“I read newspapers because of an intense desire to get in touch with the world. A day missed in reading gives one a sense of isolation . . .” Anonymous male informant to Mass Observation Project, 1938.
“I read a lot of magazines . . . They’re bright and easy reading, and you can find out lots in them.” Anonymous female informant to Mass Observation Project, 1944.
In his essay “The Uncommon Reader” George Steiner writes of paperbacks,”The paperback is physically ephemeral. To accumulate paperbacks is not to assemble a library.” Fortunately my father died before he could have had the opportunity to add Steiner’s pronouncement to the host of status-anxieties that already surrounded his book purchases and reading. Not only were the bookshelves in our house crammed with hundreds of Penguin paperbacks, but we were awash in a sea of much more ephemeral print in the form of daily, weekly and monthly subscriptions.
For a family of five relying on one teacher’s salary, it now seems to me that an astonishing flow of magazines and newspapers poured into our house. Over a couple of decades there were subscriptions to a considerable list of publications: The dailies–News Chronicle, the Daily Telegraph, local weekly newspapers, The Cornishman and The West Briton—then other weeklies: Radio Times, The Listener, John Bull, John O’London’s, Punch, Times Educational Supplement, Teacher’s World, Times Literary Supplement, Woman and Woman’s Own, and monthlies: Reader’s Digest, Books and Bookmen, Plays and Players, National Geographic, and The Artist. Add to this the weekly publications for children, the comics, Dandy and Beano, the more educationally-tilted Eagle
and its pallid imitation Girl. There were also short-lived subscriptions to the Children’s Newspaper, still marked in the 1950s by an Imperialist tone mingled with Christian zeal originating with its first editor, Arthur Mee, as well as the uninspiring Schoolfriend with its tepid tales of girls’ boarding schools. We read the monthly Collins Magazine, re-named post-Coronation, Young Elizabethan, with much more enthusiasm. Our household must have been a favorite with the local newsagent who made mid-morning deliveries of this substantial order of weeklies and monthlies along with the daily papers. Only the two Sunday papers, The Observer and The Sunday Times were bought separately from a barrow in the town’s centre. The shops, and even the railway station news-stand, remained firmly closed on Sundays, but I began, in my early teens, to make the early morning expedition to buy the Sunday papers—the thick stack of Sunday broadsheets below the main display of the tabloid News of the World and The People with their shrieking 3 inch headlines. If my father disapproved of this breach of Sabbath observance he never mentioned it, though he never bought the Sunday papers himself, and, thinking back, I don’t think he read them when they’d been brought into the house. It could hardly be said that there was any scarcity of print in the house needing to be supplemented by this flood of subscriptions. The tidal flow of all these periodicals poured into a house whose almost every room and hallway was walled with cliffs of print, only waist-high in some rooms, and towering precariously over our heads in others.
Each of these publications was destined for a specific audience in the household. The News Chronicle’s first reader was my grandmother, from whom it would pass to my mother, and then, by the time I was eight or nine, to me. The Telegraph belonged exclusively to my father, although he usually ignored both its news coverage and its editorials, devoting most of his attention to completing the crossword over his tea. John Bull
went first to my grandmother, and thence to others, depending on the current content. When C.S. Forester’s Hornblower stories, already a best-selling book series, were being serialized, the magazine went first to my brother, but usually it would be idly scanned by any of the rest of us, with the exception of my father. Looking back at its covers and contents lists now, I am surprised at how closely it mimicked The Saturday Evening Post in the U.S., both in its style of illustration and in ideological content. Like American magazines of the 1950s, John Bull covers promote a sentimentalized, highly gendered view of middle class life. Here’s father returning home to his aproned wife who’s stirring a pot on the stove while the two children peer into his briefcase in search of the treats it conceals. Here’s a younger version of the same father teaching his nervous wife to drive. Here’s yet another woman taking her driving test, exasperating the male examiner by using the rearview mirror to adjust her make-up. None of us found these depictions of women drivers at all offensive, since to us the woman driver was as rare a phenomenon as a hermit crab or a four-leafed clover. None of our female relatives or neighbours could drive, and the existence of a successful female rally driver in the person of Sheila Van Damm, described within the pages of John Bull, only served to underline a general sense that the woman driver was a freak of nature. The Van Damm family’s ownership of the Windmill Theatre, with its famous nude showgirl “statues,” doubly confirmed Methodist Cornwall’s view that the “Woman at the Wheel” as John Bull titled its feature, should be treated with the utmost suspicion. But John Bull, alongside its more predictable content of popular fiction like Paul Brickhill’s Reach for the Sky, could sometimes contain surprises. An April issue in 1956 published a short story, improbably touted as “heartwarming” by the young Doris Lessing.
