Ian Hislop’s Diary: Awkwardness in church, Corbyn’s Queen gaffe and my childhood expat Christmases

You have to shake hands and say “peace be with you” to someone you don’t know, which doesn’t feel very English. 

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Another year, another prime minister, another election. I am sure it did not used to be like this. Events in 2019 did seem to speed up. Trying to produce an annual of the best of the year’s output for Private Eye was a real challenge because everything changed so fast – does anyone remember Theresa May? But then, everything turned out not to change much at all. Is Brexit done yet? So it is difficult to know what is dated and what is timeless. The first page has a big headline from earlier in the year saying: “What happens next?” Underneath, it says: “1. We run headlines saying ‘What happens next?’ 2. Something happens that we didn’t predict. 3. We run more headlines saying ‘What happens next ?’”

By the time you read this I think this will still feel accurate. My favourite joke is on the annual’s cover, with someone asking David Cameron if he regrets holding the referendum. He says “yes and no”. I think this one will hold for quite a while.

Eye in the sky

It was a good year for satire but a sad year for Private Eye in that quite a few of my former colleagues on the magazine died. The latest was David Cash, the ex-managing director who, as you might have guessed from his name, dealt with the money side of things. He died suddenly so at his funeral there was a communion service where we ate bread that Dave had actually baked. It was very touching somehow and also delicious. I had never heard of this before and thought it might be a first. The other first was that the officiating priest prayed for Private Eye in the course of the service. This was rather uncomfortable: I consulted with my predecessor Richard Ingrams and we agreed that this had never happened before. I was once denounced from the pulpit of a cathedral on Good Friday, when the priest who was officiating spotted me in the congregation and decided to lambast me for bearing false witness against my neighbour in the form of malicious journalism. To be honest, I think I preferred that.

Unease be with you

At the funeral we were asked to give each other the sign of peace – a relatively new part of Anglican worship that most older people still find a bit embarrassing. You have to shake hands and say “peace be with you” to someone you don’t know, which doesn’t feel very English, even though it is the Church of England asking you.

I felt that this embarrassment was very similar to the handshake that the two leaders of the main political parties were forced into on the ITV leaders’ debate. Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn clearly didn’t want to but they were in a public forum and there was no choice, so they grinned unconvincingly and went through with it. I repeated this observation at a recording of Have I Got News For You saying the gesture was just like the one in church and was greeted by dead silence. I added “A lot of churchgoers in tonight?” and got a big laugh. It is clearly more and more of a minority activity.

Good morning, ma’am

So is watching the Queen on television on Christmas Day, but to a lesser extent. About two and half million people went to church over Christmas last year whereas six million people watched the Queen’s speech. Despite this still being the highest overnight figure for any single programme on the day, the ratings are clearly falling.

In the run-up to the election, on one of the many leaders’ interviews, Jeremy Corbyn was asked by Julie Etchingham if he watched Her Majesty on Christmas Day. He flannelled, and instead of just saying “No I don’t” he replied, “It’s on in the morning. Usually we have it on some of the time.” When Etchingham smiled and expressed surprise that he didn’t know that it was on at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and that “everyone” knows this, Corbyn tried to regain the moral high ground by saying that he didn’t watch much television but did other things such as visiting a homeless shelter. Although I am sure that this is true, I did think that it was a bit desperate as a response, an attempt to “virtue signal” his way out of trouble. I thought it was quite funny and it also reminded me of Harry Enfield’s DJs Smashie and Nicey, who appeared on air saying that they did a lot of work for charity but “didn’t like to talk about it”.

I discussed this with Evan Davis on BBC’s PM programme – he felt sympathy for Corbyn and reckoned that he would have been damned by his critics if he had just admitted to not watching the Queen. I still found it funny, and said so at a recording of Have I Got News For You. The audience laughed and I thought no more of it until a friend told me (we all have friends like this) that I had been roundly criticised on social media for laughing at the homeless and at people who helped them out at Christmas. I told him that this was not what I had said, and you could not possibly interpret it like that. Social media, as ever, had missed the point. The friend sympathised but said the gist of the argument was that I was “a privileged twat who wouldn’t know what normal life was, and that there was nothing funny about the homeless or people who help them out”. I agree with all of that, actually.

Date with a snowman

I suppose that knowing the Queen is on at three o’clock  is a legacy of my “not normal family” upbringing, in that I was an expat child and my parents were trying to recreate a British Christmas in places like Lagos, Jeddah or Hong Kong. That’s why I know the timings so well. Christmas for us really began with the World Service broadcasting Carols from King’s College, Cambridge live: this was Christmas Eve at 3pm Greenwich Mean Time, whatever time it was where we were, and the Queen was on at the same hour the next day. I’d say that now, the most important viewing appointment for me at Christmas is The Snowman. It is on at 3.50pm on Channel 4 on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at 12.45pm – so you can watch it morning or afternoon.

Ian Hislop is the editor of Private Eye

This article appears in the 13 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special

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