briefly edited Sunday Today, and still bemoans the state of the world in the London Evening Standard. His progress, like Mandy Allwood's sponsored octuplets, exemplifies what he calls "the law of unintended consequences" - in other words, the manifest absurdity of human affairs. "Society develops these fertility treatments so that couples in stable relationships can have a child. And then what happens? A mad, non-stable, single Jezebel can take advantage of the system for her own private reasons."

Mackay himself has taken copious, cornucopian advantage, which is why he acquired such legendary status in Fleet Street. He learnt the art of finagling expenses one bibulous night in Scotland: his cronies, having run out of whisky, "simply rang up the paper's cab company, reeled off this immense list of booze, and charged it all to the Express. I thought, this is wonderful." His wonderment has grown with his girth, and in a 1994 Standard column he opined that "anyone with the slightest experience of life knows that Britain is one gigantic symphony of fiddling." He pitied Neil Hamilton, forced out of the government for spending a holiday at the Ritz in Paris as a guest of Al Fayed. The incident was laughable because Hamilton's expenses were so paltry: "pounds 4,000 for nearly a week in Paris! I know colleagues who have exceeded this in two days." To be a journalist, according to the Mackay philosophy, is like owning the store, which dispenses you from having to pay for anything; the store, in the present case, is Harrods. One of Al Fayed's courtiers wistfully asked himself why Mackay never brings his lunch custom to any of the Harrods restaurants. "I suppose they are not expensive enough," he sighed.

When Punch folded in 1992, its then editor, David Thomas, saw this as another of those unearned bonuses which shower down on lucky hacks. In a valedictory editorial, he promulgated an idyllic retirement plan: engineer the winding up of your job by being a bad editor, collect your redundancy cheque, then take it easy indefinitely. Mackay looks forward to many more freebies. "In journalism, if you've got your health, you can work all your days. You can go through all the seasons. When I was only 22, I met an old fellow in his 90s who'd been through all the stages. He was once a foreign correspondent, he'd edited papers, and now he did a fishing column. His nom de plume was Red Fin; he'd write things like 'The pike tuke the huke.' I think of him as an example. I'm only in the middle season myself." He chuckled in anticipation of lunch, and offered me a drink. I pointed to a half-full coffee cup. "No, no, laddie," he said, "I meant a drink."

Journalism therefore, in Mackay's estimation, does not require any particular talent (though it helps if you can count). It is also a line of work ideally suited to the indolent - or at least the convivial. Among the cronies he has brought to Punch is Alexander Chancellor, who edited the "Talk of the Town" during Tina Brown's first year at the New Yorker, amazing his revved-up colleagues with his lofty, languid abstractions. "I can't say whether Alexander will be in today," drawled Mackay's secretary when I asked. "He tends to pop in rather as and when." Another recruit to this jolly crew is Lucretia Stewart, whose career has taken its cue from a glossy magazine which she once edited for American Express: its title was Departures. I asked when I might be able to catch Lucretia. "She never," snapped Mackay's secretary, cross with me for being so insisten- tly conscientious, "comes in before Wednesday."

"Journalists are naturally lazy," beamed Mackay paternalistically. "They always leave things to the last minute, then if the copy's no good they can tell themselves it was because they hadn't enough time. Last weekend I was in France. I'd scribbled my Standard column in longhand and was going to bring it back with me on a very early flight this Monday. But we were delayed by the weather, and my wife had to phone it in from a public booth at the airport in Bordeaux, shouting down the line. What made it worse was that the column was all about the big bottoms of French women! She was so embarrassed." Mackay gurgled at his double triumph: another deadline not quite missed, at the cost of someone else's mortification. His magazine's first editorial in 1841 warned that Mr Punch is "something of a domestic tyrant, for his conduct is harsh and ungentlemanly to Mrs P".

As a seasoned scapegrace, Mackay defers to only one man: Jeffrey Bernard, who has left his Spectator columns even later, and has sometimes (in weeks when he was "unwell") left them altogether too late. "Puir man," purred Mackay. "I hear his kidneys have gone." He clenched his jaw to gain control of his rollicking jowls. Earlier he had remarked that there were very few subjects you couldn't be funny about: he mentioned Dunblane as one exception, but a colleague's illness did not qualify as another. "Really," he went on, "it's been quite public-spirited of Jeffrey, though in most ways he's a selfish fellow. He's slowly killed himself for the amusement of the English middle classes. He has one of his legs off and that makes everyone else feel a little bit better about themselves." At that he lifted his own compassionate embargo on laughter.

Mackay, as altruistic as Bernard, is happy to bequeath himself to the nation. "I don't mind what they say about me in Private Eye. They make up whatever they like because they know I won't sue. After all, they once accused Alec Douglas-Home of mudder, and he didn't complain." Murder sounds more thuddingly sinister in Mackay's brogue. "Yes, they said he'd beaten a boy to death with a cricket stump when he was at Eton." I thought of Punch bludgeoning Judy; Mackay, meanwhile, was guffawing over the image of infant homicide.

