What defines a Lady?

Not so easy to say. ‘A Lady’ could mean any number of things, depending on who you ask.

But for a quick fix, to find out just what makes up The Lady, read Rachel Johnson’s A DIARY OF THE LADY. It’s a riotous gambol through the eponymous publishing institution. Genteel, stiffly upright, dowdy – it is not. Or, at least, not now, since Johnson took the reigns as Editor in the summer of 2009. She vividly recounts her first year – in all its lurid, painful, cringing detail – and how she attempted to pull the venerable old ladies’ magazine out of the last century and turn it into a must-read mag for women over 45 (rather than over 75, apparently its prime demographic).

Rachel Johnson does not shy away from juicy anecdotes, gory car crashes; she is, as she freely concedes, terribly indiscreet. But hurray for that! What a bore the book would be otherwise. If it does, at times, grate and seem rather repetitive, the trials she went through trying to rejuvenate the mag kept me compulsively turning the pages. Funny, heartfelt, clever. It was also, yes, almost poignant at times, I think because it is so credible. I was drawn into the story. And I believed. Perhaps I am hopelessly naive, but it certainly appeared as though, by and large, Johnson was franker than not. I’d love to know the details she left out, but I delighted in the glorious industry gossip she does include.

I walk by The Lady offices on Bedford Street in Covent Garden every morning en route to work. I had certainly noticed them before, vaguely thought what a nice, old building it was, if a bit tired, but NOW. I look at the six-storey edifice with a very different gaze, trying to catch a glimpse of the chintzy Christmas decorations, or the saloon type entrance-way or, indeed, one of the many women who work there – perhaps the dear lady with the fuzzy slippers, or the stylish young contributers or Rachel Johnson herself, with Coco in tow. Or indeed, one of the Budworth clan (who own the mag).

And getting the inside scoop has, admittedly, intrigued and fascinated me to such an extent that I’m dying to look at a copy – but if anyone knows how I can get hold of one (apart from trekking up to Waitrose), please tell. I expected all the newsagents and supermarkets in Covent Garden would be stockpiled – or at least have one or two, but alas. I have been to half a dozen shops in the area as well as mega Sainsburys and Tescos in SW London and – zilch. Johnson does acknowledge the stock problem, but I don’t hold out much hope of ever finding one, because apparently fretting about stock in shops is a waste of time – subscriptions are the way forward. I imagine their sales would, however, improve just a bit were the magazine to be slightly more ubiquitous.

It was, overall, a fun, quick read that shed light on the magazine publishing industry – not so different from the book publishing industry, really, which made me (mostly) glad I am no longer in it! As glamorous and exciting and buzzy as the media world is: the reality is cut-throat, harsh and eternally rather grim.

Somerset Maugham, in 1919, in THE MOON AND SIXPENCE, put it best:

… there is in my nature a strain of asceticism, and I have subjected my flesh each week to a more severe mortification. I have never failed to read the Literary Supplement of The Times.

It is a salutary discipline to consider the vast number of books that are written, the fair hopes with which their authors see them published, and the fate which awaits them. What chance is there that any book will make its way among that multitude? And the successful books are but the successes of a season. Heaven knows what pains the author has been at, what bitter experiences he has endured and what heartache suffered, to give some chance reader a few hours’ relaxation or to while away the tedium of a journey. And if I may judge from the reviews, many of these books are well and carefully written; much thought has gone into their composition; to some even has been given the anxious labour of a lifetime.

The moral I draw is that the writer should seek his reward in the pleasure of his work and in release from the burden of his thoughts; and, indifferent to aught else, care nothing for praise or censure, failure or success.

If a satisfactory conclusion for the writer, it is definitively not so for the publisher.

I’ll come back to THE MOON AND SIXPENCE next time. Until then, que te vaya bien!


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