Absurdity is in the Private Eye of the beholder

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The Independent Online

To open a copy of Private Eye is to enter a world where everyone agrees with each other. Celebrating its 1,000th issue, the magazine has survived so long and done so well by creating an atmosphere of clubbiness, where the jokes are private, and non-readers entirely absurd.

To open a copy of Private Eye is to enter a world where everyone agrees with each other. Celebrating its 1,000th issue, the magazine has survived so long and done so well by creating an atmosphere of clubbiness, where the jokes are private, and non-readers entirely absurd.

It's a successful formula, made more so by the fact that readers probably go on believing it not to be successful at all. The deliberate cheapness of the production is almost certainly, by now, an editorial decision; Private Eye is big business. It remains hugely popular not just because it is funny, but because its readers retain a fond sense that it is in some way an underground production, devoted to doing down the establishment.

Who the underground readership consists of is an interesting point. You're probably not black, or gay, or young; you are probably privately educated, though not particularly brainy - Durham, not Oxford, was probably your university. You're quite likely to go to church, to have voted Tory, unwillingly, in 1992 and Labour, unwillingly, in 1997, to be thinking about giving up sport, to be a comfortably off professional and not to get enough sex. And, of course, you are probably a man.

The universal assumptions are often pretty odd, and there is no reason to suppose that it sees its own absurdities. No man is ridiculous to his mirror, and Private Eye is, in the end, as pompous as anyone else. It is pompous, for instance, of the magazine constantly to remind the readers of past campaigns, its past moments of glory, however justified its cynicism has proved.

Culturally, it is firmly defined, and weirdly resistant to the idea that human beings have different tastes in art, music or literature. The idea that individuals might actually like contemporary music or contemporary art strikes Private Eye as inconceivable, and if someone claims to, they are obviously a liar, or intrinsically ridiculous. It's ridiculous, for instance, to have read Proust, though not so obviously ridiculous to have read Trollope, or - its editor's current obsession - to be a grown man reading Harry Potter; if you ask why this should be the case, it is clear that the bookshelves of the editor are not absurd, and those of other people obviously are.

Within those boundaries it does very well, and only an ass would complain that it isn't aimed at them; I can't believe, either, that anyone minds too much when the magazine attacks them. They had a go at me a couple of weeks ago with a not-very-good parody entitled Showing Off With Hensher; everyone I had ever met in my life rang up to congratulate me, and I stuck it on the fridge. Of course, it's difficult to argue with the assumptions of a humorous magazine; it just makes you look pompous. Who cares, really, that in the current magazine, Lord Alli is ridiculed for being gay - "Is he merely taking the piss out of the House of Lords by donning its stereotypical costumes and flouncing about in ermine asking elderly peers embarrassing questions about homosexuality?" Twenty years ago, he would have been ridiculed for being black as well, and that, I suppose, is some sort of progress.

Is it funny, though? Well, sometimes. It's always been a bit of a curate's egg, and it goes up and down in quality. The cartoons are worse than they used to be; some, like the Supermodels strip, are really bad enough for Punch. The parodies are generally said to be the best thing in the magazine at the moment, and Craig Brown's broad but ingenious diary pieces are universally admired. There is a brilliant parody of Anthony Powell's journal from the afterlife in the current issue; predictable, but amusing. Pseuds' Corner is not what it was; too full of paragraphs from obscure academics and unheard-of video artists, when the point of it ought to be famous people making fools of themselves in the mainstream press. The page about Tony Blair being a vicar is quite amazingly, unfailingly unfunny, a really tragically feeble successor to the "Dear Bill" letters.

The best parts of the magazine are the moments where you sense a belief that the whole world is unrelentingly absurd. Craig Brown's parodies have a wonderful sense that all literary styles are preposterous, not that some are better than others. Victor Lewis-Smith's "Funny Old World" column is devoted to the pure unadulterated senselessness of existence, and is always good. Best of all, I think, is the crossword, one baroque obscenity after another, a terrific joke which not even every Private Eye reader seems to get.

Universal absurdity is Private Eye territory; where it falls down, and disastrously so, is at those moments when the reader senses that, in its eyes, pomposity and absurdity are not universal at all. Because there is one magazine in the world which is not pompous, or absurd at all; but which, on the contrary, is always and unfailingly right.

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