Wednesday 9 February 2011

Rachel Johnson, The Diary of The Lady: My First Year as Editor

Rachel Johnson edits The Lady but doesn’t write like one, thank goodness. Instead, her memoir unwittingly reveals some unbecoming truths about class, race, sex, media, money and power.

The Diary of the Lady: My First Year as Editor is a mad scramble through the madly scrambling world that is magazine publishing. There are the headaches of timetabling, commissioning, budgeting, production, distribution and promotion, balanced against the buzz of reflecting and influencing the outside world, trying out new features, bringing fresh writing onto the page and creating a varied, exciting mag every week. Rachel Johnson’s fast and funny memoir tackles the media in all its dimensions, through the unique and discreetly rose-tinted glasses (or should I say rosé-stained glass, masked hastily with breath mints) of The Lady, a fine publication for the finely brought-up female.

Johnson, seasoned journalist and internationally bestselling author of The Mummy Diaries and Notting Hell, is brought in to save The Lady’s reputation and give it a brisk shake and a matronlike slap about the face. But there cannot be two matrons in one nursery. Johnson is up against the Budworth clan, who have owned The Lady for aeons: seemingly innumerable sons, perhaps eleven of them, of whom one Ben is the most involved with the magazine’s daily running. All are caught up in the sweet chains of Oedipal devotion to Mrs Budworth, a woman who has all the personal forcefulness, Imperial self-belief and conversational crispness of a woman who has worked independently all her life. Although she hasn’t.

The Lady is more than just a publication, it’s an entire world, equal parts Evelyn Waugh, Agatha Christie, Barbara Pym and P G Wodehouse. When Johnson arrives to revamp the ancient rag, it’s full of whimsical, unwittingly hilarious articles about dogs (possibly even china dogs), embroidered cushion cover designs, “raffia and pickling your own Christmas presents”. It’s not like Carrie Bradshaw’s hackish, glam life in Sex and the City, it’s more Snacks in the Folly, and all the better for it. The Lady’s secret weapon, and the real reason it has stayed in circulation, is its pages of classified ads for maids and nannies. But in Johnson’s typically acute vocab, at least there are a few allies on the team, including one “who smells encouragingly of cigarettes” and a peculiar male contributor whom she scouts as he “turns right and beetle[s] down Holland Park Avenue like a wind-up troll.”

Johnson writes with a tone of authentic bravado. She is excellent at explaining the nitty gritty of production, the graft behind the quips and layouts. Though a great deal of snickering, innuendo, punning and light mockery surrounds The Lady and infuses the media coverage which accompanies Johnson’s appointment as editor, she has a tough job in a brutal, some might even say nearly extinct, industry. She has a shockingly long list of appointments she has been sacked from, simply because those pages are closing down and not because of any weakness in her work. By the end of the book she has set down a list of farsighted and pragmatic industry principles, underpinned by a general conviction that within decades, no paper newspapers and relatively few magazines will be in existence. It is a common tale amongst journalists, and terrifying to read if you are one yourself. Johnson is not scaremongering: the figures for sales, advertising and distribution bear it out. Meanwhile she has to keep hold of The Lady’s devoted following (average age, 78) while attracting new readers.

Although Johnson tries hard to make it look as though she is a bimbo – “blonde” is the word she repeatedly uses – faffing about and turning business into a guessing game, this is disingenuous. She is an extremely successful, intelligent, realistic, well-educated and experienced woman and is perfect for the job. Indeed she may well be superior to the job. The Lady, based in part of the Budworth family’s collection of properties in Covent Garden, is full of no-hopers who’ve long outlived their usefulness. The offices are dated, odd and dingy, as are the staff. Johnson was picked out of a beauty pageant line-up that doubled as a way for Ben Budworth to audition future wives for himself.

