The Sun Sets on a Newly-Punchless World


They say amputees feel pain where their limbs used to be. Readers of periodicals that fold after many years see news breaking and wonder what their magazine would have said about it.

The last few readers of Punch must be getting that feeling as they watch, just to name two issues, the Danes throwing a monkey wrench into the European Community and the royal family turning into "Married . . . With Children." I joined that dwindling band 27 years ago in high school and stayed with it until Punch's owners decided this spring that there was no point in going on. I haven't yet quite assimilated the change.

The owners made a touching, and quite un-American, little gesture to close the relationship: sending checks "as promised" for the unexpired parts of readers' subscriptions. Mine came to just under seven and a half pounds, and I haven't cashed it yet. I don't plan to keep it as a souvenir; it's just that cashing it isn't that easy, and for reasons that say a lot about the loss of the Britain that Punch stood for to Anglophiles like me.

When I called my bank to ask about cashing the check, it sent me from pillar to post and finally told me I'd have to call the branch before I could cash a foreign check. Time was when if any bank clerk anywhere had dared to say that about the standard of the world's currency, I -- or any other customer -- could have thundered in my best C. Aubrey Smith-as-Colonel-Blimp voice, "Foreign? Foreign? Gad, sir, this is sterling you're talking about!" And time was, too, when Punch had hundreds of thousands of subscribers instead of the 30-odd thousand of us who stuck it out to the end.

Why do the British fascinate so many of us? Why do we wear their clothing, watch their television shows, read their periodicals? (Punch is gone, but The Economist and The Financial Times thrive here, and The Economist exerts a family influence on The New Republic; and Tina Brown, of course, has taken the editing skills she honed in Britain from Vanity Fair to The New Yorker.) James Fallows has called it "the Great British Con," but what makes the con, if that's what it is, work?

It probably starts in school, when we get the likes of Dickens, Thackeray, Tennyson and Scott, something that seems vivid and exotic, yet comes in just close enough to our own language to be understood. It's probably about that time we notice the pageantry of British public life, from the royal family on down. From there, some of us find reasons to turn curiosity into an interest, and then an obsession, even if outsiders think we're being fooled.

Behind the charms of elementary- and junior-high-school texts, we discover a uniquely wide and deep literary culture, with a common set of references that allow even non-"highbrow" writers, as George Orwell observed of P. G. Wodehouse, a far greater range of style and reference than was available here in Wodehouse's day, let alone now. Behind the feudal pomp and circumstance, we discover the politics that had produced Churchill when he was needed most; a social structure whose complexities fascinate us as, on a higher level, they fascinated Henry James; and far more reverence for law and decency than was usual in the history of great powers.

That last point may seem like damning with faint praise to the uncounted people around the world who devoted, and sometimes sacrificed, their lives to getting the British out of their countries, but there's also the view of the Indo-Malaysian lawyer who told V. S. Naipaul in "Among the Believers:" "I've been jailed by the British, the Singaporeans and the Malaysians. The only people who jailed me in such a way that it was possible to be friendly with them afterwards were the British."

That was the way we saw Britain from 3,000 miles away, and from a distance in time that could be as great as the one in space. What we didn't always notice, or take seriously, was what the combination of a towering reputation and political and economic decline meant to people who had to live with it, and how Punch reminded them of the order they obviously found harder and harder to bear.

When the pound was the pound and the sun never set on the Empire, Punch stood for the kind of humor summed up by the phrase "funny but not vulgar." That implied something very different for Punch's critics than it did for its readers. Max Beerbohm wrote when Punch was about 50, a hundred years ago: "Satire should be irresponsible, tilting at the strong and established as well as at the momentary follies of the day. When Punch was young, he had the courage of his own levity. But Punch is old now, pompous and respectable, exemplary in all relations of life. . . . He grins and squeaks and bludgeons only in the cause of law and order, and is most polite to the hangman. He has become a national institution."

Orwell, who used Punch again and again as an example of the philistinism of British popular culture, wrote during World War II: "It would seem that you cannot be funny without being vulgar -- that is, vulgar by the standards of the people at whom English humorous writing in our own day seems mostly to be aimed. . . . Punch, for at least forty years past, has given the impression of trying not so much to amuse as to reassure. Its implied message is that all is for the best and nothing will ever really change.

"It was by no means with that creed that it started out."

For most of Punch's history, its readers shrugged off such criticism as part, in a sense, of being British. But when middle-class British gentility collapsed, Punch's reputation became a liability instead of an asset.

The last stand of old-fashioned British humor was probably made by the late Michael Flanders, who kidded both his own act, with Donald Swann, and the pretensions of the sharper-edged humor that was growing popular in the Sixties in one stroke:

"Satire's task is to strip away the veil of cozy half-truths and comforting illusions --

"And our job, as I see it, is to put it back again."

Even before I began reading it, Punch's editors had begun to try to change its image, but they could never get enough of the big British public to notice. You didn't have to know the circulation figures to see the small ads for matrimonial agencies and vanity publishers grow more conspicuous as the big ads disappeared.

Punch's promotions reflected its struggles, too. For a while, it offered Filofaxes for new renewed subscriptions. (I got one two years running.) It didn't work, for one of two unrelated possible reasons. One could be that, as some people believe, yuppies don't read anything or to their careers. Another, perhaps more likely, could be that the younger generation, reared on Private Eye and Monty Python, wouldn't spend the time or money (an overseas subscription to Punch was around $100 a year at the end) for a publication they identified with -- as the coverage of Punch's demise kept repeating -- their dentists' waiting rooms.

Politically, Punch went from democratic-socialist when I first noticed it, to quasi-Thatcherite-republican. The changes in style and content came even faster, and in the last years they seemed positively frantic. (Editor David Thomas, who stopped running reviews of music other than rock and roll, defended his editorial policies with a piece of McLuhanacy arguing that his thirtysomething generation, reared on television, processed information differently from its elders and needed a magazine that would dethrone the word to cater to it. There was a sour satisfaction in seeing that it didn't help.)

Anglophilia, like the British monarchy until very lately, has survived by changing with the times. It's significant that PBS, the network of "Masterpiece Theatre" -- few of whose shows display any interest in anything since the Suez crisis -- is troubled by, among other things, an aging audience, and that Alistair Cooke, the series' host and incarnation, is retiring.

Tina Brown, by all evidence, is one Britisher who knows how to keep up with the times, and even ahead of them -- a respectable skill in an editor. Her bosses at The New Yorker presumably brought her in because they know that no publication can survive too long trading on a combination of its own reputation and its country's.

Ms. Brown wrote for Punch occasionally when I was new to it, so when it died she may have felt either a twinge of nostalgia or a feeling of having been warned. Perhaps she's been too busy keeping a step ahead of the trends at Vanity Fair to notice what happened to Punch. But if she forgets, I can show her that uncashed check.

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