Most of the weeklies and monthlies that came into the house mirrored the middlebrow literary tastes that dominated both our own bookshelves and the meagre offerings of the public library. Alan Bennett makes a similar observation in Untold Stories, “Godfrey Winn, Beverley Nichols, Phyllis Bentley and (even though he would have scorned such company) J.B. Priestley . . . impinged on our lives as more celebrated literary practitioners, Virginia Woolf say, or Evelyn Waugh never did.”
The mildly literary aspirations of John O’London’s Weekly, despite setting its sights on an audience of lower middle class autodidacts intent on self-improvement, rarely strayed into the territory of High Modernism. As far as my father was concerned the most significant contemporary writers were those whose names occurred most regularly in John O’London’s pages –– Rebecca West, Somerset Maugham and H.G. Wells and a handful of others. Galsworthy and Arnold Bennett were on his bookshelves, but nothing by Joyce, Lawrence or Woolf. This attachment to the Edwardian realists sprang in part from a belief in “character” as something stable and readily recognizable—the notion that Virginia Woolf so devastatingly derides in her essay “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown” that served so effectively to consign Arnold Bennett to the literary scrapheap as far as sophisticated readers were concerned for several decades to come. Woolf’s contempt for Bennett sprang from aesthetic differences, but was also driven by her disdain for the lower-middle class world from which Bennett came and which his characters inhabit. Bloomsbury’s scorn for Bennett and his lower-middle-class yearnings for self-improvement bursts forth in Clive Bell’s description of meeting Bennett in Paris,
“ . . .There we found him, sitting in his little gimcrack apartment, amidst his Empire upholstery from Waring and Gillow, with a concise French dictionary on the table . . . he was the boy from Staffordshire who was making good and in his bowler hat and reach-me-downs he looked the part.”
Small wonder that Bloomsbury’s versions of modernism never appeared on my father’s bookshelves, given that class-based derision was such a spontaneous Bloomsbury reflex and that even his literary heroes were so clearly fingered as beneath its social orbit.
In many respects my father’s reading pattern matches the emerging category of lower-middle-class readers in industrial towns that Arnold Bennett himself had earlier identified in his essay “The Potential Public”—readers known to their neighbours as “great readers” and who yearn for a more ample supply of books than the scanty choice offered in provincial book and stationery shops. John O’London’s catered directly to that yearning, offering its readers, like Bennett’s emerging “Potential Public,” a glimpse of “a contemporary hierarchy of writers.” Predictably, John O’London’s itself was derided by critics like Q. D. Leavis
who placed it in the lowest class of literary journals where it satisfied “a demand for literary gossip and information about the readableness of books.” While literary gossip would have held little interest for my father, recommendations of “readableness,” untinged by Leavis’s note of scorn for that quality, may have served to help him map out his reading plans. He had, I think, subscribed to the magazine from very nearly its earliest days at the end of the First World War and continued the attachment till it ceased publication in 1954. He was equally devoted to its brief re-incarnation under the editorship of Ernest Kay from 1959 to 1962. Part of John O’London’s continuing appeal probably lay in its regular columns offering prescriptive rules of grammar and usage, evidently sufficiently popular with its audience to spawn various John O’London’s “little books” with such titles as “Is It Good English and Like Matters.”
