Caustic magazine part of PMB schoolboy's education

2008-10-06 00:00

The late lamented journal Punch, or the London Charivari (born 1841, died 1992, with an unsuccessful resurrection under the ownership of Mohamed Al-Fayed from 1996 to 2002) has been part of my life since I was a boy.

In a Natal midlands farmhouse where I spent many holidays, I whiled away rainy, misty days in the large, old sitting room, building scale models of houses with Minibrix (a British forerunner of Lego), playing Monopoly (a game I’ve avoided ever since) and trawling through my uncle’s and aunt’s varied collection of books. Favourites among them were selections from Punch, bound in black and green. The articles and cartoons in each book were all on a particular theme — Mr Punch on the golf links, Mr Punch motoring, Mr Punch at war, and so on. I never read any of the articles, but the cartoons captured my attention, and I think they helped more than anything else to shape whatever sense of humour I may have.

My father borrowed two books and one magazine every week from the Natal Society Library, then situated in its quite new building on the corner of Longmarket Street and Theatre Lane. His favourite magazines were probably Punch and its transatlantic opposite number The New Yorker. I remember those two most clearly, and also the mild feeling of disappointment when he came home with Life, The Saturday Evening Post, National Geographic or The Illustrated London News. Not that my sister and I didn’t pore over those too, but for me Punch was always the first prize, with The New Yorker a close second. I appreciated someone’s joke that “The Americans see no life in Punch, and the British no punch in Life”, but I was soon to see The New Yorker as proof of an American humour just as sophisticated and subtle as that of the United Kingdom.

Some old schoolmaster at Maritzburg College must have once decided that the school should subscribe to Punch, and for that he has my gratitude, whoever he was. Once a week at short break I would finish my doughnut and bottle of Meldrum’s English Pop in double-quick time, then sprint to the reading room to look at the latest Punch before the bell went. Cartoons by Illingworth, Shepard, Sillince, Anton, G. L. Stampa, William Scully, David Langdon, Fougasse, Ionicus, Bernard Hollowood, Frank Reynolds, Norman Mansbridge, George Morrow and Bernard Partridge were my staple diet, each artist with his own instantly recognisable style. Occasionally, now, I would read the snippets that made up the Charivari section at the front of each issue, and even come back after school to read an article that had taken my fancy. All the time I was unconsciously imbibing the best of quirky, self-mocking British humour. And each week the political cartoon, occupying a full page, was a reminder of graver matters — the painful post-war recovery of Britain and Europe, continuing food and fuel shortages, international tensions and the beginning of the Cold War, and the rapid change of Empire into Commonwealth.

In 1956 I was given A Century of Punch, a marvellous 350-page collection of the best and most typical humorous drawings from the magazine over the years. The wear and tear of 50 years shows what a well-loved and much-revisited book it is.

Recently I was lent some bound volumes of Punch for the years 1939 to 1941 — some of Britain’s darkest days in World War 2. The issues became thinner as paper shortages began to bite. The political cartoons depicted the Axis powers and their leading figures (especially Hitler, Goering and Goebbels) either as treacherous and inhuman, or as ridiculous and pathetic. The humorous verse, articles and cartoons must have contributed enormously to keeping morale high when things were at their worst.

There were air raids and shelters, the threat of invasion, food rationing, transport problems, gas masks for everyone, the separation of loved ones, but they all provided grist to the cartoonists’ mill.

Punch is no more, but British cartooning continues to flourish. Fortunately, 150 years of Punch are preserved in many reference libraries.

This year the British Cartoon Museum had an exhibition devoted to the Punch cartoonist Pont (Graham Laidler) who died in 1940 at the early age of 32. His series of more than 50 cartoons illustrating “The British Character” appeared in Punch in the 1930s, and illustrates the tendency of the island race not to take itself too seriously — surely one of its attractive characteristics.

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