An Eye inside the vaults: Making sense of Private Eye's messy archives

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Even editor Ian Hislop was surprised by some of the material found for a new history of the publication.

I arrived at Private Eye on work experience in September 1997, at the same time as several sacks full of letters complaining about the disrespectful tone the magazine had adopted over the death of Princess Diana. The Eye's cover, as banned from WH Smith and several other newsagent chains, showed the crowd outside Buckingham Palace with speech bubbles saying: "The papers are a disgrace" and "Yes, I couldn't get one anywhere." The front page of The Sun published on the same day demanded "WHERE IS OUR QUEEN? WHERE IS HER FLAG?" Which of those seems more tasteless now?

I've been working there, on and off, ever since. The place is still full of surprises. The classified ad man who used to sleep under the editor's desk has departed, as has the jazz sextet that so startled proprietor Peter Cook's widow Lin when she made a tour of inspection.

But it was still a decade before I realised that the locked room on the top floor wasn't a stationery cupboard, but the domain of one of Britain's most feared financial journalists – Michael Gillard, writer of the Slicker column since 1969. He only appears at night, when deputy editor Francis Wheen claims to have caught him watching boxing on the telly downstairs.

So when editor Ian Hislop asked me if I fancied writing a history of the mag's first half-century, I was prepared for the unexpected. Even the fact the magazine has lasted 50 years is fairly extraordinary, given that co-founder Willie Rushton predicted "it would die after four or five weeks".

My last book, The King of Sunlight, was a biography of the eccentric Victorian businessman William Lever, but I swiftly discovered that the early 1960s were just as alien an environment to research as the 1850s.

I tried drinking lots of espressos and listening to Helen Shapiro, No 1 in the hit parade when the first Private Eye went on sale, but it didn't really help. I was slightly disadvantaged by the fact I wasn't even alive for the first 14 years chronicled by the mag, and not totally up to speed with political events for a while after that.

Working my way through the nearly 1,300 editions, Google became my best friend as I mutated into a sort of High Court Judge in reverse: "What exactly is a 'Quintin Hogg'?"... "Who on earth was 'Torrey Canyon'?" (Answers: Cabinet minister Lord Hailsham when he was little, and an oil tanker that kicked off the modern fashion for the black oily look among seabirds when it ran aground off Cornwall in 1967).

Other names were familiar, but popped up in unexpected contexts. Raised on Ivor Cutler's Life in a Scotch Sitting Room, I was delighted to discover that he was behind one of the Eye's first regular series, "Knifesmith's Korner". And it will never cease to please me that the shareholders in Pressdram, the Eye's publisher, recruited in 1964 from Peter Cook's address book to prevent his then wife Wendy having to sell off any more of her jewellery to keep things afloat, included Jane "Party Cakes" Asher and Dirk Bogarde. And nearly Hugh Hefner, who was offered the opportunity to invest, but, in Cook's words, "told me to piss off".

And that's just the behind-the-scenes personnel. One of the best things about trawling through back issues was spotting just how many, er, talents the magazine spotted early. You'd have expected Paul Foot to have been on to Jeffrey Archer like a terrier the moment he was elected to the Commons in 1969, but the fact he also namechecked Sharon Levy – later to become better known as Sharon Osbourne – in an article about her father Don Arden's sharp business practices the same year was more of a surprise.

Polly Toynbee first fell foul of the magazine while she was a student journalist at Oxford. Georgia Gould, who Labour tried to parachute into Erith as their candidate for the 2010 election, made her Eye debut even younger, as the baby being cuddled by Neil Kinnock on a cover in January 1987.

And the scoops everyone has long since forgotten to credit Private Eye for! It was the first publication to name both the head of MI6 (earning the editorial team a lecture from the head of the D-notice committee in 1963) and the Kray twins (Cook's decision – he declared "publish and be absent" and went on holiday to avoid recriminations).

Beyond the back issues, there was a wealth of other material gathering dust at the Eye's Soho HQ. Sketches of the office and its inhabitants by cartoonists such as Nick Newman, Michael Heath, Ed McLachlan and Tony Husband were quietly turning yellow on noticeboards.

So too were photos such as the series of Cook at the magazine's 30th birthday party effortlessly reducing an audience to hysterics before slicing into a cake shaped like a pile of libel writs. What was his speech about, I asked? "Twenty minutes on sautéed potatoes. Just brilliant," came the reply.

I spent days in the cellar leafing through dusty files. It was here that I found the long-lost original of that Andrew Neil photo, complete with details revealing the identity of his lovely companion (not, as many people seem to believe, Pamella Bordes. But you'll have to buy the book to find out who).

An appeal to colleagues to ransack their own attics yielded even more. Hislop produced the student magazine in which, aged 20, he had interviewed Richard Ingrams ("Does your attitude to the royal family get you into trouble?") Then, to the surprise of both of us, something else fell out of it – a letter in Ingrams's spidery handwriting dated November 1980, offering the undergraduate the chance to contribute.

Sheila Molnar, the managing director, turned up an old envelope she had stashed away in 1986 after noticing Hislop and Cook scribbling notes to each other on it in court during Robert Maxwell's evidence when he sued the Eye for libel. "BRING ON SIR BASIL NARDLY-STOADS AT ONCE," read Cook's capitals, while underneath Hislop has scrawled the first draft of the statement he gave after the magazine, inevitably, lost: "Private Eye has payed [sic] an enormous fat cheque. To an enormous fat Czech."

Many such treasures will feature in a free anniversary exhibition next month at, of all places, the V&A, which is treating them with unaccustomed reverence. An office swivel chair which used to belong to Maxwell himself is currently the subject of esoteric debate in Cromwell Road as to whether, as an "artefact", it must be displayed behind glass.

Hopefully my book does the opposite of that. I tried to keep two things in mind when writing it: first, that nothing kills a joke like over-explanation – look at Wikipedia's entries for Dave Spart and "Ugandan Discussions" if you don't believe me. And second, that the Eye itself is far from being a dusty historical object.

Recent, record-selling editions – the one covering the phone-hacking scandal shifted more than 250,000 copies – attest to that. So it might really be a history of Private Eye's first forty-nine-and-three-quarter-years, but it does manage to squeeze in Julian Assange's extraordinary phone-call to Ian Hislop in January this year, in which the WikiLeaks boss claimed he was being unfairly targeted by Jewish and "sort-of Jewish" journalists [Assange later denied the Eye's account]. But only because the book is written in A-Z format, and I could slip in an entry for "Zionist Plot" at the end without annoying the page designer. I think he was pleased, actually – the only other thing I had to offer for that section was a Robert Thompson cartoon of zebras.

'Private Eye: The First 50 Years, an A-Z' by Adam Macqueen is published on 20 September (Private Eye Books), RRP £25. To order a copy for the special price of £21.25 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk

Adam Macqueen will be interviewing former Private Eye editor Richard Ingrams as part of The Independent Woodstock Literary Festival on Saturday

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