Archive for the ‘satirical magazine’ Category

Punch magazine’s horn of plenty

September 28, 2017
Morten Morland cartoon from The Times newspaper showing Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell with his mouth depicted as a Punch-style horn of plenty

Morten Morland cartoon from The Times newspaper showing Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell with his mouth depicted as a Punch-style horn of plenty

The Times this week ran a Morten Morland cartoon showing Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell with his mouth depicted as a horn of plenty – a cornucopia. This is a reference to an idea that goes back a couple of thousand years to Greek mythology. But it is a classical allusion that was very much kept alive by Richard ‘Dicky’ Doyle with his famous Punch magazine cover design that developed from 1844.

The horn of plenty from the left side of an 1847 Punch cover

The horn of plenty from the left side of an 1847 Punch cover

Buyers of Punch – just 6,000 of them each week in the satirical magazine’s early days – are the sort of people who will have had a classical education and so would be aware of the idea of a goat’s horn or horn-shaped basket overflowing with produce. It’s associated with Zeus, Hades, Hercules and Gaia.

In the case of McDonnell, he’s spouting forth a stream of policies at the Labour party conference; for Dicky Doyle in 1842, it was a cornucopia of fun, wit and entertainment.

The Punch cover is often described as never-changing, but that it not the case. The earliest issues from July 1841 showed a Punch and Judy stall. That idea stayed in place until the 20-year-old Doyle’s Mr Punch and his dog design took hold in April 1844. And there were several versions of that, though the main elements, full of classical references, stayed constant.

RGG Price’s History of Punch (Collins, 1957) states the frieze at the bottom was based on Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne.  What appear to be the words ‘Exhaustive wit’ exude from the horn on the right, and ‘fun’ on the left. It is ‘satire’ that is raised up towards the heavens on the right among a multitude of mischievous imps, fairies and cherubs.

The cover of Punch magazine's almanac of 1842 by Halbot K Browne ('Phiz')

The cover of Punch magazine’s almanac of 1842 by Halbot K Browne (‘Phiz’)

This 1842 almanac cover is initialled HKB – Halbot K Browne – ‘Phiz’. He was one of five artists who did early covers for Punch (the others being Archibald Henning, William Harvey, John Gilbert and Kenny Meadows).

The engraver is also credited, Ebenezer Landells. He was one of the founders in 1841 of Punch, and acted as art editor, along with the journalist Henry Mayhew and William Last as printer.  This almanac sold very well and may have saved the magazine from closure, because sales had been running at 6,000 a week whereas they needed to sell 10,000.

However, the financial problems led Last to pull out in favour of working with Herbert Ingram on Illustrated London News. Landells had to sell his share to Bradbury & Evans, the publishers. Bradbury & Evans replaced Landells with Joseph Swain and gained complete control in December 1842. Swain was not credited on the covers.

Although Doyle’s design won out in 1844, it took five years to settle down into the image that lasted until 1956, when one-off colour covers by the likes of Ronald Searle became the norm. In particular, the detail of Mr Punch in the bottom frieze was altered in response to criticism that it was crude, a drawing of a British lion replaces the Punch stall on the easel and the circus typeface for the title was turned to wood, in a mockery of  the German illustration style of artists such as Alfred Rethel.

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£1,750 for a copy of Oz magazine

May 13, 2017
This issue of Oz fetched £1,750 on eBay

This issue of Oz fetched £1,750 on eBay

Prices for copies of Oz just go up and up. February was the magazine’s 50th anniversary and the buyers came out for several issues. Pick of the bunch was a copy of the first Oz that sold for £1,750, with 23 bids. A first issue of Oz went in 2012 for just over £1,000. The starting price this time was £400 and five bidders fought it out. A nice thing about it was the provenance. As the seller, sarahnegotiator, explained:

Published in 48 issues between 1967 and 1973, Oz Magazine was a revolutionary anti-establishment underground publishing phenomenon that triggered outrage, numerous police raids and the longest obscenity trial in British legal history. Now, on the fiftieth anniversary of its publication, here is a unique opportunity to purchase an extremely rare copy of the very first issue of London Oz.
Owned by the current seller since it was bought at King’s Cross Station in 1967, the magazine is complete, and apart from some minor creasing and light wear on the cover corners, is in good condition throughout.

