During the early 70s, when I was fortunate enough to land a job as an executive trainee in one of Calcutta’s leading advertising agencies, I had precious little idea of what I was letting myself in for. The hurly-burly, non-stop excitement of working shoulder to shoulder with bright-as-buttons creative copywriters and art directors; tough-as-nails, smooth-talking bosses, some of whom grandly toted cigars and if I allowed my imagination to run wild, a snifter glass of Hennessy cognac swirling about in their free hand. Not to be outdone, pretty much all your colleagues, men or women, smoked a variety of cigarette brands like chimneys. I meant they smoked liked chimneys, not that the cigarette brands were like chimneys, if you get my meaning. These transferred epithets are a pain to the unwary writer. Forgive the digression. Smoking was not merely a habit, a bad one, but a fashion-statement, an equally bad one. If you didn’t smoke, you were not quite ‘with it.’ Incidentally, if you were game for extremes, then the humble ‘bidi,’ favoured by rickshaw-wallahs and their ilk, took you to the top of the pecking order – inverted snobbery! This was before the spoilsports from the health ministry started insisting that all cigarette packets must carry dire warnings stating that the inhalation of noxious fumes from tobacco could lead to an early grave. Not being copywriters, they adopted the more prosaic line, ‘Cigarette smoking is injurious to health.’ Some of the packs, not taking chances, even had a skull and crossbones graphic alongside. Not that anyone took a blind bit of notice.
Anyhow, it was the done thing those days, walking around looking pensive, with a Wills Filter or Charms dangling from your lips. Think: Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. And if the midnight oil had to be burned, which was often, to meet client presentation deadlines, you could count on a never-ending supply of Old Monk rum on tap. Hardly the sort of atmosphere my strictly conservative parents would have envisaged or desired for their quiet, obedient son. I have had occasion to touch upon this licentious aspect of my early days in advertising in some of my other missives, so I shan’t go over that well-trodden path again. Except, perhaps, to add gratuitously that I was a total disgrace to this accepted template of the rising ad man. One small rum I could just about manage. The second, forced down my glass (if not my throat), invariably watered the nearest potted plant when my colleagues were looking the other way. They were too sozzled to notice, anyway. As for cigarettes, my father thought them sinful, and I had visions of Purgatory whenever I took a tentative puff. It came as no surprise when my boss angrily exclaimed, ‘You don’t smoke, you can’t drink, what the hell are you doing in an advertising agency?’ Touché. That said, it wasn’t all smoke and mirrors at the agency. Merely the preliminary pourparlers preceding a more elevating aspect of those early days of my advertising career.
The wonderful thing about our agency was that it had a well-stocked library. Apart from the classics and many of the more modern authors of that period (Salinger, Kerouac et al), the agency also subscribed to a number of Indian and foreign magazines. The idea was that reading books would never be a waste of time in a profession where the English language was deemed a primary sine qua non for success. In later years, books and periodicals in some of India’s major vernaculars were also added to the subscription list, as language advertising became a prime requirement.
One of the many magazines that adorned our library was the British humour and satire weekly, Punch. This venerable magazine, which was founded in 1841, and sadly downed its shutters some 151 years later in 1992, was one of the most sought-after publications in our library. Even if you were not amongst the first to ‘get at it’ as soon as it was delivered, there were plenty of back issues to go through. However, a word in season with the librarian, along with a packet of fags always helped to receive that early tip-off. Apart from the wondrous content, both written articles as well as rib-tickling cartoons and illustrations, the magazine gave us an insight into high class advertising in Britain during the vibrant 70s. Tobacco, liquor and top-of-the-line automobiles were the primary categories heavily advertised in Punch, reflecting the exalted target group that constituted the magazine’s core readership. My little cubicle was refulgent with colourful adverts, stunningly photographed (and airbrushed) cut out from the magazine’s pages – an inspiration to any aspiring advertising executive. The librarian was none too pleased with my vandalizing the magazines thus, but he took the broad view and looked the other way – the fags doing their stuff!
