Recalling ‘Fireside Fun’
Q: How can you tell Meccano enthusiasts have no sense of humour?
A: Read the jokes in ‘Fireside Fun’.
But be warned, there could be worse to come! With the jokes from last year’s Christmas crackers a safely faded memory, let me take you back to the days before central heating, better known as ‘Fireside Fun’.
‘Fireside Fun’ first appeared in the Meccano Magazine in December 1923. Before that, there was a puzzle page with a few jokes to fill the spaces. Then in mid-1923 the Editor asked readers to send in suggestions for improvements. This was a classic case of being careful what you wish for, in case you get it. When the new magazine came out, just in time for Christmas, the price had doubled from 1d to 2d and postal charges were increased too. The Editor hoped readers wouldn’t mind!
Perhaps they didn’t. The magazine was 16 pages longer and more colourful. The puzzles now became outnumbered by the jokes, and the page was for the first time titled ‘Fireside Fun’. A well-executed drawing headed the page, showing a typical Meccano-owning family, obviously comfortably off, and relaxing, appropriately, by the fireside. These drawings would be a regular feature. Some of the jokes would be illustrated too, with little sketches, including a rather contrived Meccano-themed one in the very first issue. The joke itself would always be printed below. Speech bubbles were never used; too much like a comic, perhaps. The drawings were rarely credited, although to judge from the styles there were at least three artists responsible. (Later drawings were signed, but not always legibly.) The jokes were not usually credited either; did no-one want to own up?
From December 1923
The humour looks dated to modern eyes. Racial and social stereotypes abounded, and many of the jokes would be embarrassing or unacceptable today. Maids, nursemaids, doctors’ bills, and toffs who could afford motor-cars often featured. Regional and class accents were denoted by distorting the spelling, albeit with hyphens dutifully added to denote missing letters. Jokes regularly poked fun at figures of authority:
Policeman: “We don’t get these stripes for hanging around on street corners, you know.”
Urchin: “No, if you did, you’d look like a bloomin’ zebra by now.”
Master: “Name six animals that come from India.”
Schoolboy: “Five lions and a tiger.”
Which takes us to schoolboy howlers:
Teacher: “Johnnie, name some collective nouns.”
Johnnie: “Fly-paper and vacuum cleaners.”
Add some innocent misunderstandings:
“That is a skyscraper,” announced our guide.
Old lady: “Oh my, I’d love to see it work!”
Don’t overlook the philosophical:
“How in the world do you think up your jokes?”
“I sit down and laugh, then I think backwards.”
And I’m really not sure what I’m supposed to make of this variant on the “Who was that lady…” theme:
Child (to stranger in railway carriage): “Daddy, Daddy!”
Mother: “Hush, George. That isn’t Daddy; it’s a gentleman.”
But however corny the joke, the educational thrust of the Magazine was not forgotten. The rules of punctuation were always rigorously applied, with speech marks liberally inserted; did you spot there was even a semi-colon in that last joke?
From September 1939
As time went on, older jokes were invited back, albeit with variations:
“Why were you kept in after school today?” “I didn’t know where [the Azores, the Philippines, Barbados…] were.”
“You should remember where you put things.”
‘Fireside Fun’ continued to be published through World War II, probably for the same reason that cinemas and theatres were kept open (after a short ban over safety fears). People needed cheering up. But soon the worries of the age-group that compiled the magazine began to show through, with jokes about the unfamiliarity of life in the armed forces and the difficulties faced by those left at home. As the war dragged on, the page was padded out with ‘brain-teasers’; usually word or number puzzles. One assumes there wasn’t so much to laugh about.
From April 1940
Eventually, the war ended, the fifties came, the puzzles gradually disappeared, and the humour returned to its original themes (and standard). But although we didn’t know it, the days of this particular feature were numbered.
From June 1954
The last ‘Fireside Fun’ appeared in October 1963, heavily squeezed on its page by the tail ends of articles. (One of the less endearing aspects of the Meccano Magazine was the way articles never seemed to fit and had to be ‘continued on page 126’; did any readers ever bother to skip forward?) There was no editorial announcement, nothing to say that ‘Fireside Fun’ was bowing out, no last good-bye.
From the last ‘Fireside Fun’
Perhaps there was still hope. In December 1963 there was a page of ‘Christmas games and puzzles’. But there was to be no reprieve. In January 1964 the Editor announced the coming of the new, improved Magazine. There would be articles on pop stars, football, stamp collecting, plastic modelling kits, but no place for jokes. Forty years, bar just one month (two, if you count the missing issue of 1961). The Editor’s revenge? Or was the final joke on ‘Fireside Fun’?