Focus: If they can't take a joke...

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Australia's top interviewer Susan Chenery is joining the 'Independent on Sunday'. In this sneak preview of her stylish work, she profiles Ian Hislop, the bloody-minded king of Satire Central

THERE is a humour that underlies everything in English life. Irony. Dark, dark irony. Humour that turns in on itself when it starts getting dark in the afternoon and the cold comes up from the ground. The tabloids are mostly engaging, at the basest level they can possibly manage, in that great British sport of taking the piss. Well you do need to have an indoor sport in London, a hobby, the weather being what it is, like darts or snooker or, say, laughing at others' misfortune.

"It is entertainment," says Ian Hislop, possibly the most spiteful man in a deeply spiteful town. He is talking about the tabloids. And he should know. He is the editor of Private Eye. He takes the piss for a living. It is that strange counter-balancing combination of the quality papers, the tabloids and Private Eye that make England what it is. Civilised. By and large. Amused. The ability to laugh, if not at themselves, then viciously at other people. The greater the height the funnier the fall.

Hislop jauntily leads me up a narrow, mean flight of stairs. I start to feel like I have walked into a Dickens novel, illuminated by a strobing tie. He could have a disco party with that tie. The Private Eye offices appear to have remained untouched since Oliver Twist. Papers piled everywhere, yellowing, faded, encrusted with dust, the detritus and dubious trophies of many years of taking the piss. Notices and ageing cartoons peeling off the walls, backs missing off chairs, walls stained with damp, typewriters gathering dust, an old upright piano, an incongruous glimmer of frivolity. Hislop sits down behind a desk and clasps his hands in a priestly manner. "Paula Yates is a slag," he then says, with feeling. "She has always been a slag. Fuck her."

Well. Here I am at the pumping heart of a great English tradition. A national institution. Private Eye. Satire central. And its editor does not disappoint. Ridicule is his job. And he is just the man to do it. "I think anyone is game for a laugh if it's funny," he adds merrily. Private Eye is merely carrying on a tradition-that goes back to the 18th century, to Swift and beyond. "I think what satire does," Hislop eagerly brays, "is tell the truth smilingly, it hopes to educate and inform" - he pauses while we both laugh at this blatant bullshit. "The point of the art," he gamely goes on, "is to do all those sorts of basic democratic duties but in an amusing way. You just do straight comedy if you are not interested in how it works and what happens. There is a refusal to take political life at the value it takes itself. You don't have satirical magazines in Iraq. They aren't big on jokes in Beijing. We do jokes but they are jokes that are about things.

"THERE are probably 50 or 60 stories in each issue that people probably don't want printed," Hislop continues. "They are not going to say, 'yes I did it' when you ring them up. So there is a certain risk. Often I don't get it right and I end up paying. The Eye does two things. We laugh at people and then we run stories. I got into trouble when I took over and said I didn't like leg-over stories. I mean I merely think someone's marriage breaking up is not particularly useful. I always try to justify a story. What does the sex add? Someone has given you a job because he is fucking you, um, someone has told a lie about fucking someone else. Any of those stories I will go with. Abuse of power, whatever. But it is better if it is funny."

Hislop talks fast and laughs a lot. There is, after all, a great deal of fruitful misconduct to laugh at among the British orders. Even more hilarious when it occurs among the venerable, the patronising and the condescending. The powerful newspaper editor doing devious deals. The class-traitor Labour politician who has compromised his early principles, fingers jammed in the till. The kinky peer in the country house hotel, always good for a laugh. The standards slipping, dear boy. Crash.

A humorist in flowered tie, waistcoat and an aqua jacket. He could be a sight gag too, but you fear, and sadly, that it is unintentional. A small, balding man, Hislop has a great deal of clamorous charm in a rah rah public school way, in spite of his vigorous, bloody-minded invective. He speaks at the top of his voice and with the speed of the busy brain. The frequent impish grin often precedes the punchline like the placard to a studio audience. Warning: cruel joke approaching, laugh now. He works here every second week, doing editorial in the morning and jokes in the afternoon. The rest of the time he appears on BBC2's Have I Got News For You, writes essays for other publications and comedy scripts for television. What if you come in here and you just don't feel funny? "We write collaboratively," he says reassuringly. "We do it on a Monday morning. About four people come in and we try not to laugh at each other's jokes. If one does come up and everyone laughs, then we go for that one."

