14 NOVEMBER 1958, Page 31

Mayhew for Fun

The Bia City: or The New Mayhew. By Alex Atkinson and Ronald Searle. (Perpetua, 21s.) HENRY MAYFIEW, a founder and editor of Punch. Was a superb reporter and an innovator. He claimed with justice that his vast London Labour and the London Poor, published in 1851, was • • . the first attempt to publish the history of a People from the lips of the people themselves— giving a literal. description of their labour, their earnings, their trials, and their sufferings, in their own 'unvarnished' language, and to portray the . condition of their homes and their families by Personal observation of the places and direct communication with the individuals. 11 is crammed with racy, funny. frightening, hor- rible, astonishing life histories : the language rings true, for Mayhew had an ear for the spoken Cock- ney Word; and his straight-faced unshockability :411d tart, glancing Victorian humour give it a nIghlY characteristic flavour-Land one not difficult to Parody, Alex Atkinson had the bright idea of writing for Mayhew's paper, and in the nineteenth-cen-

tury Mayhew manner, a series of twentieth- century character sketches that proved to be agreeable weekly entertainment : here they are collected, with their brilliant, amusing, fantas- ticated portraits by Ronald Searle—and somehow, in spite of witty pen and witty pencil, it doesn't quite come off. The old Mayhew served a serious sociological purpose : the new Mayhew—well, is it serious reporting, as in the recorded monologue from the West Indian railwayman, or is it an elaborate double-barrelled jape, scoring off old man Mayhew and (for pathetic example) the encyclopedia-salesman at one brisk go, in a lively little piece that makes you smile as you read, and wonder at the very slightly nasty taste in the mouth afterwards'?

Oh, I have tried clerking, but in these days a man does not care to be tied to a humdrum occupation for a lifetime. There is easier money to be made, if one can but find the way. You have only to look about you in this parlour where we sit, at these plump, well-fed rascals taking Whisky-and-water. Well, of course, no encyclopedia-salesman of our time talks like that : Mr. Atkinson is after show- ing us what a funny fellow Mayhew was, as well as how superior the present writer and his readers are to the salesman, the ageing actress, the hard-up parson, the tart, and—to plumb the depths—his 'Literary Man,' a book-reviewer. Whereas old Mayhew wrote in the style that came naturally to himself, and to his readers, and never for a moment patronised the poor, the feckless, the unfortunate or the depraved.