Another first issue of Oz sold for £1,000. The starting price was £500 and the seller gave a very limited description. One potential bidder, quite rightly, wanted to know more:

Q: Would you be so kind as to tell me a bit more about the condition? Are there any pen marks or rips? Has anything been cut out? Are there any creases or dog ears? How would you rate it: Mint, VGC, Good, Fair? I’m a collector so quality is very important.
A: I would say that the condition of the magazine is between Mint and Very Good Condition. There are no dog eared corners or creases to any of the pages, no pen marks, no tears, the staples and the fold-out calendar of Feb ’67 are still attached. There are a couple of very small stains on the front cover and overall the pages are very slightly yellowed with age. Thanks for your interest and please get in touch again if you need more information. Best regards and happy bidding,

I’m always wary of terms such as ‘mint’ – but the fact that the seller fills in the details shows that it clearly is not mint in any sense that a collector would understand (stains on the  cover?!).

Another issue, Oz No.11 from April 1968, The Sticker Issue, fetched £363. The seller here, silvantage925, also sold seven other issues of Oz. The description was very good , with photographs to back it up:

The magazine is complete, with no missing pages. There are some minor rips to pages, towards the back of the magazine, including the back page. Stickers are in good shape though. Please see photos.
Magazine does not display any major signs of discolouration or distress other than what has previously been mentioned.
Please check photographs and keep the condition in mind when bidding. I always try and be as honest and descriptive as I can, any flaws etc will always be photographed and added to description.

Four other issues have sold this year fetching prices of £200-£276 on eBay.

 

On this day in magazines: Punch and Thatcher in 1977

February 24, 2017
How Trog portrayed Thatcher for Punch in 1977 (February 23)

How Trog portrayed Thatcher for Punch in 1977 (February 23)

‘Trog’ – Willy Fawkes – was a prolific cartoonist and did several Margaret Thatcher caricatures for Punch. This 1977 cover illustrated an article entitled, ‘What to do about the baby shortage’. The Conservative Party leader would not became prime minister for another two years. Here, she is portrayed as pregnant in the pose made famous by Alfred Leete in the ‘Your Country Needs You’ image of Lord Kitchener.

Thatcher had been a member of parliament since 1959 and became Edward Heath’s education secretary in 1970, a post she held for four years until the Tories lost power. She replaced Heath to become leader of the opposition and in 1979 won the first of her three premierships, losing the party leadership to John Major in 1990. Next are two more Thatcher depictions by Trog, all also before she became PM.

Trog turns to Dickens for inspiration in this Thatcher caricature from 1971 for Punch magazine cover

Trog turns to Dickens for inspiration in this Thatcher caricature from 20 July 1971 for Punch

In 1971, Trog had turned to Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist for inspiration, a serial first published in Bentley’s Miscellany magazine in 1837, with a George Cruikshank engraving of the above scene. The Punch cartoon has Thatcher in the role of Mr Bumble, the workhouse beadle, taking umbrage at Oliver asking for more gruel. She was education secretary at this time and cut spending. In 1974, and caused a furore and was nicknamed ‘Thatcher the milk snatcher‘ for ending the practice of primary schoolchildren being given a small bottle of milk each day.

Thatcher as a hippy! Trog for Punch in 1975

Thatcher finds the grass is greener as a hippy! Trog for Punch in 1975

The idea of Thatcher as a spliff-smoking, guitar-strumming hippy is the sort of thing that would have to come from a cartoonist like Trog. The Punch cover is from October 8, 1975, a year after she had replaced Edward Heath as  leader of the Conservative Party.


