Some years ago, a very kind person bought me a collection of old Punch magazines from the early 20th Century, gathered together in hardback book form. Punch magazine, for those who’ve never heard of it, was a very gently satirical publication which reached its heyday in the headiest days of the British Empire.
The collection which I received dated from just after the zenith of Empire. The sun hadn’t fully set by then, but the fact that John Bull had needed bailing out by the Yanks in World War One had begun to gently undermine the feeling of invulnerability.
Not that you’d necessarily know this from the pages of Punch, however. Its chief attraction, even today, is the way it continued to inhabit a parallel universe of cocktail parties, tennis parties and strangely worldwise debutantes. Its politics, like the BBC and most of the British media today, was fervently Tory.
Some of its famous cartoons from the 19th and 20th Centuries are regularly exhumed to provide illustrations of the appallingly racist attitudes held by the British establishment towards people like the Irish and Scottish, or indeed anyone who wasn’t from London SW1.
That said, history is one of my weaknesses, particularly those kinds of history which concern things that probably never existed. It was fun to lose myself in the innocent seeming fake reality of Punch for a while. Perhaps it was an antidote to other, more violent realities, both real and fake.
The following was conceived as a kind of homage to the pages of Punch. Perhaps, like Tim Burton’s movie ‘Ed Wood’ – a tribute to the legendary ‘worst movie director of all time’ – it amounts to a kind of affectionate sneer, which if you think about it is actually kind of tricky:
“There could be no surer sign of summer that the inevitable decamp of Lady Gladys Tewkesbury-Chubbybottom and her small retinue to the beaches of Monte for the season. There, the venerable lady would while away the nights at the gaming tables, eyeballing men in monocles and winning elaborate bluffs against ‘tossers’ in white tuxes. More than one top British agent is believed to have lost his life after coming out the wrong end of a lucrative showdown with Lady Gladys.
By day, Lady Gladys would take to her favourite veranda overlooking the beach. There, she would swill down heroic measures of her favourite Gin Martinis while passing disparaging comments upon the girth and hue of the many scantily clad bathers milling about below.
“‘B’Gad,’ she commented one day, having sought to cleanse her palate by skulling down an entire small bottle of pure vodka, “if I have another few, I might start to feel it.”
‘Feel what, Chubby dear?” inquired her friend, The Hon. Virginia Goodthing, besported provocatively, though somewhat accidentally, across the nearest deckchair.
“‘Buggahed if I know,’ replied Lady Gladys, before bellowing for another martini.
‘Have you heard the one about the three Irishmen?’ inquired Lady Gladys, for the fourth or fifth time that day.
Before Ginny Goodthing could venture some sort of reply, her venerable friend shocked onlookers and created instant carnage on the beach by giving vent to a rectal exhalation of some eleven minutes’ duration. Eyewitnesses testimony as to the precise nature of these ululations is scant, because they gave rise to a kill zone of some two thousand yards in diameter.
But those who did hear it assured me, in the windy seconds before they passed away, that it resembled nothing to much as a giant gaseous concerto, with dramatic pauses for breath before each new trumpet blast.
The Moroccan waiter who was bringing Lady Gladys her drink unfortunately dropped dead not far from Ground Zero, but there was happily always another one of both – drink and waiter – standing by.
‘How is all the family, Botty?” asked Ginny Goodthing, having most carefully removed her gas mask after a suitably decent interval. ‘Rupert and Jemima and the estimable Brigadier out there in Keen-yah?’
Lady Gladys responded with a haughty burp. For those who will never even aspire to such status and dignity as Lady Gladys, it should be noted that the ability to burp haughtily is itself a hallmark of true nobility.
‘The young,’ she pronounced, ‘are a tragedy Ginny, a waste of decent stock. Although, mind you, we expect Rupert to be made Foreign Secretary any day now. Keep him out of mischief I suppose, after that unfortunately engagement to the Archbishop of York.’
‘And little Jemmy?’ inquired Ginny, ‘what a delightful child she was. How amusing the way she used to hold the servants down and draw rude caricatures on their faces. Such a spirited child.’
Lady Gladys responded with her most disapproving snort (and she had many different varieties and gradations of snort). ‘That spirited child has gone entirely to the bad, Ginny. Fallen in with that Bloomsbury set, I believe, and now she wants to marry her hamster, or worse, someone who doesn’t even have a title. I blame myself, or rather her father, didn’t get nearly enough of the lash when she was a youngster.’
‘Ah the young are a burden indeed,’ pronounced Ginny sagely, fighting off a brief attack of nausea by vomiting heartily into a shoe. ‘But there must be good tidings of the Brigadier. How are he and all his apes getting on?’
‘Oh famously Ginny, famously. I had a postcard from his keeper the other day. The apes are in fine fettle. They and the Brigadier go out running every day, climbing various trees and throwing poo down upon the unsuspecting. Being, as you know Ginny, a natural leader, the Brigadier has become a figure of respect among the apes. He apparently celebrated a mass wedding among them the other week, and is now deep into planning a raid against a neighbouring tribe of apes who have been getting a bit above themselves lately.’
‘He is an inspiration to us all,’ hiccupped Ginny.’
‘Oh it wasn’t for nothing that Earl Kitchener, bless his mighty moustache, made the Brigadier Governor of Burma. It’s something to think about while we’re surrounded by all this debauchery and degeneracy. Look, those bloody nudists have started moving about again. I better have another martini.’
‘Oh Botty,” ejaculated Ginny, ‘at least give me time to get my mask back on.'”
Next week: Lady Gladys powders her nose.