Both my parents, as well as my grandmother, had an almost infinite appetite for “correctness” in grammar and placed a high value on a wide vocabulary. Even the Reader’s Digest, with its short articles and condensed books scientifically pruned to be accessible to readers with little more than functional literacy, justified its presence in the house with its features “It Pays to Increase Your Word Power” and “Towards More Picturesque Speech.” The “Word Power” feature, contributed by Wilfred J. Funk, president of Funk and Wagnalls publishing, took the form of a twenty item quiz whose readers were asked to choose the “nearest in meaning” of a choice of four synonyms. Looking at those columns now, the choice of supposedly vocabulary-enlarging words seems more like a selection aimed at students learning English as a second language.
Many of the columns consist entirely of fairly common words well within the grasp of anyone with a secondary school education. Puzzlingly, Funk offers a pronunciation guide for each word, but no indication of what part of speech it might be—making many items slightly confusing for the reader who’s familiar with the widely differing meanings of a word depending on its part of speech. The “answers” on the following page offer unequivocal explanations of the derivation of each word and a brief usage sample, but no hint of potential shifts in meaning arising from context. True to the family ideology of self-improvement, my grandmother was a keen devotee of the “word power” feature. She would relay its contents to me while I was still barely able to read, and was inclined to subject me to impromptu tests on some of Funk’s selections. No wonder then that she proudly repeated to anyone who would listen that I had once asked her, “Granny, which is worse, a calamity or a catastrophe?” This, probably apocryphal, evidence of linguistic precocity was trotted out for years, to my ever-increasing embarrassment. Reader’s Digest’s vocabulary enlargement offerings were too rudimentary to satisfy my father who accumulated numerous books of popular philology. Ivor Brown’s numerous works on these lines beginning with Mind Your Language (1939) and A Word in Your Ear (1942) were read and re-read.
Like the other literary journalists that my father chose as guides, Brown was dismissive of modernism, confidently dismissing The Waste Land as “balderdash.” Brown is no less judgmental about words themselves. Brown’s musings on selected words are full of pronouncements like, “An ugly word, but expressive,” or “a nice, frank word.” For a timid man like my father, such confident designations must have seemed reassuring.
Some of this intense focus on vocabulary and inordinate pride in signs of verbal mastery sprang from the extreme status anxiety that accompanied the social shifts of the post-war years. The “sniffer dogs of class distinction” as Richard Hoggart called them were out in force, hounding children as avidly as their elders. At eleven I discovered that Reader’s Digest had its uses in the increasingly complicated verbal battlefields. My first term at my new elite school was not going well. English, my one good subject, was rendered as dull and difficult as Latin in the hands of my new form teacher, Miss Matchett [not her real name]. When not parsing sentences according to a set of rules that seemed arbitrary and incomprehensible, we were ploughing through “set books” with an overwhelming sense of coping with a tedious chore. On top of this, my essays came back with C grades Children have a discerning canniness in assessing the adults who have power over their lives even though they may not be able to articulate what they have observed. I somehow guessed that this new teacher had specific notions about the way children were supposed to write that my essays were failing to meet. The Reader’s Digest’s “Towards More Picturesque Speech” provided an easy remedy. My next essay was liberally sprinkled with about half a dozen phrases lifted from that section of the Digest. I remember adding the sickeningly jarring description of oil spills in water puddles as “little dead rainbows” and the strange sense of mental nausea that it induced. I had never heard of plagiarism and, in any case, felt no shame at copying these contemptible little similes, only a sense of disgust at their contrived falsity. A sense of disgust that increased when the essay came back with an A and which was combined with contempt as I began to consider how tone deaf she must be not to detect the jarring tone of these “picturesque” insertions. I might have become a serial plagiarist, sickening myself every week by copying one heavily contrived simile after another into my essays, but I was soon able to heartlessly rejoice when a death in the family sent Miss Matchett back to her family home to take care of her aged father. I quietly celebrated the arrival of Mrs Lieberschutz whose evaluation system called for no such subterfuge and who even seemed to take some pleasure from the books on the curriculum.