It is in this way presumably that some of the more colourful and enduring euphemisms were coined by Private Eye. Tired and emotional for drunk: "That was to do with a Labour politician." Ugandan relations became the phrase for sex, usually adulterous, back in the Sixties. "That was to do with James Fenton, a poet, who was caught upstairs with a Ugandan princess at a party. When he came downstairs he had obviously been doing what we thought he was doing but he said he'd been discussing Ugandan affairs. It was an immortal phrase, so from then on it was Ugandan relations or Ugandan affairs. We invented luvvies, of which we are proud. I started a column called 'Luvvies' because of an actor friend of mine who is the ultimate luvvie. It's fun making up language."

At any one time he has around 25 writs outstanding. It costs at least pounds 1m a year to rock the foundations. "It would be a terrific failing here if you hadn't had a writ. I mean if you worked here and hadn't had a writ I would probably sack you" - loud laughter. "You cut your losses really. We get a lot of writs, but writs disappear, people go away. A good settlement is fine. Our production costs are not high, this office is luxurious obviously but nothing actually costs much, so we do have money and we do blow it."

Not though, on the staff. They do it for the glory, darling, the glory. The deep satisfaction of subversion. Of kicking the shit out of someone better off than you. The faint sound of breaking crystal in the stately country house, as the sordid details are dished up on cheap newsprint. "I have a tiny staff here," chirrups Hislop. "Most of them are 30-something, like me, or 60 and still hanging around. I pay them like shit really. Always works. Then they think they are doing it for the privilege and they enjoy each other's company" - ha, ha, ha - "and if you have got the best then everyone wants to be in it. I don't really fire people."

Most of the Eye's stories come from leaks. Everybody leaks all over the place to the Eye. "Most of our stuff is written by people from outside and given to us. A lot by other journalists and a lot by people in professions. One of our columns about hospitals is entirely written by doctors. And journalists. If you are a journalist in this country and work for the Telegraph you can't write about Conrad Black, who is really interesting, and you can't write about the Telegraph board, who own the rest of the businesses in this country. If you work on the Times you can't write about Rupert Murdoch, and he is the best story there is. So you end up dumping it on us."

That is about the delightful level of it. "Yeah, hacks always love stuff about other hacks," says Hislop. "I could probably run about 10 pages of stuff about journalists but I keep it to a page because I think the public are quite interested in how journalists behave, given how much power they have, but not that interested. It is staggering that editors in this country are much more important than MPs. They are much more important than cabinet ministers - they have all this power and no one ever criticises them. I think that is one of our bits of public service really - attacking other journalists." Evil chuckle. "Journalists write absolutely disgusting stuff about other people but they can't take criticism. About half the writs I get are from journalists, which is pathetic, utterly pathetic.'' Hislop's secretary is hovering at the door. "Richard," she says to Hislop, gesturing towards the telephone. Hislop picks up the phone, dials and has a brief booming conversation, during which, unaccountably, "Ha, ha, ha, ha, stayin' alive, stayin' alive'' reverberates in my head. "I have lunch with Richard Ingrams once a year to celebrate taking over the mag, which I am doing today," he whispers, his hand over the mouthpiece. "Of course, he has forgotten."

IT WAS Richard Ingrams who nominated Hislop as his successor in 1986, unleashing this small, savage sadist on the nation and thereby causing an almighty stink to blow. Hislop has not been immune; he, too, has been comprehensively pilloried, whipped, stretched on the rack. By experts. The elite Old Guard at the magazine were apoplectic that a 26- year-old upstart from a minor public school, my dear, had gotten the job they had all coveted for so long. Civilisation as they knew it had ended right there.

Nigel Dempster, who left the magazine after falling out with Hislop over a story about Cecil Parkinson, described him nastily. "I don't think people like midgets, especially pushy midgets. I think he is a deeply unpleasant little man. He is the one and only reason I left. He knows nothing about life, living or journalism.'' Auberon Waugh thundered that he was "representative of the yob generation which is stupid and can't read''.

But what a tough little cookie Hislop turned out to be. "I'm shameless." Ingrams did not select him for his qualities of compassion. "I was surprised when Ingrams said 'I'm off' and offered me the job. I accepted within a nanosecond, opportunity doesn't come your way that often. I did revue at Oxford and I did stand-up things. I knew what was enjoyable, I just didn't know you could make a living out of it.''

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