Who are the satirists? This question struck me on Wednesday evening as I stood in Guildhall, London, watching the crowds assemble for Private Eye's 50th anniversary bash.
Historically, the satirist is usually imagined as a youthful, starveling ingrate, but most of the people on display seemed notably mature and well-nourished. Then there is that presumption that the satirist is a thorn in the Establishment's flesh. And yet the Establishment seemed pretty well represented here in EC2. Newspaper editors, talk-show hosts, fashionable lawyers – all the characters whose foibles the Eye takes such pleasure in exposing – grinned avuncularly as the speech-making ground into gear.
Certainly there were professional comedians present. Harry Enfield produced an ironical tribute to the current editor, Ian Hislop. John Sessions imitated the Eye's legendary correspondent Sir Herbert Gussett from a gantry. Craig Brown's domed head could be seen through the dark-suited throng. Curiously, the only maverick element seemed to be provided by politicians: Tory eurosceptics (Bill Cash); backbench irritants (Richard Shepherd); veteran Blair harriers such as Bob Marshall-Andrews, lately MP for Medway.
All this realised a suspicion that satire, three centuries on from Jonathan Swift, is merely a part of the media process. In fact, the mark of a novel's impact, or a television show's ratings, or a TV talking head's ubiquity is that it, he, or she, gets satirised. Very few of the celebrities sent up in Craig Brown's Eye diary, you imagine, are aggrieved by his imitations of their boorishness and self-love. On the contrary, this kind of exposure is only an authentication of their success.
Wednesday night's conundrum was further complicated by the tendency of any large party to harbour large numbers of people whose presence is quite inexplicable, even to the hosts. Walking into the Reform Club's library for the Eye's 35th birthday party 15 years ago, I noticed that each of the tables around the wall was occupied by a gangsterish-looking elderly man and a much younger female companion. Who were they? I asked Richard Ingrams. He hadn't a clue.
Although Boris Johnson's forthcoming work of non-fiction, Life of London: The People Who Made The City That Made The World, has yet to attract the notice of reviewers, its existence has been criticised by the Shadow work and pensions secretary, Liam Byrne. According to Mr Byrne, the book's appearance, never mind Mr Johnson's other literary output, is evidence that the Mayor is "not putting London first". The results of this dilettantism are everywhere to hand. "Every hour Boris Johnson has spent writing his book is an hour which could have been spent working to make our streets safe and getting new investment and jobs into London."
I have no vote in next year's mayoral election, but the effect of this dreary little utilitarian homily is to make me wish that I did, and that it could be cast in favour of Mr Johnson, who whatever his political and personal failings at least upholds one fine old tradition: the politician who has a life beyond politics and can hold a pen. Did anyone criticiseWilliam Gladstone for his Homeric Studies, or suggest that Lord Salisbury's appearances in the Saturday Review disqualified him for high office? If it comes to that, Mr Byrne's colleague, Lord Hattersley, used to combine his exacting duties as Deputy Leader of the Labour Party with a variety of eye-catching journalism; Mr Byrne would presumably have had him chained to the committee room table, day in and day out. I have a feeling that Mr Johnson's appearances on the Waterstone's shelf make him more electable, not less.
It is always amusing, in a world supposedly less hung up than it once was on the significance of class and regional background, to note the way in which people tend to use class or locality as an occasional weapon to be picked up and set down whenever it happens to be useful. Anthony Powell's Journals, for example, record a visit from a photographer whose accent started off as bog-standard Estuary, only to assume more genteel inflections once the visitor realised he was, as it were, among friends.
On last week's evidence, another canny exponent of this technique is Ian Brown, frontman of newly reformed Manchester pop legends, the Stone Roses. Newspaper profiles of Mr Brown generally focus on his man-of-the-people credentials, his socialist convictions and his sturdy Republicanism (see the celebrated Stone Roses track "Elizabeth My Dear".) Now, on the other hand, arraigned for driving his car at some unimaginable speed down a motorway, Mr Brown resorts to the rich man's expedient of hiring a celebrity lawyer. Ingeniously, by stressing Mr Brown's need to run errands for his elderly parents and attend band rehearsals at a "secret" location, "Mr Loophole" managed to get the sentence down to six penalty points. Like one or two up-market acquaintances whose cut-glass tones would mysteriously vanish when they entered a room full of fellow-Yorkshiremen, all this sounds like having your cake and eating it.
While the rest of the literary world was diverting itself with Haruki Murakami's 1Q84, the book I most enjoyed last week was Hucks: Through Adversity to Great Heights, the autobiography of the former Norwich City hotshot Darren Huckerby. At a time when Manchester City FC, one of Huckerby's former employers, is in danger of being sued by two of their multimillionaire wantaways, Darren strikes a more modest note. In fact his distinguishing marks are his integrity and his extreme conservatism. As he puts it in the epilogue, "I'm proud ... of the fact that I've come out of it all with my morals intact. I never chased the money, and I always, always tried to make the right decision when it came to both leaving and joining clubs." Will Carlos Tevez be writing that in 10 years time?
Elsewhere, Darren – as so often in football – turns out to be rather a dark horse. How, for example, did he come up with that admittedly cumbrous title? It turns out that our man has tattooed, just above his wrist, the words Per Ardua ad Altiora together with the Roman numerals MMII (2002) and MMIV (2004), marking his two promotions to the Premier League. Frank Lampard, the professional game's only other known Latinist, must be green with envy.