Published: 6 October, 2011
by TOM FOOT
Smart dress is required for Private Eye’s 50th birthday party in the stately Guildhall later this month.
The Grade I-listed building in Gresham Street is “a grand setting for glittering banquets, royal occasions and receptions of major historical anniversaries”.
Its website adds: “The Guildhall has been the City powerhouse since the 12th century when the ruling merchant class held court and fine-tuned the laws that helped create London’s wealth.”
There will also be an exhibition of Private Eye cartoons displayed at the Victoria & Albert Museum, South Kensington. Yet claims the esteemed organ has become part of the Establishment were being strenuously denied in Eye circles this week.
“People just say that because it has lasted 50 years,” says Eye journalist Adam Macqueen. “But when you look back at the history you see the kind of people who refused to stock the magazine, let alone subscribe to it – even 10 years ago. Now we have Ian [Hislop] speaking to MPs at the culture select committee about the problem with libel law. I suppose we are moving into an era of respectability.”
Macqueen, who joined the Eye at a trainee in 1997, said V&A curators had begun gutting the Eye building at 6 Carlisle Street, Soho.
Hislop’s desk will be on display in a reconstructed installation, along with other priceless artefacts including art director Tony Rushton’s stuffed dog – which has been put in the deep freeze – and boardroom chair of former Daily Mirror proprietor Robert “Cap’n Bob” Maxwell. “They are taking our office chair very seriously,” says Macqueen.
He is the author of the Eye’s jumbo-sized anniversary publication, produced in an A-Z-style format, including behind-the-scenes snapshots of the building, and written with all the verve and irreverence of the magazine itself.
Under “F”, there are many archive photos and memories about my dad Paul, who lived in Canfield Gardens, West Hampstead, in the 1970s and 1980s, and joined the staff in 1967.
One gave me a jolt.
It is a spider-scrawl postcard message sent to the office on May 24, 1999. It says: “Can’t write properly yet, but soon will! Just to say hello and thanks. Love Paul.”
Around six weeks earlier he had collapsed at home with an aortic aneurysm that sent him sailing into a three-week coma aged 61.
I was 19 at the time and I remember him hooked-up to the bleeping machines and consultants saying he had a 10 per cent chance of surviving in a vegetative state.
Eye editors Ian Hislop and Richard Ingrams – Paul’s best and life long friend – visited him in the London Chest Hospital in Bethnal Green and I remember them recalling how a joke was made about moving him to a private hospital.
Paul slowly raised two fingers, before sinking back into his coma again.
Ingrams also remembers how a recovering Paul’s first words completed a favourite story about a time he was harangued for failing to stand-up and sing the National Anthem at the cinema. Paul recalled saying: “As I believe in neither God nor the Queen, what is the point in calling on one to save the other?”
My stand-out memory from that hazy period was a 45-minute conversation that ended with him leaning over and asking: “Who are you?” At the same time, NHS brain experts found he could summon passages of Shakespeare from the abyss of his memory, and repeat super-long sequences of numbers.
Although he would never walk again unaided, his wits did mercifully return. In his book, Macqueen writes: “Paul was back at his desk by the end of the year, celebrating his return to the Eye with a full page attack on Jeffrey Archer.”
Macqueen notes the context for the Eye in the late 1990s: Peter Cook died in 1995, Willie Rushton (1996), John Wells (1998), Andrew Osmond (1999).
The following May, Paul was named Campaigning Journalist of the Decade in the What the Papers Say awards.
I had dropped out of university and was driving him to and from the Eye each day until he could do it himself.
I remember he used to leave his sticks at the bottom of the steps and that was a signal to everyone he was in.
He died of a ruptured aorta in Stansted Airport in July 2004 and his ashes are buried opposite Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery.
Macqueen writes in his book of the Eye’s “passionate, non-metropolitan and questioning journalism”, adding: “While the man himself may have come and gone during the 37 years it was Paul Foot who more than anyone else was responsible for that formula.”
Paul worked on the Glasgow Herald, the old pre-Murdoch Sun, the Sunday Telegraph (shome mishtake, shurely?), with longer spells on the Daily Mirror, Guardian and Socialist Worker.
But I’m sure he felt most at home at the Eye.
The laughter there was infectious.
In the book, Macqueen prints Paul’s quote: “I was drawn to it like a bee to a honey pot, it’s independent publishing. It’s independent of any kind of profit motive or shareholders’ interference or advertising pressure. That’s very important."
The Eye had always poked fun at Paul’s revolutionary socialism, membership of SWP and work for Socialist Worker. The book inevitably reflects this – oh comrades! – and his belief that he was helping to form a “real revolutionary party”.
It recalls a “terrible row” over attacks on a “loony” Left that led to Paul quitting the magazine in 1972 for Socialist Worker.
John Kent’s cartoon of Paul leaving the office – represented as a church, with Ingrams in the pulpit saying “If thy Left Foot offends thee, cut it orff” – hangs in the Eye’s office entrance.
I think Paul’s journalism and his socialism were inseparable. He wanted to expose corruption in society, but also to change it.
He liked to quote his poet hero Shelley: “Let the axe strike at the root, the poison tree will fall.”
I’m sure he would have ignored the demand for smart dress at the “City powerhouse” later this month.
He never owned a suit. But he would have loved to toast the Eye’s milestone and web-proof success – more than 200,000 sales a fortnight – with a few glasses of posh wine.
• Private Eye – the First 50 Years. An A-Z by Adam Macqueen. Published by Private Eye Productions Ltd, £20
To mark the 50th anniversary of Private Eye, the V&A is exploring how the magazine has used graphic satire and humour to accompany serious investigative journalism.
The display will highlight contributions Willie Rushton, Ralph Steadman and Gerald Scarfe.
It will also feature a timeline of the “speech-bubble” covers and an evocation of the editor’s office overflowing with papers, artwork and press clippings.
• October 18-January 8, V&A Studio Gallery, Rooms 17a and 18a. Cromwell Road, SW7 2RL. 10am-5.45 daily, 10am-10pm Fridays. Free