Ok, now that my internet is behaving most of the time, I’ll explain why I asked about Punch – and thanks for all your interesting responses. I recently re-read A.A. Milne’s book Once a Week (1914). It’s in a series of books by Milne that Methuen published, mostly collections of sketches and essays which had previously appeared in Punch. Although Punch ran from 1841-1992, and again from 1996-2002, in my mind it is completely associated with the 1910s, ’20s, and ’30s – when A.A. Milne was assistant editor, for instance. All my knowledge of Punch comes from Ann Thwaite’s brilliant biography A.A. Milne: His Life and Milne’s own autobiography It’s Too Late Now.
Which is why I wanted to ask you all what came to mind when you thought of Punch – and was interested to hear the differing answers. Cartoons obviously came up – and yes, you were all right that the cartoon I posted gave rise to the expression ‘curate’s egg’. It was drawn by George du Maurier, grandfather of Daphne, and is an expression/joke I’ve always found inexplicably popular. To me, it’s just not that funny. BUT, having said that, I absolutely don’t agree that certain humour is dated or of its time. Certain humour appeals to certain people, and that’s that, really. Perhaps more of those people were around in the 1910s, or whichever decade you choose, but – well, put it this way: I’d hate for anyone to think in 2060 that everyone in 2010 found Frankie Boyle funny. Just as I find him farcically unamusing now, so I find the whimsical humour of 1910s’ Punch delightful.
But Punch had quite an odd status. It was incredibly popular in its heyday, and in some ways represented the tone of the time, but even then was looked down on by many. Here’s an excerpt from Civilisation (1929) by Clive Bell (husband of Vanessa Bell – i.e. Virginia Woolf’s brother-in-law):
And obviously an Englishman who cares for beauty, truth, or knowledge, may find himself more in sympathy with a Frenchman, German, or Chinaman who shares his tastes than with a compatriot who shares those of Punch and John Bull.Q.D. Leavis – the country’s most famous snob after Margot Leadbetter – put it like this in Fiction and the Reading Public (1932):
For the crude power of the bestseller the literary novelists substitute a more civilised tone; the temperature of their writing is slightly below instead of a good deal above normal; they deal in the right kind of humour (the Punch kind), and are the best fellows in the world.And yet it was Punch magazine which came up with this rather scathing definition of the middlebrow: ‘It consists of people who are hoping that some day they will get used to the stuff they ought to like.’ (1925)
Which is all a rather convoluted way of saying that Punch doesn’t – and didn’t – really conform to any one type, or position in the national consciousness! I hope you don’t mind a meander through various books like this – it’s the bit of my research which I thought might be least dull to share.
And all this is an introduction to Once A Week by A.A. Milne! About which I am not going to say all that much about it, because the tone of Punch is more or less the same as the tone of this collection. If you love the sort of whimsy that skirts around Diary of a Nobody, or that is a very toned down Wodehouse, or… well, a grown-up Winnie-the-Pooh perhaps – then you’ll love this. It’s a collection of stories and sketches about people having fun together – arguing over cricket, or who has to order the coal. Lots of silliness, nothing too serious ever encroaching. Rereading it this time – and I read all Milne’s Punch books back in 2001 – I can see how it might wear thin for some people. The lighthearted way which the characters treat even the infancy of their child is perhaps a step too saccharine – but, on the whole, this is the sort of humour I will happily dive into.
Is it escapism? Perhaps – but I don’t really believe there is such a thing. I don’t think gritty realism is actually any more real than people being daft in a holiday cottage. It reminds me of an A.A. Milne quotation I somewhat overuse:
People are always telling me I should write about Real Life – preferably in a public house or brothel, where Life is notoriously more Real than elsewhere.If you fancy a taste of life that is real, but rather more fun and whimsical than most portrayals of it, then I think A.A. Milne’s superbly-crafted stories and sketches can scarcely be beaten. You can even read it online here. Just one word of warning – Once A Week could be considered a curate’s egg.