More than the advertising, I was hooked on to the legendary columnists who regaled me week after week with their ability to bring down politicians and venerable institutions with extraordinary style and elan, such that you could hardly take offence. America’s mirror image magazine, MAD, crude by comparison, could scarcely hold a candle to Punch. Editors and contributors to Punch were legends in their own right. Basil Boothroyd, Alan Coren, E.S. Turner and Miles Kington were among the regulars that kept me entertained over an idle hour. Some of my senior colleagues and bosses would pop round to my ‘cabin’ on hearing my uncontrolled chortling, wanting to know if I was having an apoplectic fit. And if not, what the dickens was I doing reading magazines when I should have been working on that Dunlop truck tyre presentation. Well, it was a small price to pay, earning my bosses’ indulgent wrath against the literary enjoyment I derived from Punch. Incidentally, occasional celebrated contributors to Punch, historically, have included the likes of P.G. Wodehouse, Kingsley Amis, Keith Waterhouse, A.A. Milne, Somerset Maugham and Sylvia Plath. The last named took me by surprise. The celebrated poet and author of the classic roman-à-clef, The Bell Jar and the poetic Ariel, Sylvia Plath suffered from severe depression and tragically took her own life. Wouldn’t have thought she was the right fit for the happy-go-lucky Punch, but I will need to read her contributions, if I can source them, before arriving at any definitive conclusion. Although the magazine no longer exists, the works of many of its brilliant contributors, most of them no longer with us, are available in book form. Now in the relaxed evening of my life, I have been ordering some of these wonderful collection volumes online, ecstatically poring over them all the livelong day. I was also fortunate to get my grubby hands on some of the Punch annuals at select second-hand book shops in places like Portobello Road in London during some of my memorable visits to the UK. You can’t get these now for love or money. And to anyone reading this who is entertaining ideas of borrowing some of these treasures from me, let me put you straight. You are most welcome to come home and spend a few hours leafing through them, as you would at the British Council library, but the books shall not leave my premises. So there. You have been duly cautioned.
In conclusion, I would like to share an interesting personal experience I had with Punch. During my callow advertising agency days, I would spend some of my spare time attempting to write articles of a humorous nature, inspired by Punch. I would submit these to some of the local newspapers in Calcutta for favour of publication. They did me no favours! More often than not, I would not hear from them. On the rare occasion when I did, it would be a bland pre-printed rejection slip without even the courtesy of a signature. I then decided that I would go the whole hog and try my luck with Punch. In for a penny, in for a pound. Remember, these were pre-email days. I slaved for weeks, carefully typing and retyping the draft, checking for misplaced apostrophes and errant punctuations, and wrote a thoughtfully worded covering letter to the Editor and bunged it off Par Avion to London. Set me back a pretty penny in postage stamps, I can tell you. I expected nothing, and nothing happened for close to a month. Just when I had given up the ghost, a buff envelope arrived with my name and address neatly typed and the Punch rubber stamp proudly displayed along with the Queen’s philatelic mug shot. My pulse raced. I felt like the poet Wordsworth; ‘My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky.’ ‘Can it be?’ I asked myself, holding my breath. I did not dare open the envelope for a good fifteen minutes. Finally, with the aid of a kitchen knife, I carefully slit the envelope and fished out the letter. It was from Miles Kington from the editorial board of Punch. Clearly handwritten with a biro it said, ‘Nice idea, but it could do with a bit of reworking. Keep writing. Best wishes. Miles.’
It was the nicest and most treasured reject letter I have ever received. If only I can find the blessed thing! A few days ago, I ordered from Amazon and received ‘The best of Miles,’ a collection of Kington’s finest columns, along with another volume of his distinguished colleague, Alan Coren’s choicest pieces. My cup runneth over. Pleased as Punch, in fact.