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Richard Ingrams: Lords of the Gnomes.

Not many of the so-called scribblers and hacks beloved by Private Eye will be disposed to share the view that it has not only had a profound effect on post-war journalism but that it influenced and, if you please, educated the British middle classes in a way which left Fleet Street scurrying to catch up. Sceptics will undoubtedly say that the evidence for such an extravagant claim is hard to discern, as indeed it is, but it matters not.

What cannot be denied the Eye, as it is fondly known even by its sternest critics, is due credit for its pioneering efforts in the field of investigative journalism. It has often, as this entertaining biography of Richard Ingrams, its editor for nearly a quarter of a century, shows led the way down danger-strewn paths where others feared to tread. The cost in libel damages of exposing chicanery and corruption in high places was sometimes astronomical, particularly when writs flew in profusion from ruthless, well-heeled tycoons like Robert Maxwell. Circulation gains, however, boosted by the resulting publicity ensured that the magazine not only survived but prospered.

In the mid 1980s when it was named magazine of the year sales reached nearly a quarter of a million, four times that of Punch. Politicians whether they knew it or not made a significant contribution. The arrival of Mrs. Thatcher in 10 Downing Street was seen as a godsend. More of the Eye's readers were of the Left persuasion than the Right; they wanted to see her lampooned rather than read about the failures of the Opposition.

The invention of the Dear Bill letter, the imaginary blimpish correspondence between Denis Thatcher in No. 10 and his golfing chum, Bill Deedes also worked wonders for circulation at a time of need.

The pivotal role of Richard Ingrams as editor or Lord of the Gnomes -- the magazine's fictitious press Lord is called Lord Gnome -- in this uniquely successful publishing venture is closely analysed by Harry Thompson in what is one of the more readable of the recent crop of Fleet Street memoirs. Though overly sympathetic perhaps, he dutifully chronicles the criticism and charges of racism, anti-Semitism and snobbery to name but a few of those which have been levelled against the magazine and its editor. The mud is not allowed to stick, Ingrams, say those who know him best, harbours no such prejudices. He is a moralist and a born satirist, religious certainly but by no means a puritan.

Be that as it may, people read the Eye for what it is, an irreverent, amusing and frequently tasteless chronicle of our time. Politicians, media folk, power seekers and self-publicists are among its chief targets not to mention a rich assortment of crooks, con-men and those it labels pseuds.

The question often asked is how Ingrams, moralist that he is coming from a privileged background and a good school could identify with such a brash and vulgar print. He must, say his detractors, be a hypocrite; either that or a puritanical eccentric who neither smokes nor drinks and, odder still, plays the church organ for recreation. The revealed truth, however, according to his disciples is very different. Lord Gnome is an elitist but not a snob. He believes strongly in moral values but stops short of righteousness. So what, then, is the Eye about? Basically, explains Ingrams, it is against hypocrisy.

'I always viewed the function of Private Eye as analagous to a sort of weedkiller. In order to apply the weedkiller you have to know where the weeds are . . . I have an ethic only in a very general sense of saying that people who seek authority and power should be subject to ridicule. I suppose I do condemn a lot but I try not to be censorious.'

Since his retirement from Private Eye with which he still retains strong links, Ingrams, at 57, has found a new role as editor of The Oldie, a periodical aimed at the over 50s which he launched in 1992. Though he often sounds and sometimes looks morose he is not an unhappy man despite, according to his biographer, having led a largely unhappy life. He makes people laugh. That, say his friends, is his genius.
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Author:Evans, George
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1994
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