Thursday 7 October 2010

Pulling No Punches

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.


  1. Hey, I'm having a monstrous book giveaway on my blog, amandarosetew,blogspot,com, and thought you might be interested! Happy Halloween!

  2. I'm going to have to bookmark the link so that I can "dip into" Once a Week occasionally. Milne is hard to find over here (other than the Pooh books) so I've been curious ever since I started reading your blog. Thanks for sharing -- and for the education re: Punch. :)

  3. I like the illusiveness of Punch -- its intristic quality unable to be pinned down precisely!

    Your comment about Realism makes me think of a favourite quote by LM Montgomery:

    Don't be led away by those howls about realism. Remember-pine woods are just as real as pigsties and a darn sight pleasanter to be in.

  4. Simon, I won't roll over and agree with your rejection of my my hypothesis about humour being of its time and, at least for some of it, not travelling well into the future. However I'll have to give some more thought as to how to present my arguments more cogently so look out for something again on this subject in the near future.

    I like to read about the reality of life amongst the pine trees and about life in the pub and the brothel and all of these settings can be funny, serious, sinister, horrible, uplifting and elightening. It just depends on the writer and her or his talents whether they will engage me.

  5. Haha, even if you present your arguments more cogently, Mr. Puss, I don't think I'll agree with them! But I don't expect you to agree with me either - that's fine :)

  6. Hoorah! We finally agree on something :) Frankie Boyle leaves me cold as well - *why* is he funny?

  7. Good stuff Simon, I think I'm more inclined to your view on humour - the best of Punch has aged extremley well, the rest of it is hard to find...

  8. The thirties are the time setting for my writing, so I run into references to Punch occasionally when I read bios of that period. My main impression is that most of that humor is so topical that it wouldn't be funny now.

    Also I wonder if it was all male!

  9. Amanda - thanks for the link!

    Susan - I do hope you enjoy. Milne pops up surprisingly often in secondhand bookshops here, considering nobody else seems to know his stuff (except for the recently reprinted works, and the Pooh books of course)

    Melwyk - I do like that LMM quotation, thank you!

    Alison - I can't imagine how he is popular... eurgh!

    Hayley - true, true!

    Shelley - find an old edition of Punch, and give it a try! I really don't think humour is solely topical - after all, we still find Jane Austen funny, don't we?


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