To see almost 500 magazine covers and pages, look out for my book, A History of British Magazine Design, from the Victoria & Albert Museum, the world’s leading museum of art and design

 

 


This month in magazines: Oz in 1967

February 17, 2017
The first issue of underground magazine Oz in February 1967

The first issue of underground magazine Oz in February 1967

Oz was an underground magazine launched in London in February 1967 that became a leading part of Britain’s counterculture. Notice the word ‘London’ at the top left of the Oz title above. It’s there because Oz was originally an Australian magazine, founded by Richard Neville, Martin Sharp and Richard Walsh. They were prosecuted in Australia and Neville and Sharp came to London, where they launched another version of the magazine with Jim Anderson.

It was not the only magazine of its type – International Times, Ink and Friends were also influential – but Oz gained mainstream notoriety for the obscenity trial that followed the publication of the Oz School Kids issue (number 28).

The Oz Schoolkids issue

The Oz Schoolkids issue

The three editors (Sharp had left and been replaced by Felix Dennis) selected a group of youngsters aged between 14 and 18 to edit issue 28. The magazine’s offices were raided by the Obscene Publications Squad, the issue was seized and the editors were charged with conspiring to ‘debauch and corrupt the morals of young children’ because of some of the cartoons and discussion of sexual freedom and drug use.

Protest issue at Oz obscenity trial

Protest issue at Oz obscenity trial

For Felix Dennis, the Oz trial was the ‘finest hour’ for John Mortimer, their defence lawyer and later author of the Rumpole of the Bailey TV series and books. Although they were found guilty under the Obscene Publications Act, the verdict was overturned on appeal.

Like Private Eye, Oz might have looked crude, but it was an innovative user of the latest production techniques such as lithographic colour printing. It produced some amazing imagery by people such as Peter Brooke – now the leading political cartoonist on The Times – and Sharp’s iconic imagine of Bob Dylan, the Tambourine Man.

Another Australian who worked on Oz, in Sydney and London, was Marsha Rowe, and Germaine Greer wrote for it, too. Greer wrote The Female Eunuch in 1970 (and was gardening correspondent of Private Eye with the byline Rose Blight!) and Rowe was a co-founder of Spare Rib in 1972. She condemned a plan by Charlotte Raven to relaunch Spare Rib in 2014. The archive of Spare Rib can be found through the British Library’s website.

Felix Dennis went on to found Dennis Publishing, which launched Maxim and The Week. Since Dennis’s death, the profits from the company have been put to creating a massive forest. As well as the people behind Oz becoming mainstream, so have many of the ideas it, and the other undergrounds titles, argued for.  Oz is also one of the most collectable magazines.

The last issue of Oz - November 1973

The last issue of Oz

The University of Woollongong holds an online archive of the Australian issues of Oz, which was first published in Sydney on April Fool’s Day 1963 and continued until December 1969.This was set up with Neville’s co-operation after he returned to Australia and became a writer.

Woollongong also has all the London editions of Oz, from February 1967 to November 1973. The last issue cover carries a photo of the Oz staff naked overlaid on a background of disgraced US president Richard Nixon.

 


To see almost 500 magazine covers and pages, look out for my book, A History of British Magazine Design, from the Victoria & Albert Museum, the world’s leading museum of art and design

 

 

 


On this day in magazines: Private Eye celebrates in 1981

February 13, 2017
Lord Goodman jumps out of a giant birthday cake on Private Eye's 500th issue cover in February 1981

Lord Goodman jumps out of a giant birthday cake on Private Eye’s 500th issue cover of 13 February 1981

Private Eye registered a sales figure last week at just over a quarter of a million copies an issue for the second half of 2016. Under editor Ian Hislop, it claims the high ground as the best-selling news and current affairs magazine.

