Topping a pile of back numbers of Private Eye is a copy of Budgie the Helicopter, a children's book by the Duchess of York.
'Why Budgie?' I ask.
'Because we exposed her by finding the Sixties original,' Ian Hislop replies. 'She'd copied it almost word for word. Clearly she thought no one would notice.'
'Who found it?'
'One of our readers. Not that it will make any difference: she must have earned a million from it.' As arrows go, a bullseye; but such a revelation, however gratifying, counts as exposure, not satire.
But does Hislop even describe himself as a satirist? He says yes. 'Satirist, and comic writer, and editor - the joy of my life is to wear a number of hats. I view the world slightly askance. I criticise vice, folly and humbug. New social orders are not my job.'
Satire, to be more than mere abuse, must be founded on passionately held opinions and a strong moral code. To a republican - and Hislop admits that he is a royalist - an attack on the Duchess of York is about as pointless as swatting a blow-fly on a corpse. Alexander Pope, that great, splenetic satirist, would have spatchcocked Fergie. These lines from The Dunciad fit her aptly:
She, tinsell'd o'er in robes of varying hues,
With self-applause her wild creation views;
Sees momentary monsters rise and fall,
And with her own fools-colours gilds them all.
Dryden would have summed her up in one line:
In squandering wealth was (her) pecu liar art
With Britain under the thumb of a party that has office without policies and power without merit, never was a Pope or a Dryden more sorely needed. Instead, we have Private Eye: the nearest thing to satire in print that can be found in Britain today.
In fact, the Eye isn't satire at all, but gossip, exposure and revelation. It does not even have a lethal cartoonist, although with Scarfe, Steadman and this paper's own Riddell, there are plenty around. The magazine, its editor and all its contributors, with the exception of Paul Foot, implicitly support the current political system.
More to the point, Hislop doesn't seem particularly angry: and anger is the other prerequisite for satire. Good satire is racy, sensual and necessarily cruel, requiring language far more reckless than the Eye's clique-ish mockery and abuse. The Eye has an insiders' code of naughty, schoolboyish words. The magazine is an 'organ'; its proprietor 'Lord Gnome' and its recurrent targets acquire nicknames. These make the reader feel cosily privileged but they do not add up to satire. The current Eye calls Major 'that little chap with the suit and glasses - what's his name?' Pope would, at the very least, have penned this:
All my commands are easy, short and full:
My sons] Be proud, be selfish and be dull.
Behind a large cluttered desk Ian Hislop sits waiting to be questioned, a page of scribbled notes beside him to remind him what to say, or not to say, in this interview. It would be a cheap gibe to mock his appearance so let's just observe that he is quite short and he has got quite a round face. But he has great charm, nice manners, and despite the prophets of doom who bemoaned his arrival in this chair, he has now edited Private Eye (latest circulation: 200,000 copies) successfully for almost seven years.
His assumption of the editorship occurred in 1986, when he was a mere stripling of 26 years. Many rather more long-serving Eye regulars had hoped to succeed Richard Ingrams as editor, and all were greatly miffed at being overtaken by the youthful Hislop. Dire predictions followed and there was a certain amount of non-cooperation. Nigel Dempster and Peter McKay, the Eye's resident gossip- mongers, resigned. How daunted was Hislop by all this?
'People were pissed off at the time. 'Why is this boy being given the job?' The people who objected were the fortyish types who thought they should have got the job. The Old Guard all thought it was a hoot, somebody of my age attempting to do it. A lot of the flak was because I lost the gossip columnists. But they had changed the character of the paper from what it was in the Sixties. They never forgave me for saying: 'I don't want gossip.'
'I hate saying that because it sounds so pompous. I don't mind legover stories if it's somebody who got a job on a paper because they had legover with the editor; but I do feel you have to justify running those stories. I lost no sleep at all over the Parkinson revelations. The Conservatives claim to be the party of the family, and meanwhile he's knocking off his secretary . . . I thought, well, fair enough - that's a story we should tell. I don't think either of them came out of that one very well, though I have a sneaking admiration for her, for taking him to the cleaners.
'There are no stories I won't tell. I don't feel I'm sitting on a great bank of stories that I'd love to tell. I'm only deterred from printing stories if I don't think they're true. The Eye didn't print the John Major/Clare Latimer story - although it came in in all manner of salacious or racial variations - because I think that was one cock-up he hasn't made. We didn't print it because it wasn't true.'
When Hislop settled his youthful posterior in the editorial chair - only the third posterior in the Eye's history, following those of Christopher Booker and Richard Ingrams - he brought with him a number of newer, younger contributors. But the leads that jump-start a gossip magazine are contacts with insider information: and these tend not, on the whole, to be people in their twenties. It is the passed-over, the disgruntled and the outraged who tell and sell the tales that make the Eye worth reading.
