The Independent Archive: 9 April 1990 - The baby thrown out with the bathwater

Sheridan Morley lost more than a job when he resigned from `Punch', he lost a home. He explains to Danny Danziger
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FOR 15 years of my life, I would say the best part of my working life, I shared an office in Tudor Street with a team of people who were mutually like-minded. We were doing something in which we believed. We were trying to keep Punch alive, against some stiff competition it has to be said; from the coming of free Sunday supplements and a tremendous change in English journalism - and the fact that Punch had a fairly ancient traditional readership.

When we were bought by United Newspapers they understandably wanted a more modern magazine and we tried for some time to convert ourselves by stealth, because we took the view that Punch could not be drastically or suddenly changed. Indeed, we had tried that occasionally, and the result was always disastrous. The readers did not like sudden change.

And I suppose the saddest day of my life was the culmination of quite a long period of time over which it became quite clear that the magazine was going to be changed, not any longer by stealth, not any longer by tact or negotiation, or by gradual progression towards a more modern future but was going to be changed radically, and drastically, and overnight. And that realisation dawned on me just over a year ago, I would say in November 1988.

This may sound very hysterical or emotional, but I now can't pick up Punch. I believe 180 years of tradition has been thrown away overnight for no great benefit.

They decided to sack the editor, David Taylor, and bring in a young editor, of whom I know very little, and had never worked with, so this is not in any way a personal attack. My feeling is that what they have now done - and I hope that I am wrong - I think they have killed the magazine by throwing out baby and the bathwater.

And the sadness for me was to see one's home vandalised, just in the way you can't bear to go back to a house where somebody has bought it and changed all the bloody furniture and all the wallpaper and the curtains, if they have done it as I believe unsympathetically and with no reference to the past.

Punch was my home. I used to go in every morning. I used to park the car there. There was a coffee machine. I guess one is spoilt by an office somehow. I miss the community, I miss Alan Coren, I miss David Taylor, I miss those men every morning. We somehow managed to run a magazine and to run our own lives. We wrote books in that office, we did other jobs in Fleet Street. This was all perfectly above board, because the deal with Punch was that they couldn't pay us very well but they would give us a place to live and work, and as long as we got the magazine right we could do our own things as well.

Punch was a kind of daily community that I was not getting at home, Punch was a place to go and just to gossip, to natter, to talk. I don't like being alone, I don't function well alone. Alan Coren says the same thing. His wife goes out to work, she's an anaesthetist, so he is now alone on the typewriter, and he doesn't like it.

We tend to phone each other up most mornings. Why? Because we no longer share that office. It wasn't open-plan, we all had separate rooms down that corridor, but when a piece was going badly, when you couldn't get the words right, you could come out and shout down the corridor, "Help", and they would get you a cup of coffee and say, "Don't worry, we're having a bad day too!" And they took that away from me.

All the wives, and Ruth whom I live with, say: "Look, for God's sake, forget it; you've had a very good 15 years, you did the best you could, the magazine has now gone, stop thinking about it, and please stop talking about it." Trouble is, none of us can. Because of those 15 years, we all still meet - and talk about Punch - every Wednesday morning. I now freelance, I live at home, I'm very happy there, I love working at home. It's getting better all the time, we're a year away now, the pain is a lot less. But it's taking a long time. You could say a year for 15 years is not that unusual, but it is painful, yes.

`The Worst of Times', from the Living page of `The Independent', Monday 9 April 1990