Ian Hislop’s diary: As I turn 60 I have been the subject of several jokes, featuring both my cat and the Grim Reaper

Making jokes about getting old is still just about allowed. My contemporaries certainly seem to think so.

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The last time I wrote this diary was in December 2019, and I was looking back on what had seemed a very turbulent year. How little we knew. Anyway, as I surveyed the rapidly changing political scene I asked: “Does anyone remember Theresa May?” This proved somewhat ironic since it turns out that I don’t remember her at all. Having been invited as a guest on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House last week to mark my 60th birthday, the host Paddy O’Connell sprang a surprise question on me. He asked me to list all the UK’s prime ministers since I was born. I stumbled through Macmillan, Douglas-Hume, Wilson, Heath and Wilson again, went on to Callaghan and then ploughed on through Thatcher and Thatcher and Thatcher right up to the present day.  I thought I had done OK until the end of the interview when O’Connell announced that I seemed to have forgotten Gordon Brown and Theresa May, though he added that this may have been a problem with Zoom.

Good joke and serves me right, though in my defence these were not two of the most memorable premierships of the modern era. In fact, Private Eye once ran a cover featuring a completely blank page with the heading “Theresa May’s legacy in full” on top of it. Come to think of it, we ran another with a picture of her visiting an old people’s home telling the nurse that she was the prime minister – to which the nurse replied: “Of course you are, dear, just come this way.”

Takes the cake

Making jokes about getting old is still just about allowed. My contemporaries certainly seem to think so. One of my oldest cartoonist friends sent a card featuring the trope of someone jumping out of a cake. Only this cake was marked “Happy 60th Ian” and the figure jumping out was the Grim Reaper. Bad taste? Funny? Both, I think.

Footage for the ages

My birthday present from the BBC archive department was a clip posted on various social media clearly designed to make me feel old – footage of my bumptious self aged 26 on the chat show Wogan in the week I took over as editor of Private Eye. I was accompanied by Richard Ingrams, the outgoing editor, who looked far too young to be retiring from anything and seemed to regard my appointment as the latest in a long series of excellent jokes.

What surprised me was Wogan’s line of questioning. “You’re a bit of a lefty, aren’t you?” said Wogan. Was I? I don’t remember that, nor that the Daily Express had apparently described me as a Trotskyist. Other newspapers had called me a young fogey but Wogan clearly thought I was Dave Spart.

It does show how much British politics moved towards the centre post-Thatcher, and how polarised it has now become again. I received a batch of furious letters this week at Private Eye complaining that the magazine has been taken over by “left-wing extremists” who cannot accept that the Tories won the election, and are failing to respect the public’s decision by not backing the Prime Minister 100 per cent in this time of national crisis. Really? Perhaps Wogan was right all along. Although he did also say that I would be fired by proprietor Peter Cook at the next board meeting.

Colin’s rise to fame

One of the strange things about appearing on television is that people you don’t know join in the celebrations of your birthday. This has been more marked this year due to the spare time people have in lockdown – and also due to the rise to fame of my cat, Colin. He walked into the room when we were remotely filming an episode of the last series of Have I Got News For You and the producers decided this was much funnier than anything I was trying to say about the government’s handling of the pandemic. So they left the cat’s cameo in the edit.

Viewers then started writing to me as “Colin’s owner” or “Colin’s agent”. On my 60th birthday the producers alerted me to a new online portrait of myself by a young illustrator. I was very flattered until I looked it up and found that it was partly a picture of me but mainly one of Colin. My colleague Paul Merton maintained that I had deliberately let the cat into the room during the recording “in a vain attempt to give yourself a personality”.

Outdated and irresistible

Another of my colleagues gave me a collection of boys’ comics and yearbooks from the year of my birth, 1960, including the Beano, Eagle, the Dandy, Swift, Tiger and Wizard. These comics are appallingly outdated in attitude and naturally completely irresistible, with their stories of cowboys, racing drivers, sportsmen, astronauts, pirates, Mounties and, of course, minor public schoolboys. George Orwell wrote his famous essay on boys’ weeklies in 1940, and not much had changed by 1960 apart from a lot of new but somehow very similar stories about the Second World War. Orwell described them as “adventure stories with a conservative bias” and despaired of finding “a left-wing boys’ paper”. He claimed these sorts of comics propagated “a set of beliefs that would be regarded as hopelessly out of date in the Central Office of the Conservative Party”.

The writer Frank Richards rejected Orwell’s view and claimed that his stories in the comics were moral rather than political. They were, however, very easy to parody. The Eagle carried my favourite strip, “Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future”, which inspired one of my first contributions to the 1980s comic Private Eye. This was a spoof strip drawn beautifully by co-writer Nick Newman, whose pilot hero looked exactly like Neil Kinnock and who had to fight not the evil Mekon of the original but an equally disturbing evil genius called the Maggon. It was a bit lefty I suppose, though it was called “Dan Dire”.

Orwell and good?

Is it still acceptable to quote Orwell in the New Statesman? Or is his statue already in the Thames? Just checking. 

Ian Hislop is the editor of Private Eye

This article appears in the 24 July 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special

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