25 years ago I was a features editor for a magazine group in the West Country. Devon Life, Cornish Life, and Somerset & Avon Life were quality perfect bound regional magazines for the well heeled; that is until my employee Malcolm Davis of Today Publications acquired them from the previous struggling owner. Malcolm was an entrepreneur. He set about attempting to increase his margins by sacking the inherited staff, refusing to pay going rates for articles, using cheaper paper for printing, switching to saddle stitch, and using some relatives over in Ipswich to do the typesetting. Hindsight tells me the whole enterprise was doomed from the start. He was bottling Charlie and making out it was Chanel.
An Unlikely Team
In I stepped at the start of Malcolm’s revolution. On the strength of a hand written prospective letter, a willingness to cut my hair, and my critique of a submitted article, I was offered the features post by Neville Hutchinson, the affable managing editor brought in by Malcolm to set up new and leaner editorial and sales teams. None of us had a bloody clue how to run a magazine, but we learned quickly.
Brought in to assist Neville and I was Fiona Pearson, a rosy cheeked teenager with a maturity beyond her years. Alex Kostin, a somewhat eccentric young man from Honiton was employed as a general assistant, but found a niche with desktop publishing software. And then there was Cathy Wise, a sweeter older lady, who did all the office administration.
Neville had his own office. The rest of us shared a room. The sales team had their own room too. The suite of offices was small, crammed into the lovely Victorian stucco terrace of Queen Street in Exeter. Malcolm did most of his work away from the office, but would come in not infrequently to show off his Victoria plum complexion, and emanate his stressed aura throughout the building. We were never making enough money, so Malcolm was always trying to cut costs. One of those was payroll, where he managed to run an editorial team with just two full time employees; Neville and myself. Cathy, Alex and Fiona were all on government schemes.
It is only when I look back now do I fully appreciate the exquisite irony of an editorial team which included three government schemers and a comprehensive schooled, working class, council house raised features editor, producing a magazine for the county set. Some days I saw my colleagues as being exploited. Other days I could see they were being handed an opportunity. We were all there on merit. Today, it would probably take a degree of privilege, and some months working for nowt to get your foot in the door.
Some months into the regime, Neville had the bright idea of an arts supplement that after about a minute of deliberation over the name became Arts West. Into the void that was our collective art knowledge stepped the artist Linda Winter as supplement editor, who Neville had met at an event. Thus began for me the most enjoyable stint of my time as a features editor. The arts section was a stimulating antidote to dealing with articles about choosing an independent school for your young dullard, or having to proof Neville’s execrable wine and dine reviews. Linda’s presence and input was a breath of fresh air.
One day she came bounding into the office and produced a set of photographic prints. I laid them out on my desk. They were by Don McCullin. He needed no introduction to me. Linda explained a retrospective exhibition of Don’s work was happening (although where and when I have no recall) and we should try and get an article in the magazine. I stared down at Don’s dark visions on my desk and I knew this was going to be a tall order. Sensitive to his paltry piggy bank, it was certain that Malcolm would veto any kind of article that would disturb the comfort of the readers, or moreover, the advertisers. There was only one thing to do. We wouldn’t tell him. And so it came to pass; we printed a fallen North Vietnamese soldier, a grief stricken Cypriot mother, and a rather benign Cambodian still life to accompany an article by Linda. I think Neville must have made a compromise, as when the printed magazine came back, the images were much smaller than we had wanted, with the whole article squished into two pages. The mono reproduction was crap as usual. What a shame. However, with Neville’s consent, a photographic contest was launched, and another of Don McCullin’s images was used to promote the competition.
So opposite a polite half page article about homeopathy and four advertisements for quack doctors is an image of two blokes pushing bicycles along a grimy north east beach; my neck of the woods. Several sacks of sea coal are draped across the frames of their bikes. World’s apart, the haggard grimy man in front stares back at the county magazine reader.
Arts West didn’t last long and Malcolm’ s tenure not much longer. It was all over the following year. I came to work one Friday to see an envelope on my desk. I opened it and read the letter, “…you are now redundant”. We all got the same letter. I recall a short conversation in Neville’s office. Malcolm wished he’d voted for the ‘socialists’ in the general election of April 1992. By that he meant the Labour Party under Neil Kinnock.
But the country was changing. The ‘s’ word would soon disappear from the vocabulary of the Labour Party for a quarter of a century. The monetarist juggernaut that Mrs Thatcher had set in motion was unstoppable. A new ‘s’ word would appear under John Major’s premiership – sleaze. Under New Labour another would be born – spin.We’d had the first Gulf War, and the white noise onslaught of 24 hour rolling news had begun. Murdoch’s news revolution was well underway. His henchman, Andrew Neil, had ‘sorted out’ The Sunday Times and dispatched with the services of one of England’s greatest photographers. Don McCullin was no longer a photojournalist, and the dissenting voice of the photojournalist coupled with the authority of a national newspaper magazine supplement would become an endangered species.
However, in 1989, a certain Tim Berners-Lee had invented something called the World Wide Web, which would present the opportunity for a new form of photojournalism from a heap of broken images.