The circulation per copy breaks down as 105,077 through newsagents, 142,833 subscriptions, 2,214 bulk sales and just 22 copies free. It total, that’s three million copies a year from its fortnightly mix of satire and investigative journalism. While the newspapers keep jacking up their prices – arguing readers will pay for quality reporting – but lose sales, the Eye holds its price at £1.80 and buyers and subscribers keep coming.

The cover above is from 13 February 1981, when the Eye was celebrating its 500th issue with a Willy Rushton cartoon. Out of the giant birthday cake festooned with writs jumps Lord Goodman – an early ally of Private Eye. Rupert Murdoch can be seen waiting on then editor Richard Ingrams in the top left and Gnitty, the magazine’s mascot Crusader, is also seated at a table. Around them are foes, friends and characters from the magazine.

A punning advert from Letraset for Private Eye's celebratory issue

A punning advert from Letraset for Private Eye’s celebratory 1981 issue

Although the magazine had survived many legal battles, such as the 1976 onslaught from James ‘Goldenballs’ Goldsmith who issued 60 writs against the Eye and its distributors in one month, many more were to come, including those with Robert Maxwell and his Not Private Eye. In 1990, Private Eye was threatened with closure when Sonia Sutcliffe was awarded £600,000 in libel damages. Hislop said that if this was justice he was ‘a banana’. The sum was reduced to £60,000 on appeal.

Inside the anniversary issue are many supportive advertisers, including Letraset, the makers of dry transfer lettering, a revolutionary British invention in its day, but now a French-owned brand mainly selling marker pens.

Private Eye‘s title was an early success for Letraset – the typographer Matthew Carter did the design, which saw its first outing on 18 May 1962 and is still in use today.


To see almost 500 magazine covers and pages, look out for my book, A History of British Magazine Design, from the Victoria & Albert Museum, the world’s leading museum of art and design


On this day in magazines: Now! Talbot! 1980

February 8, 2017
Now! magazine from February 8, 1980

Now! magazine from February 8, 1980

Today out of my archive comes Now!, a magazine launched by the business tycoon Sir James Goldsmith – ‘Goldenballs’ as he was known to Private Eye – as a right-wing news weekly. Ridiculing the Queen is rarely a good idea for newspapers and magazines – even Kelvin McKenzie could not get away with it at the height of his powers as editor of The Sun. And Now! had a powerful enemy on its back – Private Eye.

Private Eye ridicules the launch of Goldsmith's Now! (9 September 1979)

Private Eye ridicules Goldsmith’s Now! (9 September 1979)

Private Eye and Goldsmith had fought vicious legal battles and from the outset the Eye ridiculed Now! , though never using its proper title, instead dubbing it ‘Talbot!’.

Before the first issue came out on September 14, 1979, the Eye ran a page ridiculing the magazine and its journalists under a reversed-out headline in Now!‘s title type, saying WHO?. A subdeck asked ‘Up what part of whom are these seedy looking hacks gazing in admiration?’ The first paragraph read:

You won’t recognise any of these people(except possibly John Lander, who used to be on News at Ten years ago). Others are better known in the bars and betting shops of Soho. But all of them have one thing in common. They are all anxious about the future. That’s why they’ve all decided to invest in the James Goldsmith Pension Fund of Funds.

Private Eye celebrates the last Now! magazine (5 May 1981)

Private Eye celebrates the last Now! magazine (5 May 1981)

It goes on to set out the reasons of all the hacks in sycophantic terms. One of the editors has a speech bubble saying: ‘If you know a better hole, look up it!’ (A reference to the Bruce Bairnsfather cartoon character Old Bill, whose most famous cartoon has the grumpy First World War soldier stuck in a water-filled shell hole and saying to a colleague, ‘If you knows of a better ‘ole, go to it!’)

Such was the Eye‘s venom that as well as frequent articles, it even ran a regular strip cartoon, called Focus on Fact – Talbot!, ridiculing Goldsmith and the magazine. When Now! folded with a final issue dated 24 April 1981, Private Eye ran a celebratory cover ‘Talbot memorial issue. A nation mourns’ (5 May).