It was my grandmother who had initiated the subscription to the Reader’s Digest in the early 1950s. Although it was published as a “British” edition, its content was essentially American –something that my grandmother, who bore a good deal of rancour about the terms of the lend-lease agreement that had provided Britain with essential goods during the war, evidently decided to ignore. Reader’s Digest was the most pointedly ideological of all the cultural products that were beginning to Americanize British working and lower middle class popular culture in the post-war period. Despite the editorial changes intended to produce a distinct “British” edition, the Digest bore unmistakeable American traits. The “Humor in Uniform” section, for example, was based on a conception of the military as a specialized caste– a notion alien to a post-war Britain whose lore dwelt on the civilian experience of bombing and negotiation of war time shortages of household needs. Cultural historians like Laurence Cremin have observed that the Digest’s publisher “reiterated time and again that the foreign editions . . . were instruments for exporting the American values of free enterprise, self-reliance and democracy.” Probably my grandmother chose to ignore much of the relentless promotion of “American values” because the Digest’s large print made it one of the few publications she could read with ease despite her poor sight and the way its many bite-sized selections could be absorbed between naps.
I was, I think, somewhat ambivalent about the Reader’s Digest from the beginning. On the one hand, there was an alluring mild salaciousness about some of its articles, the account, for example of the last days of a woman prisoner sentenced to death for murder. But to a child, oblivious to the tilt of Cold War politics, the narrative stance of many articles inspired a kind of queasy puzzlement. I couldn’t fathom why the profile of a woman judge in East Germany depicted her as having such a troubled conscience that she needed to dose herself with brandy in order to sleep. And the supposedly comic story of a journalist’s revenge on his irritating Soviet diplomat neighbour by repeatedly characterizing him in press reports as “pro-Western” seemed mean-spirited somehow, although for reasons I was incapable of identifying. Similarly, the collection of bland domestic anecdotes under the heading “Life’s Like That” seemed a depressing harbinger of what adult life might have in store.
The Digest was also given to dire warnings about phenomena that had never actually entered our lives. It carried numerous articles more or less derived from Frederic Wertham’s best-selling Seduction of the Innocent (1954). Wertham drew a direct line from the influence of comic books to a supposed increase in juvenile crime.
The Wertham-influenced articles in Reader’s Digest didn’t even spare the Classics Illustrated comic books which we bought from time to time at the railway station news-stand. The comic-book version of Macbeth was singled out as particularly reprehensible. The article singled out a frame showing Lady Macbeth urging, “Smear the sleeping servants with BLOOD!” as the epitome of the violence and gore deemed so injurious to the child reader. By the time I read Reader’s Digest’s denunciation I had already been required to read Macbeth at school and I remember puzzling at length over this choice as an example of comic-book depravity. Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth’s, “If he do bleed,/ I’ll gild the faces of the grooms withal” seemed vastly more terrifying, especially with the speculative “If” conjuring up the all-too-vivid picture of the corpse continuing to bleed.
The comics that came into the house by regular subscription had such a palpable “educational” intent that they were clearly in a separate category from the “horror comics” targeted by Wertham. The Eagle to which my brother subscribed from his own pocket money—fourpence halfpenny every Thursday—had been founded by an Anglican clergyman, Marcus Morris, who, like Arthur Mee before him, was keen to incorporate a Christian message. We read it with minute attention, but did not, I think, become aware of any palpable intent on our spiritual lives. Instead, we tended to take it as a source of random fragments of information, sometimes subjecting these to our own bizarre interpretations. A segment of the “PC 49” serial showed the hero encountering an opium dealer, the drug itself being identified by the intrepid bobby by its brown, sticky character. What else then could the brown sticky lump I discovered beneath my primary school desk be but opium? Toffee apparently. The Eagle made its own contribution to the vocabulary-enlargement project with its centre-page “Their names made words” feature using half-a-dozen frames and accompanying text to elucidate the historical source of various surname-based eponyms. Some of the choices for this feature—pasteurization, boycott—might have been selected with a view to practical vocabulary development but others, like “banting” as a synonym for weight-loss dieting, had long passed into archaism and must have been chosen solely for their pictorial potential.
