There’s another clear winner in the UK general election. That, of course, is Private Eye, a weekly compilation of gossip, scurrilous insinuations and hard news, cartoons and photos which has been published out of London since 1961.
The Eye’s spirit--though certainly not its purposefully amateurish, do-it-yourself look--fed into Spy, and in its melt of hard fact and fantasy it was a precursor to the Internet. No wonder the Private Eye lunch on alternate Wednesdays is a hot ticket.
The lunch is also unashamedly an information-gathering system. In this it differed from their possible model, the famous lunches given by the venerable, now-defunct humor mag, Punch.
I only once went to a Punch lunch; other guests included Robert Maxwell, the Czech-born former Member of Parliament and media magnate, and the cartoonist Charles Addams.
The conversation was polished and polite. Maxwell had been regularly featured in Private Eye. Indeed, he and Sir James Goldsmith, for whom Eye-speak was “Goldenballs,” were amongst the mag’s most determined enemies and one of Maxwell’s last libel writs against the Eye was for a piece suggesting that he had looted the pension funds of one of his properties, the Mirror Group.
Maxwell died in 1991 after falling off his yacht near the Canary Islands, and the Eye was swiftly proved right.
I too was occasionally in the Eye as a target, but just for random follies, and I was sometimes at the lunch. And the lunches were … well, what? That way over-quoted line about the 60s, that if you remembered them you weren’t there, certainly holds for those wine-drenched affairs.
They were in a room above the Coach and Horses, a pub in Greek Street, Soho, across the street from the Eye offices. Richard Ingrams, the watchfully urbane editor, a somewhat anarchic Tory, was always there. So often would be Paul Foot, who wrote the hardcore investigative stories, was an International Socialist and the fast bowler on the Eye’s cricket team.
The inner core at the Eye was more dependent on long friendships and shared perceptions about the humbug of the establishment than about the finer points of doctrinal detail.
Peter Cook, who came up with the notion of the cartoon speech-bubble on the cover, and owned the Eye, was not at any lunch I was at, as I recall, but other almost inevitable presences would be Nigel Dempster, Fleet Street’s quicksilver gossip columnist, usually referred to in Eye-Speak as “The Greatest Living Englishman."
Dempster was an occasional confidante of the Princesses Margaret and Diana, who worked under his own name for the Daily Mail and was the co-author with Peter McKay of the Eye’s tremor-inducing gossip column, 'Grovel.'
Indeed, I remember Clay Felker importing Dempster to Manhattan to work his magic for a couple of weeks at New York magazine--which Dempster did in free-wheeling London fashion--and Felker later grumping about an extra column-length of necessary retractions.
There would be journalists at Eye lunches, usually eager to pass on otherwise unpublishable stories--especially those about the press lords who employed them--and it was a revolving cast of London’s most well-informed and looser-lipped characters.
Thus, it was famously a cartoon that tipped off the ill-fated osteopath and artist Stephen Ward that the Eye was privy to the Christine Keeler affair, which he played a key part in.
Ward quickly got in touch and became their inside source so the Eye had the inside scoop on the biggest political scandal in Post-War Britain. The Defense Minister, John Profumo, went down in flames and the Eye’s circulation vaulted.
Despite the tippling, the egos and the thin skins of the hacks, I remember no screaming altercations at the lunches, certainly no fisticuffs. Tom Wolfe once remarked to me he doubted whether anybody ever got seriously hurt in a writer’s fight.
Prickly encounters did occur though, as when Alan Yentob, a longtime BBC senior executive, said he had heard that such and such--a new talent--was a "bit of a shit," only to find that he was sitting next to him.
But the most serious upheaval came long after I had left for Manhattan. It was at a lunch in 1986 that Richard Ingrams let it be known that he was resigning his editorship and had given the job to an untried 26-year-old, Ian Hislop.
The fury of the old guard was intense. Dempster and McKay departed, and not silently, believe me. 'Grovel' was no more, and the social world was more or less abandoned to the growing gossip press and the trolls on the Internet.
But the Eye has, to a certain extent, always been defined by what it doesn’t do. Although a child of the 60s it has usually been snootily above pop and rock, aside from occasional references to a fictitious group, Spiggy Topes and the Turds, and, despite the on and off presence of Paul Foot, the radical politics of the time were treated like antics in a playground.
Also it has tended to be pretty good on goings-on in the literary world but, apart from a strip on the no-longer-so Young British Artists, the art world has been pretty much beyond its ken. Or reach.
Gaps, I think. The Eye, which now focuses on politics and on business, with the emphasis on malfeasance in both. is doing better and better. Its readership is way above half a million. In the UK, that’s gold.
And the lunches? Well, London also suffers the developmental horrors that afflict New York, so the Coach and Horses is no more and its former space is now occupied by a tourist pub, part of a chain. But the Private Eye lunches continue, now in the House of Saint Barnabas, further up Greek Street.