 


To see almost 500 magazine covers and pages, look out for my book, A History of British Magazine Design, from the Victoria & Albert Museum, the world’s leading museum of art and design

 


On this day in magazines: Punch 1954

February 3, 2017
Illingworth's controversial Punch cartoon of Churchill from February, 1954

Illingworth’s controversial Punch cartoon of Churchill from February 3, 1954

From its inception in 1841, Punch magazine built on the great tradition of English satire.

Fleet Street's Punch Tavern, with the eponymous puppet above the doorway

Fleet Street’s Punch Tavern, with the eponymous puppet above the doorway

Its founders originally held meetings in the Edinburgh Castle Tavern on The Strand. However, when its offices moved from 13 Wellington Street in Covent Garden to 85 Fleet Street, the magazine’s editors also moved east, to the Crown and Sugar Loaf at 99 Fleet Street. So, when the architects Saville and Martin rebuilt the pub in 1894-95 with the Baker Brothers, as part of a public house boom, they changed its name to The Punch Tavern. Mr Punch’s sharp chin and nose can be seen above the door to this day, and the The Punch Tavern was listed in 1996.

By the 1920s, Punch magazine could boast that its advertising pages were booked months ahead. However, three decades later, Bradbury Agnew & Co, its publishers, could see that sales were in decline. Cartoonists had once been the scourge of politicians, but they had lost their bite in Punch and readers were being tempted away by new-fangled televisions. The response from Bradbury Agnew was to appoint a new editor, Malcolm Muggeridge, in 1953. He sacked the magazine’s lead cartoonist, EH Shepard, the Winnie the Pooh illustrator, who had held the position since 1945.

In 1954, Punch was still using a front cover that was little different from Dicky Doyle's design from a century earlier

In 1954, Punch was still using Dicky Doyle’s front cover design from a century earlier

Within a year of Muggeridge’s editorship, in the issue of 3 February 1954, Punch pulled off a controversial coup in Leslie Illingworth’s 1954 sketch of Winston Churchill for the weekly’s ‘Big Cut’ cartoon.

The portrayal of an ailing prime minister – rather than the man who had epitomised the British bulldog spirit – with the caption ‘Man Goeth Forth unto his Work and to his Labour until the Evening’ upset friends of Britain’s wartime leader and the man himself. Churchill has been quoted as saying: ‘Yes, there’s malice in it. Look at my hands – I have beautiful hands … Punch goes everywhere. I shall have to retire if this sort of thing goes on.’

Illingworth had held down two positions right at the top of the cartoon world through the war, working for both Punch and the Daily Mail. As the British Cartoon Archive says:

It was noted in 1942 that Illingworth’s busiest time began on Thursday mornings, after the Punch cartoon had been commissioned the previous day. This was “Illingworth’s toughest period of the week…when he has a Punch cartoon and two Mail cartoons to produce before Saturday”, and he would often work through the night and into the next day to produce the detailed drawings. His wartime cartoons were very successful, and after the war a cutting of one of his Daily Mail cartoons – from 14 January 1944 – was found in the ruins of Hitler’s chancellery.

As the Political Cartoon Society points out, Churchill was deeply offended, but it was Muggeridge’s strategy to ‘make a loud nasty noise of the kind nobody associated with Punch‘.  It quotes Muggeridge saying to a friend in late January 1954:

As he sprang from the train [Muggeridge] remarked with profound satisfaction that the issue of the magazine he had just sent to the press was ‘likely to get us all in a lot more hot water’

It also cites Churchill’s doctor, Lord Moran: ‘There was something un-English in this savage attack on his failing powers. The eyes were dull and lifeless.’