The many magazines that flowed into the house offered vistas of worlds we could not expect to experience. For years the National Geographic arrived every month as a gift from a benefactor we’d never met: a Miss Emerson in Massachusetts who had sent our family food parcels in the years immediately after the war. After a while Miss Emerson began supplementing the sugar and chocolates and other still-rationed treats with reading material. One Christmas brought a leather-bound volume of Whittier’s Poems and in the late 1940s she bought us a subscription to the National Geographic. Unlike most other periodicals, it invited its own peculiarly meditative form of reading, particularly for children. Elizabeth Bishop’s poem,
“In the Waiting Room” finds the seven-year old Elizabeth, “ . . . eyes glued to the cover/ of the National Geographic,/ February, 1918” with ”the sensation of falling off/the round, turning world/into cold, blue-black space” and the realization that “you are an I,/ you are an Elizabeth,/ you are one of them.” The poem opens with itemizing the photographs “carefully/studied” by the seven year old while she waits for her aunt in the dentist’s office—the volcano, the explorers in pith helmets and riding breeches, the “black, naked women with necks/wound round and round with wire/ like the necks of light bulbs” and their “horrifying” breasts. *Half a century later when Bishop wrote the poem about her seven year old self she looked for the relevant issue of the National Geographic in the New York Public Library and found that she had “remembered it perfectly” although she found that she had amalgamated that issue with another from the same period.
As essentially ideologically committed as the Reader’s Digest, the National Geographic exerted its influence mostly through its photographs. A study of the magazine and its readers reveals that the only text absorbed by the majority of readers is the captioning of photographs. “ I could read” declares Bishop in “In the Waiting Room,” but for the seven year old Elizabeth, as for so many of its readers, the hypnotic power of the Geographic lies in its compelling photographs, black nakedness juxtaposed with the white “adventurers” “dressed in riding breeches/laced boots, and pith helmets.”
In the post-war austerities of 1950s Britain the most compelling images were the pictures of gastronomical plenty which seemed quite taken for granted by the magazine’s American editors. I stared for hours at an advertisement for a refrigerator showing two children admiring its contents. The shelves brimmed with a cornucopia of ham, chicken, cheeses, and brightly coloured fruit. Even the vast refrigerators depicted in the ads were, apparently, unable to accommodate the enormous quantities of food consumed by American families. A 1951 General Electric ad lauds its latest NHX-10 model for providing “25% to 50% more food space,” underlining its message with a separate picture in which the fridge’s entire contents is displayed with the caption, “It’s true. All this food—and more—can be placed in the G-E Refrigerator shown below!” For a British audience that had already endured nine years of stringent food rationing that would continue for a further three the people depicted in these ads seemed to inhabit a parallel universe of infinite plenty and pleasure. *In fact, the advertisements, even those not depicting food, had more power to transfix than the main contents. “Their footsteps shook the ground . . .” was an insurance’s company’s caption for an illustration of a moccasined man in a raccoon cap carrying his gun across mossy ground described in the accompanying text as a “muskeg swamp.” The bright green moss in the picture made the moss in our local woods seem dull and lifeless and, far from representing threat, the very word “muskeg” was exotic and alluring.
Re-reading the National Geographic issues from the 1950s, I find that the advertisements are infinitely more familiar to me than any of the articles—an indication of the dreamy meditative state in which I’d originally perused them. The power they exerted over the six or seven year old mind seems mysterious now. What could have been so infinitely fascinating about the Dictaphone, a machine whose function I must have been hazy about? Yet seeing its picture in a full page ad half a century later inspires a sensation something like the retrieval of some long lost object.
