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'Punch' - the Magazine

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In 1841, writer Henry Mayhew, engraver Ebenezer Landells and a group of their friends decided to start a comic magazine. They chose the name Punch, from the puppet character of Punch and Judy fame, and subititled it 'A London Charivari', after a French magazine. Under the editorship of Mark Lemon, Punch soon became an important part of English literary life, and has often been so in the decades that followed.

Punch was published continuously until 1992, apart from two weeks in 1947, when a national fuel crisis forced its temporary shutdown. In April 1992 its then-owner, United Newspapers, unceremoniously pulled the plug. Punch lay fallow until 1996, when Mohamed Al Fayed, the owner of the famous London department store Harrods, revived the title through his company, Liberty Publishing.

The Moral of Punch

The Moral of Punch was Mark Lemon's introduction to the very first issue, in which he set forth Punch's philosophy. He quoted Byron:

And laugh at all things, for we wish to know, what, after all, are all things but a show!

This set the tone for much of Punch's history; humour with only a bit of leavening malice. A good laugh. They had a little respect for crowns or governmental titles, but perhaps less for the individuals who held them.

As time went on, this attitude changed. In 1843 Punch published Song of the Shirt, a damning and sorrowful poem about sweatshop labour by Thomas Hood. Circulation soared as a result. Serious reviews of books, plays and, eventually, movies appeared. The full-page cartoon that appeared each issue, commenting on some contemporary event, was often as not a serious one. (This backfired in 1885, when Punch published a cartoon showing the rescue of General Gordon from Khartoum. The problem was, Gordon had died at Khartoum days before.) Starting in the 1950's Punch adressed serious issues seriously, though keeping the overall humorous slant of the magazine. In the last few years (as of 2001) Punch has been over 90% serious, neglecting its humorous heritage.

Punch cartoons are a valuable resource. Especially in its early decades, the editors were scrupulous about keeping details correct. If you wish to dress like a gentleman of, say, the 1880's, Punch cartoons give a fine idea of what the blades of London wore. Alas, Punch also reflected the prejudices of the time. The caricatures of the Irish, the Germans in the World Wars (though mostly in World War One), and other racial and ethnic stereotypes abound. This was common to many areas in the arts, but that does not make it any more enjoyable. And today's Punch reflects the tenor of our times. Prejudices are sometimes found in retrospect.

A surprising amount of Punch's humour still holds up today. George Grossmith's Diary of a Nobody appeared there, setting a standard for the sort of 'harried little man humour' that stands to this day. Messrs Sellars and Yeatman turned English history into a riotous parade of absurdity in 1066 and All That. Although AA Milne did not bring the Pooh stories to Punch, his poems collected as Now we are Six appeared there. In more modern times, Miles Kington's lessons in Franglais, and JB Handelsman's cartoon Freaky Fables come highly recommended.

Some Punch Trivia

  • Punch's editors, contributors and some lucky guests could attend a Punch Lunch, and sit around the famous Punch Table. The Table is a large deal table, on which the editors and a variety of others have carved their initials or names. As a guestbook, it is probably unique.

  • Punch has published works by many famous authors, including William Makepeace Thackeray, AA Milne and PG Wodehouse. But take heart, struggling writers everywhere! Charles Dickens had his every submission rejected.

  • Punch was the first to use the term 'cartoon' to refer to a comic drawing. Perhaps the most famous Punch cartoonists were Sir John Tenniel, who illustrated Lewis Carroll's Alice books, and Ernest Shepard, who illustrated the Winnie-the-Pooh books.

  • Tom Taylor, Punch's third editor, wrote Our American Cousin, the play Abraham Lincoln was watching when he was assassinated1.

  • Kaiser Wilhelm II was so outraged at being lampooned by Punch that he put a price on the editor's head. He lost the war anyway.

Further Information

The Punch Website is as good a place as any to find out more.

1This should not be taken as a reflection on the quality of the play, however.

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