Writing in the Journal of European Studies, Mark Bryant sums up his view on Illingworth in an article entitled ‘Crusader, white rabbit or organ-grinder’s monkey? Leslie Illingworth and the British political cartoon in World War II’:

If anyone deserved an award for his work in peace-time or war it was Illingworth. Praised by Sir Alfred Munnings, former president of the Royal Academy, he has been called ‘the last of the great penmen in the line of English social satirists starting with Hogarth’ and ‘probably the most outstanding cartoonist that Punch ever had’. Nicholas Garland has also described him as ‘the last of a great line of black and white draughtsmen … There is no mystery about his work. It is just superb.’ (1 September 2001, pp 345-366, vol 31, issue 123)

Ronald Searle's cartoon of Churchill in Punch from 18 April, 1956

Ronald Searle’s cartoon of Churchill in Punch from 18 April, 1956

Even after that controversy, Muggeridge’s Punch did not leave Churchill alone. Ronald Searle set about the prime minister again in 1956. The photograph Searle depicted on the wall behind Churchill is of the PM at the Yalta conference with Stalin and Roosevelt in 1945.

The newspaper headline refers to ‘Stalin in disgrace’ and the titles of the books on top of the bookcase are ‘Roosevelt, the Truth’ and ‘Inside Roosevelt’, referring to criticism of the US president’s record that had emerged. Roosevelt’s death within months of the Yalta conference was met with shock in the US because his declining physical health had been kept secret from the public.

Muggeridge left his position after four years, probably because the Punch owners found him  too controversial.


To see almost 500 magazine covers and pages, look out for my book, A History of British Magazine Design, from the Victoria & Albert Museum, the world’s leading museum of art and design


Trump magazine forecasts president’s hairstyle in 1957

January 13, 2017

 

Trump magazine cover from 1959. It was a cross between Mad and Playboy

Trump magazine from 1957. It was a cross between Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad and Hugh Hefner’s Playboy

Nostradamus had nothing on this: magazine advert forecasts president's hairstyle in 1959

Nostradamus had nothing on this: magazine advert forecasts president’s hairstyle in 1957

All this fuss about Donald Trump has done great things for the price of a satirical magazine first published in January 1957 when Donald John was just 10 years old. It was called Trump – and on the back cover is a spoof shampoo advert that forecasts the US president’s hairstyle. It even gets the colour right!

A copy of this first issue of Trump has just sold on eBay for just shy of $200. The listing described the magazine’s history, and, as with so many stories to do with today’s US president elect, there’s porn involved, with Playboy founder Hugh Hefner being the publisher:

Harvey Kurtzman was the creator of Mad magazine which become a huge success. Hugh Hefner (Playboy) approached Kurtzman and told him that if we were to leave Mad he would publish him himself. The result was Trump, a more risqué version of Mad. The magazine was printed on the glossy paper that Playboy was printed on and Kurtzman hired Mad contributor Will Elder and Jack Davis as well as a number of new talent such as Al Jaffee and Arnold Roth. Despite a 50¢ cover price (which was expensive at the time), the magazine was a success on the market but was cancelled after only two issues because of how costly it was to produce. Kurtzman later created similar magazines Humbug and Help but had been quoted at saying that Trump was the closest he ever came to producing the perfect humour magazine.

The condition was described as very fine, with the pages ‘white and crisp’ and the cover being ‘amazingly clean considering how unforgiving white covers from that era could be’.

Breck shampoo advert from 1960

Breck shampoo advert from 1960

But the real value of this magazine to me is that back cover – it’s for ‘Beck’ shampoo. There was a real shampoo called Breck and the spoof advert pulls off its advertising style and typography to a T. But just look at the hair in the spoof advert! Truly, Trump magazine rates with Nostradamus in the way it has forecast the look of the next US president!

