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British Satire: Still Current After 170 Years

After three weeks in London, I'm finally starting to understand some local customs and mores. Yet I confess that political cartoons remain a challenge. They often reference obscure government ministers or historical practices in such an oblique way that I totally miss the joke.

So it was with some relief that I stumbled upon a cartoon over the weekend whose meaning was unambiguously clear. In the black-and-white drawing, a glutton with a gaping mouth full of sharp teeth steps on a poor, miserable man, who lies pinned to the floor.

Across the glutton's distended gut are the words "NATIONAL DEBT, all a growing." Perched on debt's shoulders, a fat, devilish baby with bulging cheeks wraps his legs around the glutton's neck. The baby's ample belly says "INTEREST."

It's not subtle, but the cartoon does capture the current political moment.

Earlier this month, British Chancellor George Osborne warned that the government will have to cut spending by 25 billion pounds a year in order to balance the books.

"2014 is the year of hard truths — the year when Britain faces a choice," he said in a speech. "Do we say, 'The worst is over; back we go to our bad habits of borrowing and spending and living beyond our means and let the next generation pay the bill'? Or do we say to ourselves, 'Yes, because of our plan, things are getting better, but there is still a long way to go'? "

I must acknowledge that I've omitted one detail of the cartoon. In the drawing, the glutton's belly says, "NATIONAL DEBT, 1844 all a growing." This illustration appeared in Punch, a British satirical periodical that was published from 1841 to 2002.

Punch (though there is some dispute) has been credited with inventing the cartoon as it is known today.

The satirical British magazine <em>Punch</em> warns against rising government debt — in 1844. It's a debate still taking place today.
/ Ari Shapiro/NPR
The satirical British magazine <em>Punch</em> warns against rising government debt — in 1844. It's a debate still taking place today.

In an antiques store Sunday, I stumbled upon issue No. 6, published in 1844.

It was a surprisingly great read, 170 years later. Witty and literate, with jokes about everything from the royals to the weather (and fish): "If the frost continues, soles are usually dressed with skates, followed by flounders."

It's another reminder that history means something different on this side of the Atlantic. This worn old book in an antiques shop was published before the U.S. fought its Civil War. At Cambridge, the study of "Modern British History" begins 300 years ago.

It's also a reminder that all those years ago, people were occupied with many of the same concerns that occupy us today: hand-wringing about debts and deficits, and fears of slipping on the ice in the dead of winter.

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