Looking at the array of advertisements now, I suspect that others in the family were similarly seduced. Why else would my father have been so insistent that his fountain pen should be a Parker 51, tagged in the Geographic’s ad as “the world’s most wanted pen”? Similarly, my mother might well have been captivated by the recurrent ads for caffeine-free hot drinks like Sanka and Instant Postum. One ad campaign shows a caged and raging father with caption “Does coffee bring out the beast in you?” and offers the final frame of the same father placidly reading a bedtime story to his previously-terrified son. Instant Postum was just one of the long sequence of milky nighttime drinks with which she plied my father, presumably hoping to avoid the daily crescendo of breakfast-time irritation which routinely ended with the slamming of the front-door as he left for work.
What strikes me now is that neither the advertisements nor the articles seem to have provoked any fantasies of actually traveling to any of the places photographed or described. I, and I suspect others in the family, read it more or less as fiction. And no wonder, because, when it included the occasional article about “England,” it was entirely unrecognizable to us. Apparently a land of half-timbered houses, sunshine and Grenadier guards, it bore no relation to what we saw around us. For example, Isobel Wylie Hutchinson’s article in the August 1950 issue entitled “A Stroll to London” focuses on literary and historical landmarks, cozy cottages, welcoming pubs, and folk dancing, with no mention of the bombed-out buildings that still stood out in nearly every town and city. While we were dimly aware that travel “abroad” carried significant social prestige it seemed not to come within the range of life’s possibilities. The family’s travel experience by the mid 1950s:
My grandmother had been to Plymouth (sixty miles away) once.
My mother had been to college in Exeter (ninety miles away) and gone to London three or four times.
My father had been to college in London and, oddly, on a trip to Germany with two of his brothers in 1931.
Some publications originating much closer to home seemed quite as exotic as the National Geographic. Punch with its world of dinner parties, prep schools, pony clubs, and holidays abroad seemed so remote that the social situations on which its cartoons turned was more often than not incomprehensible.
I only once heard my father laugh aloud while reading Punch. I ran from another room to see what cartoon might have produced this rare event and found him sputtering over an advertisement: “There’s a pair of shoes here, costs eleven guineas!” then, to us, an enormous sum. I read Punch in much the same transfixed meditative way that I absorbed the advertisments and photographs of the National Geographic. Some of the cartoons seem to have become permanently fixed in my memory as a result of having gazed at them for long periods attempting to decipher the point of the joke. Looking over the bound volumes in a library, I found that I had remembered the exact wording of the caption of a cartoon showing two judges leaving the Old Bailey—“I nicked my kisser with my slasher whilst shaving this morning.” It would be years before I grasped the juxtaposition of low-life slang and the pedantic “whilst,” but apparently I committed the caption to memory as a puzzle awaiting eventual solution. The full-page political cartoons were even harder to unravel. Not only were the political events to which they referred incomprehensible to me, but a favorite device was to take a well-known Victorian painting and substitute contemporary figures. When Aneurin Bevan split with the Labour Party over its support for British nuclear weapons, Punch used Anna Lea Merritt’s 1889 painting, “Love Locked Out,” substituting the plump-buttocked Bevan for Merritt’s original boyish Cupid. This was one of a series of parodies under the title “Masterpieces of Victorian Art Reformed.” These were particularly puzzling to me since many of the paintings were well-known to me from my father’s three-volume The World’s Greatest Paintings. It was unclear to me whether it was the paintings themselves, objects of veneration to our family, that were the butt of the joke or if the point lay somewhere else. Of course, the cartoonists were simply relying on what they felt they could assume was a shared frame of reference with their readers. This included, not only the Victorian paintings I’d been taught to revere, but any image likely to be familiar to the Punch audience. Holbein’s “The Ambassadors,” permanently on display in the National Gallery since its costly acquisition in 1890, was pastiched in April 1956 with the faces of Soviet visitors Kruschev and Bulganin substituted for the originals. Punch could also be self-referential, relying on its readers’ familiarity with its best-known Victorian cartoons. Similarly Anthony Eden and Dwight Eisenhower are substituted for the tongue-tied courting couple of the 1888 cartoon with the famous dialogue caption, “’Darling.’ ‘Yes, Darling?’ ‘Nothing Darling. Only Darling.”The cartoonist was evidently sufficiently confident of the readers’ ability to bring the original to mind that he’s omitted the “Billious old gentleman” made to feel “quite sick” who appeared in the original, allowing the reader to supply the implied commentary.