I asked him how auspicious the times were for the revival of Punch. It began and ended during election campaigns. Mackay shrugged off the burden of the Zeitgeist. "I really couldn't care less about politics."

Then what explains the bilious Toryism of his Standard columns, with their attacks on Guardian readers as a "sleazy mob" and on liberal do- gooders as a "slippery legion of perverts"?

"I like to annoy, just a wee bit," he said, smirking as malevolently as Mr Punch. "And I wouldnae assume that we'll be rid of the Tories. All leaders are made in the image of the led. Yes indeed, we deserve John Major, with his shirt tucked into his underpants, bless him. We deserve him!" He roared with anarchic delight at our bright, blushing national embarrassment.

Mr Punch is an archetypal character, and thus not exclusively English. His ancestor is the Italian clown Pulcinello, and in the magazine's trophy room - around the lunch table - some other long-lost cousins are displayed. Along with the indigenous Toby jugs, loving cups and carved pipe stems, there is a Japanese Punch-san: a temple guardian with a fiendish leer and exactly the right profile. In a cabinet I found another tiny curio, unearthed in Alexandria in 1900 during excavations for a dock: a Mr Punch of the Ptolemaic period, who sports a conical hat and a protuberant nose and looks creepily like his new Egyptian owner. "Mr Al Fayed was always familiar with Punch," Michael Coles told me. "It went everywhere with the British, it was all in the hotels and clubs in Alexandria."

The colonial trinket in the cabinet at least helps to explain Fayed's craving to own the magazine. Punch recalls a defunct, imperial Britain, as reverentially viewed in the days before Suez. Like Burberry macs or the royal family, it is a prerogative of Britishness more enthusiastically patronised by foreigners than by natives. Mackay told me, nodding sadly over such vandalism, that David Thomas hated the Punch tradition. "He said he'd like to take an axe to the lunch table and chop it to bits." I couldn't share Mackay's disapproval: what else is satire for? But the past which Thomas wanted to demolish, Al Fayed has vowed to preserve. Punch, enfeebled when it became an institution, now belongs to the heritage industry. Its cartoons, their sting removed, have been turned into an archive for interior decorators. The costume designers for Upstairs, Downstairs researched ruffs and bustles in Punch; the Kensington home of the cartoonist Linley Sambourne, Lord Snowdon's grandfather, was used in Howards End by Merchant Ivory, those loving embalmers of Edwardian England. Punch is an annex of Al Fayed's pharaonic crypts at Harrods. Private Eye recently pictured Mackay as a grave- digger, sent to exhume a grinning skeleton. But is it not more likely that Mackay will himself be mummified by his new boss? Or perhaps he will opt for pickling, an altogether more British and more journalistic means of preservation.

The irony is that no matter how meticulously Al Fayed restores the British past, Britain refuses to entertain his furious bids for acceptance. He has been denied a passport, and frustrated in recent attempts to buy Today, the Daily Express, London News Radio and the Observer. The journalist Mike Molloy (an editor of the Daily Mirror in the days when its expenses were most legendary, and now Mackay's deputy), was commissioned to buy Punch without mentioning who had given him the envelope with the pounds 500,000 in it. Al Fayed believed that if United Newspapers knew of his interest, they would refuse to sell. In the event, Lord Stevens was only too happy to be rid of the mouldering corpse. But what kind of vindication does the sale guarantee to Al Fayed? In Punch, he confronts the epitome of that xenophobic complacency which persists in sniggering at him, no matter how angrily he flaps his chequebook. "A magazine is like a club," Molloy said to me. "You can become a member by buying a copy. In the old days, everyone who read the New Yorker thought they'd been invited to lunch at the Round Table in the Algonquin." But the privilege of membership relies on your capacity to blackball other applicants. The New Yorker made a point of excluding "the lady from Dubuque". Punch, with its venerable habit of baiting foreigners, would have felt the same about the man from Alexandria, once described by the Sunday Telegraph as "profoundly Levantine".

So now they eye each other across Brompton Road - the anarchist and the fantasist (which is how Al Fayed is described in his company's promotional brochures); the jester and the plutocrat who subsidises his lunches; one man for whom nothing is sacred and another who has turned a shop into a sanctum. Al Fayed's career, like Mackay's, has been a practical joke, though a mordantly humourless one: he has expropriated the country which snubs him. Laughter, as Freud taught us, is vindictive. In this case, it remains to be seen who is taking revenge on whom. !

Men at work: Peter Mackay confers with his deputy, ex-Daily Mirror editor Mike Molloy, looked down on by pictures of past Punch editors

Faces of heritage: an Egyptian Mr Punch (left) and Mohammed Al Fayed (right)