Monday, October 6, 2008

A tale of literary grafitti

Drawn splendour: Helen Walasek, of the Punch Cartoon Library ( introduces The Best of Punch Cartoons

One of the world’s most famous pieces of literary furniture – the legendary Punch table – has been saved for the nation by the British Library, which bought it along with the Punch archive from Harrods’ owner Mohamed Al Fayed in 2004. But when is it going to be displayed to the nation? At the moment, it lies in the Library’s storage facility in Micawber Street in Islington – an irony that will not be lost on any who know anything of the history of the magazine: Charles Dickens’ work was rejected by Punch.

These thoughts are in my head following the party for Prion’s sumptuous The Best of Punch Cartoons, hosted by Harrods because Fayed, who abortively re-started the magazine in 1996 (the first Punch lasted from 1841 to 1992; Fayed closed his version in 2002) , still owns the name and copyright. Some 2,000 drawings are included which are not only very funny, but also show how the UK has changed over the last 160 years. The historian Asa Briggs once said that it was Punch that gave the most accurate reflection of how the UK was feeling during the Second World War.

So why does the table matter? For those who don’t know – and there is no reason why people should necessarily know – since the middle of the nineteenth century all the magazine’s editors and many of its famous contributors were invited to carve their initials into the table’s surface. The Punch table is like a giant, wooden, literary autograph book. Among those who have literally left their mark are Anthony Powell, author of A Dance to the Music of Time, Keith Waterhouse of Billy Liar fame, AA Milne and his Winnie the Pooh illustrator E H Shepard, former Poet Laureate John Betjeman, and William Makepeace Thackeray. Dickens was a frequent lunch guest but was never invited to sign. Guests in more recent years included Margaret Thatcher and Prince Charles.

Table talk: Margaret Thatcher becomes the first woman to attend a Punch Lunch on 22 November 1975 at the offices of Punch magazine in London. Editor William Davis is shown presenting her with an illustration for a Punch front cover painted by Trog (Wally Fawkes) showing her as an Afghan coat wearing hippy. Also present on her right are Michael Parkinson, Keith Waterhouse, David Taylor and Miles Kington (smoking) (c) Punch Ltd
In 1907, at the end of his last visit to England, Mark Twain came to the magazine’s offices for a special lunch in his honour. He was invited to carve his initials in the table but, seeing those of W M Thackeray, he quipped: “Two-thirds of Thackeray will do for me.” James Thurber, whose Walter Mitty surely influenced Billy Liar, was honoured by the magazine in 1958, and though he was by then nearly blind he managed to carve the ‘Th’ with which he used to sign his cartoons.

It is clear that the table is of literary and cultural importance. It should be on permanent display. The good news is that there is a proposal for a major exhibition at the British Library in 2011 which would be the magazine’s 170th birthday and the 200th anniversary of Thackeray’s birth, a key figure from the magazine’s early years. 2011 will also be the 160th anniversary of the Crystal Palace, whose name began in the pages of Punch. Helen Walasek, Curator of the Punch Archive who selected the cartoons for the book, is certainly pushing for it. Let’s hope the Library gives the green light to this proposal and that this rather special antique soon has a wider audience.

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