The Hitler Diaries – the farce of the century

February 6, 2016
The Observer Magazine cover shows Alexei Sayle as the Hitler diaries forger in the 1991 TV series Selling Hitler

The Observer Magazine cover shows Alexei Sayle as the Hitler diaries forger in the 1991 TV series Selling Hitler

I mentioned the farce of the Hitler diaries the other day, and how in 1983 the German news magazine Stern, Newsweek in the US and the Sunday Times were duped into paying a fortune for the rights to publish what was supposed to be the find of the century – Adolf Hitler’s personal diaries. The Observer, a rival Sunday paper, must have great fun running this cover on its supplement about the 1991 TV series – Selling Hitler – made about the fiasco.

The cover shows Alexei Sayle as Hitler fanatic Konrad Kujau, the forger who called himself Peter Fischer; Alan Bennett as Hugh Trevor-Roper (Lord Dacre), who authenticated the diaries for the Sunday Times, and Barry Humphries (best known as Dame Edna Everadge) as Rupert Murdoch. The choice of such comic-leaning actors shows how the programme took a mocking line.

The series was based on Robert Harris’s book Selling Hitler: The Story of the Hitler Diaries. This is a brilliant exposé of how Kujau touted the diaries to veteran Stern reporter Gert Heideman (played by Jonathan Pryce), who believes he has stumbled on the literary find of the century. The managers at Stern try to pull off a scoop – paying $5 million in secret over months for the 60 volumes of diaries, which Kujau can hardly make up fast enough. However, they ignore tell-tale pointers that the diaries are crude forgeries because they are blinded by greed.

The scandal has become a Fleet Street legend and made the Sunday Times and Times the butt of many a joke in the 1980s and since. It is often referred to – as in the example below. During the bitter battle between Robert Maxwell and Private Eye magazine in 1986, the thieving newspaper owner bought out a spoof satirical magazine showing Hitler with Eye editor Richard Ingrams as Göring.  Note the strapline: ‘Definitely authentic’ – Lord Dacre.

Maxwell's Not Private Eye: note the strap 'Definitely authentic' - Lord Dacre'

Maxwell’s Not Private Eye. Note the strap: ‘Definitely authentic – Lord Dacre’

See more on: UK newspapers

Not Private Eye

New Statesman’s curious case of John Major’s ‘mistress’

August 23, 2015
new_statesman_2015jul17_660.jpg

New Statesman’s ‘motherhood trap’ cover illustration earned the ire of several women politicians (17 July 2015)

New Statesman is a leftwing magazine that, as befits a political weekly, likes to stir things up occasionally. This recent cover for ‘The motherhood trap’ by Helen Lewis generated a fuss when it was criticised by SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon as being ‘crass’ and reinforcing prejudice. The Tory leader in Scotland, Ruth Davidson, tweeted: ‘oh do sod off’.

But New Statesman really got itself into deep water in the 1990s with an article, ‘The curious case of John Major’s “mistress”‘.  It sparked a libel  case that became curiouser and curiouser, damaged the PM and had a stunning denouement – nine years later. At the time, the article nearly sank the magazine as it celebrated its 80th anniversary year with a revamp to try and boost its 22,000 circulation.

New Statesman 1993 jan 29 John Major Clare Latimer

The curious case of John Major’s ‘mistress’: New Statesman of 29 January 1993 with a photomontage by Richard Camps showing Clare Latimer in the background

It was January 1993. Major was the son of a trapeze artist and former City banker who had never been to university. He had risen through the Tory ranks to take over as prime minister and leader of the Conservatives after the ousting of Margaret Thatcher in November 1990. He then won a tight election in 1992. Major himself was regarded as the grey man of British politics. However, his government was plagued by sexual and financial scandals and led to the label of ‘Tory sleaze’. Prominent among these scandals was actress Antonia de Sancha selling a kiss-and-tell story to the News of the World of a ‘toe-sucking’ affair with David Mellor. Major vowed to back his culture minister ‘through thick and thin’, but Mellor eventually resigned as a minister. Such scandals derailed Major’s ‘back to basics’ campaign that aimed to encourage support for traditional morality and the family.

