Crikey believes Private Eye to be the best magazine in the world and if we can even be a pale imitation of it we’ll be happy. That makes the Eye’s editor of the past 15 years, Ian Hislop, our hero so you should read this profile on the great man.
IAN HISLOP scoots up the stairs in Private Eye’s Soho offices. Once at his desk, he unfolds a scrap of paper with a telephone number written on it and calls his nanny. After making some complicated-sounding child-picking-up and dropping-off arrangements, he replaces the receiver and sighs.
His wife Victoria, a freelance journalist, has gone away for a few days leaving him in charge of their home in a Kent village and their two children, 11-year-old Emily and eight-year-old William. Hislop is the kind of man who is ‘very keen on my family’ because ‘it is something I treasure a great deal’. Yet when it gets down to the gritty realities of the domestic front, he is less sure of his prowess. He haltingly describes himself as ‘someone who is a bit shambolic, really. There is quite a lot of doing nothing at home. I am good at that. Just shambling about.’
‘Ummmm. Not hugely good at chores, no. Not very much of a new man,’ he says.
He clears his throat. He thinks for a bit.
‘I cleared out the cat litter this morning and put it in the wheelie bin.’
He thinks some more.
‘And since Victoria has been away, I have been making meals for the children.’
What kind of meals?
‘Sad dad meals. Pasta.’
And for pudding?
Clearly, then, not the sort to pop casseroles in or whip freshly baked scones out of a piping oven. And not hideously keen on whisking around his office with a feather duster, either. In each faded corner of his first-floor lair drifts the kind of callow mayhem once associated with sixth-form common rooms: tottering heaps of yellowed paper; old magazine covers tacked eagerly on to walls; peeling posters; torn cartoons; battered wooden chairs; a bentwood hatstand; and even an upright piano by the window.
However, look closer and you will see that someone has forged order on to this dusty clutter, someone has stamped methodology on to the madness. Elastic bands are clamped around files. Paperclips are in evidence. There is a logical sequence to the way a pile of books has been stored. A leather satchel is neatly packed with folders to be taken home. And unless I am very much mistaken, there even seem to be IN and OUT trays among the slurry and Polo mints on the editor’s desk.
‘Oh, yes. I do know where everything is,’ says Hislop, patting a sheaf of papers with a small, square hand.
When made editor of Private Eye at the age of 26 in 1985, he was treated with much suspicion by the incumbent journalists – not least because one of the first things he did was to put up some shelves. This seemed only to increase their wrath, which famously manifested itself in vicious mud-slinging. Among other things, Hislop – initially regarded as a pipsqueak upstart by old Eye hands such as Nigel Dempster, Peter McKay and Auberon Waugh – was called a pushy midget, a talentless twerp, a representative of illiterate yob culture and a pug-faced fogey. It can’t have been fun. It must have hurt.
‘I remember thinking, oh, this is so unjust. But in the end, I had the job and I knew what I wanted to do,’ says Hislop. ‘But I am not completely dead or insensitive. There were moments when I felt, “Ouch”.
But I thought, come on, you are not in a position to complain about this. If you are editing Private Eye you can’t make a big song and dance about personal unpleasantness. In a sense, if anyone deserved it, it was me. You really have to be able to take it as well as dish it out. And if you can’t, then you shouldn’t be doing the job.’
Still, it does point to a certain steeliness lurking behind those benign, gingerbread-man features, doesn’t it? The ability to accept or even embrace personal unpopularity is not a character trait often found in young people, particularly not those with only an English degree, the editorship of a college mag and a few Spitting Image sketches to their career credits at the time.
Hislop went on to successfully edit Private Eye for the next 15 years and, of course, was there at the helm to shepherd it through its 40th birthday celebrations last month. The anniversary was larded by two classic Private Eye moments: outrage over the cover it published following the terrorist attacks in New York, and then a High Court appearance by Hislop to answer a case which began 10 years ago, when the Eye suggested a West Country accountant was overcharging some of his clients. The ongoing trial is expected to run until December, a costly affair which has already racked up a decade of expensive – as if there were ever any other kind – lawyers’ bills. ‘Unbelievable amounts of money,’ says Hislop, who feels vindicated by his choice of cover but gloomy about the long days in the High Court ahead of him.
‘I always feel depressed in court. I can never believe the pace of it, it is so slow. Quite lowering. In this particular case, it has been like sailing towards an iceberg thinking, we’re not going to hit it, are we? And we have. It could be more expensive than any other case Private Eye has ever had.’
Hislop admits that the case lacks the high-profile punch of legendary Eye battles with the likes of Robert Maxwell, Sonia Sutcliffe or James Goldsmith – who issued more than 90 libel writs against the magazine during the Seventies – but he is committed to the fight. ‘Perhaps it is not amusing reading. But I don’t regret fighting it,’ he says.
