Sunday, 11 October 2015

Hungerford Arcade Meeting Mr Punch

Hungerford Arcade’s great friend and author, Stuart Miller-Osborne has written a wonderful article about Mr Punch.  Judy and the baby are not featured but then again, its all in the name as you will see.  Great writing and a joy to read.  I hope you all enjoy reading it as much as I did.

Meeting Mr Punch 

When wandering around the Arcade recently, I noticed something which, as I normally sleepwalk through life, I had not noticed before.

Punch 1Mr Punch was beginning to make inroads into the ancient building.  Was he a Fifth Columnist and what was the reason that he was beginning to show his face in our fair town?  But there was no need to worry, as his mission was to amuse and educate us about trifles past and if the subject was serious, then make serious points but with the trace of a smile on his face.

I am of course, talking about our beloved Punch magazine which, like many things, is no longer with us having expired finally in 2002 aged 161 years.  For many years, Punch was the staple diet of the railway bookstand with many of the travellers purchasing their paper and a copy of Punch to read on their journey.

punch 12It was also obviously sold in many other outlets but this was my memory when I worked at main line termini during the 1970s.  It was always of interest to me why people purchased certain magazines. The radicals would buy Private Eye whereas for some reason, men in suits purchased Punch.  I suppose it was seen as too square for the young men with their bushy sideburns. But this was not always the case.

punch 10Punch or The London Charivari to give its other name, was founded in 1841 by a certain Henry Mayhew and his friend the engraver, Ebenezar Landells and at once helped to change our perception of the word cartoon which, in its modern meaning, supposes a humorous illustration away from the lesser known artistic meaning.

Rock on Leonardo, as Mr Punch might say.

punch 2The title was taken from the beloved glove puppet and became a favourite of the Victorians as it favoured sophisticated humour and was not grossly offensive like other magazines (this said, Punch did share Charles Kingsley’s view of our Irish neighbours which historically is to be regretted).

Some of the newspapers of the day, such as The Times and The News of the World (RIP), often stole items from Mr Punch to fill up their columns which further increased the popularity of the magazine.

punch 8It sat comfortably with The Times and The Westminster Review and because of this, its readership spread and spread.  To name but a few people such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edward Fitzgerald and Charlotte Bronte, read Punch as well as Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.  Across the pond, Americans such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville and the reclusive Emily Dickinson were also enthusiasts.

Did you know that Mr Punch gave the phrase “ Curates Egg” and “Crystal Palace”  to the English language and that classics such asThe Diary of a Nobody and 1066 and All That , were all serialised initially in Punch?  I did not know this fact until I embarked on my research.

By 1910 the circulation of the magazine had reached some 100,000 and peaked just after the war at 184,000 in 1948.  The magazine was especially popular in the colonies and India was quite often satirised in the magazine.  But as society changed then Mr Punch became less popular.  Britain no longer had her Empire and people’s tastes were changing.  A revolution was taking place but few were really aware of this.

punch 9By the freewheeling 1960s, I suppose that Mr Punch’s humour was seen as old hat, a humour enjoyed by the older generations.  There was the Oz magazine and Private Eye to name but two which were much sharper in their humour and satire and often crossed the line and were sued or worse.

Mr Punch lingered on for a number of years but in 1992, suffered a serious illness was hospitalised and suspended for four years until an Egyptian businessman named Mohamed Al-Fayed raised the magazine again in 1996.  However, Punch appeared to have been raised as a weapon in his conflict with Private Eye which was often critical of him, which was sad as the magazine lost some of its bite.

The new incarnation did not last long and at the end of May 2002 it ceased publication again.  It was reported that there were only 6000 subscribers in 2002 and that over the six years of publication, it lost some £16 million pounds.  Whether this was true or not is open to question.

At the time of writing, Mr Punch is still at rest.

He may have been laid to rest in 2002, but I think in Highgate Cemetery, the old scoundrel is still alive and well and is witnessing the usual fun and games associated with this country of ours.  What he might make of political correctness would be fun to behold.  Someone has to understand it.

As I noted at the beginning of this piece, Mr Punch has been seen in Hungerford also.

Keep this quiet and do not spread the word.

If you look hard enough, then you will find him and not just in the book section up the stairs at the Arcade.  He is a crafty old sod and will make appearances where you least expect to see him.  Only today, I was walking past one of the stalls and there he was as bold as brass sitting on top of a chest full of model cars.  This copy of the magazine dated from the 1930s, but I suspect there were others.

punch 4Beware, Mr Punch sometimes wears his best coat and often appears behind stiff handsome covers which enclose a years’ worth of his magazines.  In other words, collecting copies of Punch magazine is not a hard task as they are quite easily available and do not cost that much.

punch 11Quite recently, I purchased a number of copies of Punch dating from the 1930s and they are a joy to read.  It is not just the cartoons and the silliness of the articles that was amusing, but the advertisements were just as funny (yes Mr Punch stooped that low).

One told me that if I smoked Craven A, my throat would be left alone but the ad did not mention the rough time my lungs were having.

Other ads told me that Ever Ready batteries were ever ready and never tired or that if I wanted to keep warm in the winter months that I could purchase aRobin Hood Boiler which was very suitable for the kitchen or the scullery.  My favourites were the full page ads which were often presented in the Art Deco style, although the one I am looking at as I am writing, shows a young lady in a Japanese gown looking at a lone crab on a beach.  The catchphrase is, “The Early One”   which I suppose I understand, but the ad is very cryptic and incidentally, was promoting the values of Wills Gold Flake.  I suppose Mr Punch was just having fun.  But seriously, every time you open a copy of Punch then you are really opening up a time capsule whether it be the articles or the cartoons or the advertisements.  Even the later editions are memorable.

I also possess a couple of the hard back collections of Punch dating back to the 1870s and they are fascinating to read. Issues such as Home Rule were discussed and satirised as well as the mechanics of empire.  The ads date from the period and are equally as fascinating as the ads were from the 1930s.  These magazines were as disposable then as magazines are today but thankfully, thousands survived and that is why they are so easy to find.  

I paid £1.00 for my 1930s copies which is a little on the cheap side, but you should be able to pick up inter-war copies of the magazine for about £3.00 or so. Like everything else it is where you shop.

The same applies to the hard back collections of the magazine. I have seen these collections on sale for as little as £3.00 and for as much as £20.00 but expect to pay around £7.00 to £8.00.  As I have noted these are often to be found in Hungerford, although at present (June 2015), I can only recollect seeing Mr Punch sitting on top of the toy cars although, only a few months later, he was everywhere.

No doubt he is now hiding deep in the recesses of the Arcade just to prove me wrong.

Remember when you buy a vintage copy of Punch magazine then you are preserving it for future generations to read and enjoy.  I have a feeling that we will see Mr Punch again, but when he returns is up to him.

I feel that satire wise, we have lost the innocence that Mr Punch presented and this is fast becoming a lost art.  Private Eye is a fun magazine to read and I am often highly amused by its contents and some of the cartoons are second to none (Action Man Deserter anyone?).  But I have always felt that Private Eye lacked the subtlety of Punch and was designed to hurt and not poke fun at its chosen subject.  Satire is in my view, is at its funniest when it is subtle and this is where Mr Punch wins hands down.

punch 13For the present then, let us preserve Mr Punch and ensure that he is around for many years to come.  He may be a cantankerous old bugger, but like your favourite uncle, he is always fun to be around.

Long live Mr Punch!


Stuart Miller-Osborne

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