Confusingly too, Punch made fun of other publications we subscribed to, most notably in its 1956 four page spoof of Reader’s Digest as the “Redigested Digest.” Throughout the mid-fifties Punch cartoons frequently targeted the ways in which Britons, particularly the working and lower-middle class, were being “Americanized.” The Punch satirical version of the Reader’s Digest features a look-alike cover with titles not too far removed from those featured in the Digest itself: “Relax and enjoy your metabolism,” “My dog taught me to pray.” Tellingly, a main target is the Digest’s distance from high culture with the spoof contents page including “Goof up on Giotto by B. Berenson,” and two-page “condensed book,” “War and Peace by Count L. Tolstoy.”
Looking through volumes of mid 1950s Punch now, the crude right-wing tilt of the political cartoons is quite startling. A parody of Ford Maddox Brown’s “Last of England” painting depicting a mournful emigrant couple is re-titled “First of England” with an inanely grinning Caribbean couple, their baggage labeled “Trinidad –Southampton.”
Immigrants are invariably figures of fun in other Punch cartoons of the period as are trades unions, workers generally, and any political protesters, most notably the CND.
Impossible to say now how my father responded to the magazine’s ideology. He may have found its reactionary attitudes somewhat reassuring in some respects. Cartoon after cartoon during this time proclaims the absurdity of abstract art, depicted generally as a scam and an invitation to pretentious fraud on the part of those who claim to appreciate it. Punch wasn’t alone in its stance of proudly-proclaimed bluff incomprehension in relation to Modernism.
When the Tate Gallery mounted its first major Picasso exhibition in 1960, the curators organized a huge publicity campaign to counteract the smug mockery of his work that had been maintained throughout the inter-war years. One of my father’s literary heroes, G.K. Chesterton had complacently dismissed the “piece of paper on which Mr Picasso has had the misfortune to upset the ink and tried to dry it with his boots” in 1912, but similar views continued to be widely voiced for another three or four decades, most famously in the farewell speech of Royal Academy President Alfred Munnings in 1949. Munnings’ speech, notably marked by a post-banquet slurring of words, and delivered to a gathering of establishment worthies including the Archbishop of Canterbury and Winston Churchill, was broadcast by the BBC and set off another round of cartoons in Punch and elsewhere. Despite the bluff blimpishness that characterized most of Punch’s content, there was also a darker undercurrent. Cecil Bird, who cartooned under the name “Fougasse,” had chosen his nom de plume after the World War One mines of that name—itself an ironic naming after the herbed flat bread usually baked in ashes. Invalided out of the First World War, he became the best-known artist of those employed to produce government propaganda during the Second, the most famous being his “Careless Talk Costs Lives” series of posters.
One of Punch’s most prolific contributors during the 1950s, Ronald Searle, had honed his cartooning skills in the unimaginable horror of a Japanese prisoner of war camp where he had hidden his drawings documenting camp conditions under the mattresses of men dying of cholera. Although Searle is still best known for his St. Trinians cartoons, many of which appeared in Punch, he said of his POW experience that it was to serve as “my measuring stick for the rest of my life.” Searle’s Punch cartoons often have a slyly anarchic subtext which ripples through the cozy complacencies of much of the magazine’s content. His full page cartoon, “Consequences of putting Mr. Graham Sutherland’s latest portrait on public exhibition” arising from the public controversy about Graham Sutherland’s unflattering portrait of Winston Churchill depicts fainting dowagers being bodily carried off by art gallery guards amid a scene of unbridled chaos.
Even though Punch had elicited only a single laugh from my father during the years he subscribed to it, we must have recognized it as a publication he particularly liked. My brother and I combined our pocket money to buy him the weighty 1956 compendium of cartoons, A Century of Punch, a volume he shelved with other favoured big books in the front room bookcase with sliding glass doors.