Over the years, there are those who claim that Hislop’s stewardship of the magazine has resulted in less amusing reading all round. One of the first things he did was to axe the Grovel gossip column, a chronicle of misbehaving posh folks and media people who loved reading about their own exploits. There is still a place at the table for serious journalism – including important stories on Bristol Infirmary, BSE and Lockerbie – but the scabrous edges have been leavened with the introduction of more funny articles and jokes. With a circulation holding steady at 188,000, it is broader in appeal and more populist than before; a progression which does not please everyone. Hislop says, ‘I never stop hearing that Private Eye is not as good as it was. What cheers me up is that Paul Foot told me that people started saying that in 1963.’
Today, Hislop defines himself as an editor by the things he is not rather than the things he is: he is not a puritan like his predecessor Richard Ingrams, certainly not someone keen on ‘legover’ or gay vicar stories. Not a Tory anarchist like Waugh, not an idealogue like Paul Foot and not at all like his right-hand man, Francis Wheen, who analyses events and characters from a clear-minded, Left-wing point of view. ‘I tend to approach it in simpler terms: that behaviour seems to be unjustifiable. Or that is just wrong or that is stupid and that is really pathetic,’ says Hislop, who is sometimes outraged and amused in equal measure. But not always.
Back at home in Kent, his satirist’s day begins when he switches on Radio 4’s Today programme when still in bed. ‘By the time I get up, I am annoyed,’ he says, estimating that he begins shouting at the radio after about five minutes, sometimes even sooner. Victoria’s all-time favourite gift from her husband is a kind of apology for this rabid behaviour: an original cartoon depicting the foamy-mouthed antics of Men Who Shout At The Radio from inside their padded cell. ‘Sometimes Victoria will say, “Lighten up, Ian!” But you need irritation to fuel you. After Today is finished, it takes me about an hour and a bit to read all the newspapers and by that time I am incandescent,’ says Hislop, who also concedes that somewhere among the fury, there is also a moral dimension to the way he shapes his jokes and selects his targets.
‘If there wasn’t a moral core to the magazine, it would be very difficult to justify it. And I would like to be thought of as a trustworthy person. I know this sounds a very odd thing for the editor of Private Eye to say because I suppose the perception is, ooh, you can’t trust him with your life. But I don’t really like that image. I would really rather be thought of as trustworthy.’
If someone begged him not to put a story about them in Private Eye, what would he do?
‘I’d only take it out if they said it wasn’t true. And they were convincing. I want the magazine to be trustworthy, too; I don’t want people to read it and think that none of it is true. That would be a real waste of life.’
So, while there is not exactly the whiff of cordite about his presence, he certainly does not disabuse visitors of the notion that he is a rootin’-tootin’, kick-ass kinda editing guy; one who does not quail from sacking others or doing the dirty work when needs must – although it is interesting that he regards himself as someone who is ‘unbearably pushy’ rather than someone who is a natural leader. Neither does he let himself off lightly. On the wall behind his desk he has pinned up a postcard which reads, ‘I am disappointed in you, Ian. Private Eye used to be run by people who cared about the truth, not careerist dwarves.’
Tacked up next to it with a piece of rotting Sellotape is an article written in the Seventies. It reads, ‘Private Eye’s jeering is simply the means clever people employ to remain lazily ignorant.’
Hislop swivels around in his chair and points to it. ‘I keep it there as an aide memoire,’ he says. ‘I keep it there to make sure that it never happens.’
According to those who knew him back in the mid-Eighties, Hislop was a studious-looking cove who favoured milk-bottle spectacles, blouson jackets and assorted pairs of slacks or cords for his satirist-about-town look. It may be partly to do with his regular and popular appearances on the television quiz show Have I Got News For You or partly connected with natural sartorial evolution, but he certainly looks much better these days. He has a neat cap of hair, a clear complexion and, this afternoon at least, just a tiny glimmer of tanned celebrity lustre. I even suspect a touch of professional grooming. ‘Manicure?’ he yelps. ‘Oh, no. No manicures. Nothing like that.’ Still, he does look groovy in his navy Alexandre suit with its flashy cobalt silk lining and his Balmain shirt unbuttoned at the neck, revealing an unexpected sprouting of thick chest hair. I don’t know why this should be so surprising, but it is – like finding a tuft of fur on your breakfast boiled egg.
In manner, he is scrupulously polite and cordial and he uses this propriety in the classic English way – to keep outsiders at a distance and to maintain his own aura of inscrutability. Whenever our conversation strays towards the personal, he practically starts beading with sweat and the confident swoops and gallops of his conversation are replaced by mechanical judders and dead halts. Did he feel loved surrounded by friends at his 40th birthday last year? ‘I felt in the bosom of a close circle of people who have put up with me for an awfully long time. Probably no more than that.’ Was he popular with girls when he was younger? ‘Gosh. These are difficult questions, aren’t they?’ he says, reddening. ‘I was a public-school retard who started a bit late. There are lots of images in my head, but they are not going to be shared with you.’
