Looking back at my previous New Statesman diaries, I was struck by how much of the column was filled by accounts of what I had done and where I had been. This year, like everyone else, I don’t really have that option. “Nothing much” and “nowhere interesting” doesn’t make for particularly gripping reading. In fact, it is sometimes difficult to remember anything about this year apart from the pandemic. I even ended up splitting the Private Eye Annual into two sections – 2020 BC (Before Coronavirus) and 2020 AD (Anno Dominic Cummings). However, I was determined in this diary to be more positive and to focus on the activities that were still possible in the new normal.
Zoom’s good side
Zoom is the approximation of real life for which we have all had to settle – and it can work. Last month I was meant to give a talk about William Hogarth at Pitzhanger Manor in Ealing, which was putting on an exhibition of A Rake’s Progress. Sadly, lockdown prevented any live appearance at Sir John Soane’s old country house, so I ended up doing an interview on Zoom. This did, however, mean that we could show Hogarth’s paintings on screen. As the curator pointed out, Hogarth was always keen to reproduce his pictures as prints and would have loved the thought of his work being shown as widely as possible.
Zoom also allowed us, literally, to zoom in on the details of a painting. For instance, in the Humours of an Election series of 1755 the artist draws a great feast where the Oxford electors are being bribed by the Whig candidates. Outside the window you can see the Tories marching along holding placards. On closer inspection, one of them shows a picture of a dark, bearded man with the caption “NO JEWS”. Anti-Semitism in British politics? Does nothing ever change? This was pretty much the theme of my talk – I think that modern cartoonists and satirists are in debt to Hogarth, whose pictures often read like a magazine full of visual and verbal jokes. A Rake’s Progress itself is a series of eight paintings produced in 1732-34 – it shows the downfall of the womanising profligate Tom Rakewell, who squanders his inheritance, marries for money and then loses that fortune gambling. He ends up in the debtors’ prison and finally the insane asylum.
Cartoonists love to redraw Hogarth’s pictures with a modern twist, but I had entirely forgotten that Richard Jolley (“RGJ”) had done A Rake’s Progress for Private Eye. In this version, a familiar rakish, tousle-haired politician progresses from journalist to mayor of London to prime minister, ending up with a woman and a baby outside the door of No 10 Downing Street. This was drawn in 2010 – and Jolley’s joke was that in Hogarth’s moral fables the protagonist gets his comeuppance, whereas for the modern rake there is no comeuppance at all. After all that has happened in 2020, will this still be true for our Prime Minister?
Podcasts and “Private Bye”
Podcasts seem to be much like radio, but longer – they are perfect for when everyone has a lot less to do. Ghislaine Maxwell’s arrest and forthcoming trial has put her fraudster father Robert back in the spotlight, as commentators try to assess how much sympathy or psychological importance they can attach to her relationship with him. John Sweeney, the former Panorama presenter who is probably still most famous for screaming at scientologists, has created a podcast called Hunting Ghislaine and asked me to go down Maxwell memory lane. A woman who claims to be a family friend of the Maxwells has written about Ghislaine’s childhood, and Sweeney wanted to know if I thought she was a reliable narrator.
This is the woman who came into my office after Maxwell’s death, falling from his yacht, the Lady Ghislaine, in 1991. She got in by pretending to have been working on the yacht at the time and said she had information about Maxwell’s death. In fact she just wanted to abuse me for the very bad taste Private Eye cover that we ran immediately after the accident. The whole magazine was called “Private Bye” – and the headline over the famous photo of his funeral was “A Nation Mourns”. The main joke was one of the rabbis saying: “Here lies Robert Maxwell – he lied everywhere else.” And another one saying: “We’re administering the last writs.” There were more jokes, too, but you get the gist.
She thought this was disgusting, and said one should not speak ill of the dead. I said that I thought one could if one had spoken ill of them while they were alive. Particularly if they had sued one personally most years, including – in the very last writ of all – for suggesting that Maxwell had stolen from his own companies’ pension funds.
However, this woman was not to be persuaded, and ended our encounter by putting a curse on me. She told me that she hoped one of my loved ones would die soon of a horrible disease. As it happens, one of them did die shortly afterwards. I don’t think it was to do with this woman, even though she did look quite like a witch.
I’m not sure any of this was terribly relevant to the main issue, but on a podcast there is always time for a bit of deviation.
Box set bounty
As for box sets, I think I took the most pleasure from watching the brilliant Succession, a thinly veiled attack on the Murdoch dynasty (which is now, in real life, attempting a last gasp with the announcement of a Fox TV style channel in the UK). The bullying media mogul father, with the two sons floundering around in his business and the spoilt daughter as the apple of his eye, also has definite Maxwellian elements. I can’t wait to watch it next year. Season three of Succession, that is. Not News UK TV.
[see also: The best ten shows of 2020]
Time for a quiz
Q: What was the name of Hogarth’s dog?
Happier New Year!
Ian Hislop is the editor of Private Eye
This diary is part of the New Statesman Christmas Special, also featuring John Gray, Helen Macdonald, Tracey Thorn, Grayson Perry, Helen Lewis, Armando Iannucci, Joni Mitchell, Stephen Bush, Jacqueline Wilson, William Boyd and much more of the best new writing.
This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special