Johnson sets about turning The Lady around (you see? This lightly bantering tone of sarcastic delicacy is addictive, and sticks itself to anything Lady-themed like carriage mud on a petticoat hem) with typical gusto. Despite her claims otherwise, it is obvious that she is popular, clubbable and friendly. This makes her an excellent narrator, serious and yet in on the joke. Kelvin MacKenzie, ex editor of The Sun, has “lots of ideas, but he spoke so loudly and fast and mugged for the camera so much that I just allowed his genius and wash feebly over me like a neap tide, in the hope that, eventually, like a migraine, he’d go away, which eventually he did.” A contributor suggests a new item: “A woman of distinction and mystery (a mysterious look crossed her distinguished face as she said this) describes an item of clothing she has kept for years and why.” Joan Collins was “wearing a curious grey woollen beret that looked like a mushroom. She never removed it, but kept patting the beret so it rustled, as if it were packed with tissue paper. She also kept combing out her hair extensions/wig.” A cover picture of Julie Andrews “makes her look as if she’s dead...As if she’s been made up for an open-casket viewing.” A colleague warns her that “unless we get some high-end advertisers in, we were dead in the water. Given how many ads we continue to have for walk-in baths, he’s not far wrong there.” In winter “the round topiary bushes by the playground had bonnets of snow and looked just like Christmas puddings in Beano.”

Over and above the great lines, what Johnson writes is disturbingly relevant. She has worked in newspapers, magazines and book publishing for much of her long career and her observations about the impact of relatively recent changes – the global recession, the digitisation of print, the globalisation of media and the digital revolution – are perceptive and sometimes troubling. She has, like many of my own colleagues, lost much paid work in print journalism to the free sites and amateur blogs of the Internet.

Johnson is, though, relatively safe in her position. This is the worst that can happen, she explains (typically wittily) in a moment of angst: “I can’t help being worried that things are going well. This is ominous. The last time I said that to myself was in 1998, and no sooner had the words formed in my mind than [she and her husband were sacked from newspaper jobs and]...I had to spend the next two years on my own with three children under five in Belgium, living in a gloomy villa in the suburbs of Brussels surrounded by conifers.”

Being surrounded by conifers does not seem like a very bad worst case scenario and would be outright luxury for many. Johnson is part of a milieu that will ensure that she is not one of those who falls down into the cracks and is lost forever to the cruelties of the media marketplace and Belgian foliage. This milieu includes the rich, the famous, the great, the good and the grandly entertaining and while Johnson is not a namedropper, nearly every name she mentions happens to have its own, natural reverberation. She attends a party for the Spectator and it’s “the usual crush of Piers Morgan and David Cameron”. Most of the names in her world don’t need to be dropped, to make a sound. And while she is actually very modest about her life, talking it down in the way that the English rich do, underemployment in Notting Hill just seems a damn sight more glamorous than underemployment elsewhere. Everyone in this book is an insider, and for all Johnson’s blitheness, it is very clear that she is dealing with a very small coterie of very powerful people.

Part of the reason her editorship of The Lady is so successful is that she has been able to draw on the expertise and general solidarity of  her acquaintances, many of whom edit or work for major mainstream publications themselves. It is, of course, absolutely wise for Johnson to use the resources she has, particularly since she seems to be the only expert amongst the amateurs who ran The Lady before. She is herself in a tricky position: she arrives as a sceptic but transforms into a champion of the magazine, an editor for whom this is not a game but a project about which she has affection. It is obvious how hard and how resourcefully she works every contact, refines every page and strives to restore originality to the title, against general scepticism and real financial constraints, all while on the gruelling treadmill of advance weekly production.

Yet without realising it, I think, the book is a portrait of a class, blessed in all sorts of ways, for whom everything is ‘lovely’ even when it’s ‘an absolute nightmare.’ This is not a criticism of Rachel Johnson. The privileges she has enjoyed are those which anybody reasonably aspires to have. There is nothing wrong, and much that is wholly good, about having an excellent education, a comfortable home, a supportive network of helpful friends, the possibility of travel. The people in her world are, generally, not obnoxious; but they are culturally narrow and politically naive because they have never suffered any of the discrimination, stereotypes and subtle assumptions which open a person’s eyes to bigotry in society.