He will allow that he is not against smacking children before begging off the topic of his own progeny. However, like the fugitive who cannot resist the impulse to step from his place of hiding, Hislop soon brings up the subject which he himself fears most: the death of his father.
David Hislop was a civil engineer from Glasgow, part of the great Scottish diaspora who moved around the new world building bridges and tunnels during the Sixties. Hislop Snr was a man with a reputation for enjoying life, someone who led black-tie reels into the fountains outside the Mandarin Hotel in Hong Kong, a man who adored water-skiing and messing about in boats. From the ages of eight to 18, Ian boarded at a public school in Sussex, but he remembers idyllic holidays in such places as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Nigeria.
‘My childhood seemed to be golden; endless summers spent on beaches. A great deal of sand and picnics and waves,’ he says. ‘I have a lot of memories of my parents dressing up together to go out, that Peter Pan Mr Darling moment of them doing up buttons and leaving the house. When we lived in Hong Kong in the Seventies, we had a bar in the downstairs bit of the flat. In retrospect, I would think, gosh, that must have been quite naff. But how brilliant for Dad who had escaped Fifties Scotland and got himself a bar. With drinks on it. It was all incredibly enjoyable for my sister and me and then. . . it sort of ended.’ Hislop’s father died of cancer when his son was 12 years old, a young boy on the cusp of adolescence. ‘I found out in the classic boarding school manner,’ he recalls flatly. ‘I was pulled out of lessons by the headmaster. “Can we have a word? Your mother is here.” Why is my mother here? Upstairs to the study. There’s Mother. Tears. I mean, you know. It’s in a lot of novels. It was terribly sad. I missed having a father, if not my father.’
From that point onwards, Hislop’s early life was split into two distinct halves: the golden period when his father was still alive and the gloom that followed his death. Being fond of his mother and sister, he never dreaded going home during the holidays but now they became periods which were ‘slightly mixed up with sadness’. His mother, he believes, never really got over her husband’s death and never remarried. ‘I think that’s sad. I wish now that she had,’ he says. She died shortly after the birth of his first child, another event which has spiked his character with a trace of melancholy. ‘I felt semi-orphaned for a while. I felt that moment when the sun goes out for a bit. My mother was someone I could always rely on to think I was great, even when I wasn’t. She was terrifically encouraging.’
Hislop learnt hard lessons about mortality at an early age, quickly realising that ‘I could never be as carefree again’ and that ‘any cosy, privileged state you enjoy in your life will not necessarily last’. On the positive side, he felt cradled and protected by the activities and friendships which powered him through his schooldays – his former classmate Nick Newman is still his main comic collaborator today – and it did give him a hunger for life and a certain energy that was perhaps lacking before. ‘I wanted to do lots of stuff and try things. It saved me from one fate: that terrible teenage fate of trying to be cool. If I am ever asked to give students advice now, I say, “Don’t stand around being cool. Time goes by awfully quickly and you will miss out on everything that there is.” ‘
In comparison, Hislop threw himself into scripting and acting in comic revues and sketches, editing the magazine Passing Wind while studying English at Oxford, and building on his ambition to ‘get myself into the position where I could be amusing on television’. Indeed, this uncool am-dram background has served him well on Have I Got News For You, where his blimpish squints and explosions of mock indignation – and sometimes real anger – have made him an unlikely but popular television personality. To Hislop’s dismay, his onscreen spat with Paula Yates – when she called him the sperm of the devil – has become the most notorious moment in the show’s 10-year history and has left him with a reputation as a bully who picks on blondes.
‘Who are the other pretty women I have attacked? The Hamiltons? Al Fayed? All these blondes! Who are they?’ he says, irritated. ‘This annoys me because it is untrue. When Paula Yates came on the show, she wasn’t a lame no-hoper, she was a very ballsy star who had just sold her book about her breast enlargement to a newspaper for 30 grand. In all normal terms, she was fair game.’
It particularly vexes him that, following Yates’s death, some feminist writers have accused him of being a public school misogynist who ‘more or less killed her’.
‘Just balls!’ he shrieks, as well he might. If he had been nice to Yates or any of the other pretties who appear from time to time on the programme or in Private Eye’s pages, he would be guilty of patronising them. For here is a man who finds it difficult to be professionally nice, here is a man who is paid to be unpleasant. He shouts at the radio. He rages at newspapers. But he remains very, very proud of himself for cleaning out the cat litter. (That’s enough Ian Hislop. Ed.)