The BBC's Foreign Editor John Simpson was in town this week promoting his new book Unreliable Sources. The bookis a study of reporters and reporting throughout the 20th century, and Simpson's particular focus for the evening was wartime journalists and the problems they faced in unearthing the truth. Along with some fun anecdotes about Nelson Mandela and a boozy Boris Yeltsin.
But for me the most fascinating part of the evening was learning about The Wipers Times, a satirical paper which was published by soldiers stationed at Ypres in WWI. It ran for two years from 1916, which is an amazing feat considering the difficulties in setting up a printing press at the front and the way it mercilessly poked fun at those in charge in times of severe censorship.
The succession of in-jokes about life in the trenches, the mock adverts (like the one above, taken from gunbroker.com), topical puns and amusing poetry gave the paper's readers something to laugh about and bond over. It was all well-written, hugely subversive stuff.
There's a whole book about it featuring extracts and a foreword from Private Eye's Ian Hislop plus a few mentions on the web, including this excellent article from a First World War website about satire during the Great War. It explains how the paper was so popular readers were moved to send in their own contributions. To the point where they had to issue this plea:
We regret to announce that an insidious disease is affecting the Division, and the result is a hurricane of poetry. Subalterns have been seen with a notebook in one hand, and bombs in the other absently walking near the wire in deep communication with the muse…The editor would be obliged if a few of the poets would break into prose as a paper cannot live by "poems" alone. Never mind celebrated war poets like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen; instead editors had to deal with a flurry of amateurs bombarding them with simply rubbish poems.
I also like the way they used pseudonyms to enable them to be even more cheeky, for example in pieces by 'Teech Bomas' which sharply parodied the self-important articles from pompous Daily Mail war correspondent William Beach Thomas. They even managed to create the occasional cartoon despite the problems of hand-engraving the printing block.
Fast forward 90 years...
This particularly British habit of laughing in the face of horror brought to mind a feature I read in Esquire earlier that day about the new Chris Morris film Four Lions.
This satire on a group of bumbling terrorists promises to whip up a storm not seen since, well, the Brass Eye special in 2001 which saw Morris lampooning the media hysteria surrounding paedophilia.
During research for the film the producers interviewed former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg, who explained how he used black humour to cope with life inside, to the alarm of the American guards who certainly weren't expecting him to make jokes about his situation. Nearly a century on, the British habit of finding solace in humour when you're really up against it is still going strong.