What kept me reading was the sense that Johnson (and the Lady generally) is a champion for women writers – great women writers like Antonia Fraser – and her sheer energy in showcasing brilliant writing by women. She is tenacious, sisterly and clever and one hopes that the magazine is infused with some of her modern vigour.

At the same time, however, it is clear that Johnson’s adventures with The Lady occur in the context of many commentators’ blatant misogyny. She is subject to every bit of womanhating name-calling, belittling and outright jeering and bullying, often from well known men. She is correct to name names rather than protecting the perpetrators, who attack her with absolute blatancy. It is to her credit that she doesn’t take any of it to heart. But equally it doesn’t seem to register that this is unacceptable. When she loses a job, early in the book, word gets out and at a party she is jeered at openly by Rod Liddle and A A Gill. Gill tells her that her nose is too big, she’s too ugly to be on TV and the documentary accompanying the magazine’s relaunch will be “suicidally shit.” She sends him an email joshing him about this and cheekily asks where she can send a copy of the finished documentary for review (he is a TV critic, one vastly inferior to the Dorothy Parkeresque genius that is Nancy Banks-Smith). His reply is, “Down the toilet obviously.” When she tells him he’s being chippy he replies, “Do stop sounding like a menstrual Sloane.” At another function, Andrew Neil tells her to her face that she talks too much; every time she speaks after that, he says over her, “She’s still talking!” At yet another industry event she is “creeping past a sofa on which sat distinguished men of letters”, one of whom hisses “Stupid girl!” at her. Someone hacks the company’s web site and replaces the biographies of its women columnists with ads for female Viagra and date rape drugs. Someone within the company writes to her saying that she is “a flea-bitten old whore.” And the usual anonymous haters write in to tell her what they think of her chest. The Lady pretends that it exists as “something benign in the ether”, in the apt words of one of its supporters. But it exists in the real world of utterly transparent hatred of women, expressed in these attacks.

Anyone who is not from Johnson’s world – that is, the majority of people – will shiver at its smallness, the depth of its power and the tightness of those old school and university bonds. Johnson’s ‘I just don’t know what I’m doing’ panics look ridiculous when it is clear that, even if she doesn’t know what she’s doing, she knows many people who do and who can help. The publicity she brings to the project, and her skill and energy in maintaining its profile, show that she is an extremely canny woman – so why pretend otherwise? The editorship spawns two major projects in other industries: a Channel 4 documentary and this book. So it is obvious that despite all her protestations, Johnson is shrewd, which is admirable, though coy, which is not.

The ‘big society’, for all its bigness, has two sides, and Johnson is on top, where it is most pleasant to be. Holidays are had at the staffed Georgian home of Nicholas Coleridge, MD of Conde Nast; Jeremy Paxman phones up and trades cosy jokes; George Osborne is someone you wave to when you pass him in the park looking “like a schoolboy” on his pushbike. There are moments of blatant racism, such as when the Duchess of Devonshire bemoans the fact that Eton is now overrun with Asians and Hong Kong Chinese. Johnson mentions “a pretty black lady” in a crowd at an event and is interviewed by a British woman she describes astonishingly as “a beautiful Turk (almost but not quite an oxymoron... and am allowed to say that as am proud of my own Turkish blood).” Later, unable to resist another objectifying racial comment, she describes the journalist as “the creamy Turkish blonde interviewer.” Johnson is blind to these nuances because they are her norm.

Although it’s dressed up as a silly romp through a silly magazine, Rachel Johnson has a grittiness and bottom-line realism that makes The Diary of The Lady a must-read on media, class, privilege and power. Like all ladies it hides its true thoughts and feelings behind a veneer of social nicety. Like all ladies it smiles graciously even while the world around it sneers. Like all ladies its political machinations must happen in the context of seemingly frivolous lunches and chats, far from the centres of real power. And like all true ladies it sails on, seemingly serenely, sipping tea in the parlour, doing the very best it can with what it’s got, while the walls come tumbling down.

The Diary of The Lady: My First Year as Editor by Rachel Johnson is published by Penguin Books.