No sacred cows

If you really want to lose friends, start a magazine

24 April 2020

11:00 PM

24 April 2020

11:00 PM

I’m more impressed than most that The Spectator has racked up 10,000 issues, because I used to be a magazine publisher myself and I know just how hard it is. In 1991 I co-founded the Modern Review with Julie Burchill and Cosmo Landesman and appointed myself its first editor. Our motto was ‘Low culture for highbrows’ and we ran long, scholarly essays by intellectuals and academics about popular icons like Madonna. I remember one particularly good piece by David Runciman, now a politics professor at Cambridge, called ‘Wazza mazza wiz Gazza?’ about the footballer Paul Gascoigne. Among the magazine’s more dubious achievements was publishing the first ever article by Will Self. In 1995 it went belly–up after 21 issues.

In some respects, keeping it going for four years was an achievement. The total invested in it over that period was less than £50,000 and each issue was produced on the floor of my flat in Shepherd’s Bush. When WHSmith called to speak to the circulation manager, I used to put them on hold for 30 seconds then come back on with a different voice: ‘Circulation manager here. How can I help?’ At its peak it sold about 30,000 copies and I briefly entertained fantasies of being the next Jann Wenner, who started Rolling Stone on his kitchen table in 1967 and is now worth $700 million. But it all went pear-shaped in the end.

In part, it was a victim of its own success. When the Modern Review launched, the idea of asking a highly intelligent, educated person to write 2,000 words on, say, Terminator 2 was quite unusual. Incidentally, the guy I got to do that was Oliver Morton, who’s just written an acclaimed book about the moon. Back then, the default approach in the mainstream media was to employ people like Clive James to write ‘humorous’ stuff about the latest Hollywood blockbusters, i.e. sneering and contemptuous. (Although Clive did compare Arnold Schwarzenegger to ‘a condom full of walnuts’, which is better than anything I’ve ever come up with.) But when the Modern Review arrived on the scene, some of the sharper broadsheet editors realised that our way of covering mass culture — nerdy and reverential, rather than snobbish and condescending — chimed with the zeitgeist. Andrew Neil, then the editor of the Sunday Times, created a new section called ‘The Culture’ which was inspired by our little magazine. He poached our literary editor and made him the film critic.

It was also the victim of something less flattering: in-fighting. At the beginning of 1995 Julie Burchill left Cosmo, her husband at the time, and ran off with Charlotte Raven, an assistant at the magazine. Julie wanted to replace me as editor with her new girlfriend and two factions quickly sprung up — one on my side, the other on Julie’s. It was obvious I was going to lose, so I assembled the handful of people who were still loyal to me and in secret we produced a ‘greatest hits’ issue and announced the magazine would be folding. I also included an editorial in which I explained the circumstances leading to its closure: Fleet Street’s reigning Queen B had become a radical feminist lesbian separatist (‘rad fem les sep’) and turned on her consort, as well as her loyal retainer (me). It must have been a slow news week, because it became a huge story, with hacks camped out on my doorstep. Julie was so furious she announced I’d have to leave town because if she ever saw me in the Groucho Club again, she’d stab me with her nail file. Shortly afterwards I left for New York and didn’t return for five years.

For those who are interested in the whole sordid saga, an entertaining documentary was made about it for BBC Four called When Toby Met Julie, which you can still find on YouTube. The centrepiece is the rapprochement between Julie and me — the director, Mark Halliley, persuaded us to meet up again, having not spoken for ten years. She forgave me instantly, which was a relief after her nail file comment. I forgave her, too, which means I can now look back on those years with unalloyed pleasure. Editing your own magazine is like being the captain of a ship, a role I was convinced I was born to play until the staff tried to throw me overboard. (I thought I was Hornblower, the crew thought I was Bligh.) Thankfully, when I returned to London in 2000, having blown my chance to become an editor in New York, I was given a safe berth as a cabin boy on a passing ocean liner and I’ve remained there ever since. Long may she sail.

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