The New Statesman article set out to investigate who was driving persistent  rumours that Major was having an affair. It had been obliquely referred to in newspaper diary columns and the satirical puppet-based TV series Spitting Image. The standfirst and headline summed the article up:

It is the ‘story’ that dare not speak its name. Steve Platt and Nyta Mann investigate the rumour, gossip and nudge-and-a-wink innuendo behind … the curious case of John Major’s mistress

It talked about a ‘deliberate attempt to undermine the new prime minister’, ‘dissatisfied Thatcherite Tories’ and ‘investigative muckraking’ by the newspapers. The ‘mistress’ often surrepticiously cited was named as Clare Latimer, who  had done the catering for events at 11 Downing Street when Major was chancellor from 1989 and carried on working for him when he was PM.

Major and Latimer separately sued for libel, against both the New Statesman and the satirical magazine Scallywag, which also carried the story.

The New Statesman insisted the article never intended to assert that an affair had taken place. It was ‘anatomy of a rumour’. But Major and his lawyer, David Hooper, who was reputed to charge £250 an hour, pressed the writ. The magazine’s wholesalers, distributors and printers quickly apologised and paid damages without a fight. These were seen as ‘soft’ targets. However, they, in turn, were able to make New Statesman pay these costs. In an article that argued Major had damaged his reputation in bringing the case, the Sunday Times estimated the damages at £26,500 to Major and £30,000 to Latimer with costs of £80,000 (11 July).

Paperboy threatened by libel laws: New Statesman of March 12

Paperboy threatened by libel laws: New Statesman of March 12

New Statesman editor Steve Platt fought the case, quickly raising £100,000 from an appeal to readers for donations towards its costs (as Private Eye did in cases such as its fight against Robert Maxwell). It campaigned for reform of the libel laws to protect printers and distributors from such claims with a cover story entitled ‘Would you sue your paperboy?’

Its legal bills topped £200,000 and the magazine came close to collapse. However, Major settled in July for just £1,001 in damages, in what the Sunday Times called ‘a derisory climbdown’.

The Economist agreed, describing Westminster talk of ‘John the Wimp’ (10 July):

A popular reading of Mr Major among his Tory critics is that he is a man who throws in his hand when the stakes get raised against him. This week’s settlement seems to bear that out.

New Statesman hits back: the cover the week after Major settled the case (16 July)

New Statesman hits back: the cover the week after Major settled the case (16 July)

But the magazine survived. Major left the leadership after losing the the 1997 election to Tony Blair (an article by the then shadow home secretary, ‘Why crime is a socialist issue’, was one of the cover lines alongside ‘The curious case’), but stayed on as an MP until 2001. Then, in 2002, former Tory minister Edwina Currie ‘shopped’ Major, revealing she had an extra-marital affair with Major in her memoir Diaries (1987–92). The book told of a four-year affair when they were party whips from 1984, a time when they were both married; Major to Norma, and Currie to her first husband, Ray Currie.

The news led the magazine to threaten legal action to get its costs back, saying Major’s libel action appeared to be based on a false premise.

In 1994, Currie had written a novel, A Parliamentary Affair. An Observer Magazine profile summed up the plot:

[A] cabinet member has an affair with a rent boy and a junior minister makes love to a breast-jiggling journalist on Westminster Bridge. Meanwhile, Elaine, a backbencher not to be confused with her creator, has rear-entry sex in a Commons office.

So it’s no wonder that the Guardian said of Currie’s Dairies revelation:

The nation was shocked by Edwina Currie’s revelation that she had an affair with John Major, not so much because of any moral concern over fidelity, but because the idea of them at it took us to places we never, ever, wanted to go.

Let’s give the final word to Richard Camps who did the pre-computer photomontage for ‘The curious case’ cover:

I remember watching footage on the news of rabid Tories angrily waving this illustration in parliament. A proud moment. John Major has since proved himself to be a man of unquestionable integrity and fidelity who would never get involved in anything as sordid as an extramarital affair.