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Eye of the beholder

09 September 2016

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YOU do not have to like them to laugh with them. That is the only consolation one might have taken from The Reunion (Radio 4, Sun­day), in which some of the founding fathers of Private Eye gathered to tell Sue MacGregor how it all started. They don’t even like one another very much.

The original editor, Christopher Booker, wrote sub­sequently of the Eye under his successor that it was “a strong candidate for the most un­­pleasant thing in British journ­al­­ism”.

The programme did nothing to dull the sense of the old Private Eye as elitist, sexist, and homophobic. MacGregor put this accusation directly to them; could they defend themselves? No, came the re­­sponse. But, in her question, MacGregor fatally invoked the notion of “political correctness”.

This was all that was required for Booker to launch into a diatribe against contemporary liberal intol­er­ance, “groupthink” and “fash­ion­able orthodoxy” rather than admit that his satirists were content to satirise the easiest targets in late-20th-century Britain.

Nor did MacGregor’s contrib­utors appear to spot the irony in their righteous indignation at James Goldsmith — who, they claim, attempted to destroy the Eye — when they admitted to sharing a sole purpose back in 1961 of destroying the magazine Punch.

In the end, they did not destroy Punch: it destroyed itself, just as very few of the stories that Private Eye runs ever make a difference, let alone change political policy. All around the table could agree on this: the reason people continue to buy the Eye is the jokes, and particularly the front cover. And yet, woven into the jokes are the personal attacks — some justified, many others not. Personalities are shamed, and, if they defend them­selves, they stand to be accused of something worse: the inability to take a joke.

But let us cleanse our minds in the bracing air of Northumbria. Melvyn Bragg’s weekday series on Radio 4 — The Matter of the North — set out to remind us of the crucial importance of the region in our island’s past, and of a cultural sophistication far away from the south-east metropolitan bubble.

For Tuesday’s outing, he chose three Northumbrian artefacts that might stand for a Renais­sance in art and letters in the early Middle Ages. The Ruthwell Cross is possibly the less well-known of the three, and this listener would have been happy to spend the entire show listening to The Dream of the Rood — which is partially inscribed around it — read out to us in the original Northumbrian dialect.

The Lindisfarne Gospels never cease to amaze; and, although we have, in the past few years, been treated to a number of pro­­grammes on the Gospels, I had not appreciated until now quite how many shades of purple you can extract from the local species of lichen.

And so to Durham Cathedral in the steps of St Cuthbert, or Cuddy to the locals. Canon Rosalind Brown, who is the first female ordained member of Chapter, told us of the local fondness for Cuddy, and her own sense of acceptance by the legendarily misogynist saint. If Cuddy can do it, after all these years, you would think anyone can.

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