Inevitably, a high proportion of these are journalists, which accounts for the over-representation in the Eye of stories from 'the Street of Shame' and television. Does it really matter what disgruntled hacks think of John Birt or Andrew 'Brillo Pad' Neil?
'We don't have vast resources and we simply haven't the numbers or the money to do the great investigative gropes that a newspaper can afford. But I'm not worried. We ran Asil Nadir well in advance; we ran the attempt to bribe the judge; we're having a good year. We're on a roll at the moment, and I'm enjoying it. It's very pleasing to set up a new feature and watch it do well. We've had a very good run and the City stuff's as good as it's ever been and . . .' (That's enough self-publicising. Ed.)
Ian David Hislop, aged 33 and one month, is the son of a Scottish civil engineer. His father died when he was 12; an event that deeply affected young Ian. He had had no idea how serious the illness was until his mother arrived at his school one day and broke the news that his father had died that morning.
Hislop attended a public school in Sussex called Ardingly, noted for its religious bent. Has that left its mark?
'Yes, in that, for instance, we'll have our son christened. I like the King James Bible and Prayer Book better, not for any nostalgic reasons but because - (suddenly he breaks into a brilliant parody) we jus' wanna thank Jesus . . . for being with us . . . here . . . today . . . thank you, Je--sus] - that's not my style.'
From Ardingly he chose to go up to Oxford because his great friend from school, the cartoonist Nick Newman, was there already. He began by reading PPE (politics, philosophy and economics) but soon changed to English. In his final year, Hislop met Victoria Hansom, but, although they were an 'item' when they both came down in 1981, they did not live together until they married.
He taught at a sixth form crammer in South Kensington. 'The interview was fairly perfunctory. She said, 'Can you teach Manley Hopkins?' and I said, 'Yes'. She said, 'Can you teach Yeets?' and at that point I knew I'd got the job. I had to cram naughty public school people who'd been thrown out for smoking, and get them through their A-levels. I stayed there for about a year, doing a bit for the Eye on the side and a bit of comedy and writing jokes for Jasper Carrott'.
Is writing original jokes harder than editing other people's?
'I don't sit there and tear my hair and struggle. I do tend to stare out of the window a lot, but I often write with Nick Newman and we sit there and try to make each other laugh. It's very hard to write all by yourself because you don't get a reaction.'
As an interviewee, Ian Hislop is open and helpful, but he is not notably funny. This may be because the bent head of his interviewer, scribbling to keep up, was not conducive to mutual mirth. It may be that his wit works best in a large gathering. It may even be that he was exhausted from five weeks of sleepless nights since the birth of his son, William David.
He can show an unexpected ruthlessness where the upper-class rich are concerned. He says: 'Doesn't it make you laugh when the Lloyd's thing comes up? All those people whingeing? They thought they could haul in 30 per cent profit and then reinvest that and take another 15 per cent so they were practically doubling their money each year and they thought that could go on for ever. So Henry Cooper has to sell his Lonsdale Belts? Doesn't your heart bleed for him?'
In view of this outburst I wonder if he would like to make the Eye more hard-edged. Ought it to be nastier and more spiteful?
'No: I consider it's about where it ought to be.'
Is he soft on the Royal Family?
'We ran a couple of Duke of Edinburgh stories when the Kitty Kelly biography was first rumoured. I don't think it's that important. Would you like to see the monarchy fall?
'The Royal Family can be laughed at for their 20-year venture into theatre. Remember, you can't 'get' people if they haven't done anything. The royals have played it very, very badly. But in their defence, I think Murdoch has a straightforward agenda, which is a republican one. Di has shafted them worse than anyone, but then she was presumably treated fairly shoddily. Prince Charles, in his enormous arrogance, assumed she was just some silly little girl who'd keep quiet and wait for the throne. He forgot she was a Spencer, the daughter of an Earl, and the darling of a world's media. She wouldn't let herself be treated like that, with him sneaking off to his mistress. I think she's fantastically cunning and she used Morton very, very effectively.'
Like most of us, Hislop enjoys the peccadilloes of the rich and famous, and enjoys catching them out, especially those pompous enough to think themselves above the rules of conduct for what Leonora Helmsley called 'the little people'. Yet he lacks fire in his belly, or what my mother, speaking of iconoclasts, would call 'the divine spark'. Dryden once more:
Great wits are sure to madness near allied
Hislop does not look like a lunatic or a subversive. He is wearing a decorous navy blazer, a crisp white shirt, and a tie which, though modish, is well to the right of the Paxman/Snow variety. No maddened firebrand would adopt the protective colouring of the professional classes without so much as a hint of self-mockery. Amiably, Hislop agrees. Does he also agree with Defoe, who said 'the end of satire is reformation'?
'I'm not an anarchist; not a revolutionary. I think this is a gross misconception of what satire is and what it can do. What satirist ever toppled the government? I think Swift managed to get one small tax changed in the whole of his career.
'You're not there to end regimes. In a democracy, people vote: but the satirist condenses the argument and I think we're still doing that.'
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