The Lady’s for turning: rebirth of a British institution

IF you watch television or read newspapers, you may have noticed that Rachel Johnson is editor of The Lady, and has helped re-launch the magazine.

What has a weekly publication in continuous print since 1885 to do with 2010, with the elections, and with ‘broken Britain’? Everything. And nothing.

“We’re about attitude, not age,” says Edwina Langley of The Lady – which for a very brief, surreal moment calls to mind defiant young creatures in safety pins and bondage trousers on the King’s Road in 1976 – “Although The Lady aims to appeal to people of all ages I suspect women of 45+ would find us most appealing.” That’s more like it. Or is it?

For me, it was hearing Rachel Johnson describe David Cameron as ‘a Tory squire’ during some programme or other involving her brother Boris. It just clicked: the renaissance of the upper-middle-class, nice big houses with gardens, and Wellington boots.

The next I heard Ms Johnson had been appointed editor of The Lady with a view to helping re-launch it. Edwina says that the editor is of course an ideal reader of the magazine – to my mind she would seem to exactly fit the demographic bill, despite an initial number of cancelled subscriptions in protest. “Although, naturally we want to appeal to everyone, we expect our readers to be intelligent, articulate, graceful,” she adds. “No-nonsense people – our readers can see through PR fluff and celebrity gossip. As Will Self said about the magazine, in buying The Lady, you become a lady.”

Righto. As a young-ish, vaguely green-thinking sort, I tend to read things online, so though I stopped short of physically purchasing a copy, I gave the website – yes, The Lady has a website – a whirl. Diverting stuff: Tracey Emin; a blog entry making splendid use of the word ‘unguents’; and an article on a recent graduate struggling to find work amid the recession. That struck a chord, known as Generation X in my day.

Back to the future: sales are up nine per cent for the second half of 2009, now around 35,000 each week. Perhaps I’m not the only chap who’s been quietly intrigued. Edwina: “Market research conducted prior to The Lady’s revamp suggested the husbands of our female subscribers looked forward to their weekly dose of The Lady almost as much as their wives. This was due to the nature of our features, which often are not gender specific, and also our Ladygram crossword.”

But the cancelled subscriptions, the letters of complaint. The ‘unguents’ blog entry attracted an anonymous online comment which began with “How revolting”, proceeded with “When will The Lady learn that most civilised people don’t want to read about shooting or its allied cruelties” and finished up on “Sounds like Exmoor is inhabited by heathens who need to come out of the stone age.” Hmm. And the online Tracey Emin article is rather more, er, well-seasoned than the print version. The website – also recently -re-launched – is something which is being developed.

Edwina says that there are fewer complaints coming in these days as readers get used to the new style, and that there are now four times as many letters of praise as there are of despair: “Having said that, however, we never underestimate the importance of complaints – we won’t know what changes our readers like or don’t like until we’ve had some sort of response from them. It’s also extremely touching to be reminded how lucky we are to work for a magazine that means so much to so many women.”

Into the cool air conditioning of WH Smith: you leaf through a copy of Private Eye. Beside you a woman sighs as her floppy-haired young teenage son imploringly proffers a glossy rock music magazine with a big cover price. She relents, but then picks up a quality weekly for women on her way to the till. You queue behind her and glance at the tabloids on the shelves. The Sun: IF KINNOCK WINS TODAY, WILL THE LAST PERSON TO LEAVE BRITAIN PLEASE TURN OUT THE LIGHTS.

Where did she go? Eighteen years of paparazzi, true life shockers, lads’ mags, homes and property: but more Channel 4 tarting up a Derby council estate, than a rare glimpse of a Derbyshire country estate. Fast forward to 2010. A long-forgotten voice: you can hear her again, chatting away on a mobile phone on the train, striding out of a local butcher clutching a package of venison, with sunglasses-as-Alice-band clambering into a 4×4. Something has happened, revolved – a Britain we’ve known for years, urban, target-driven, Coldplay, grinning sincerity draining into war horror, recession, expenses vengeance: is broken. All change, please.

(Re-)Enter: The Lady.

“I wouldn’t say we’re riding the crest of a wave, so much as moving steadily downstream,” says Edwina. “I also wouldn’t say the editor’s family connections have much to do with her ability as an editor – she is a well respected journalist and author in her own right! As an apolitical magazine, with readers and contributors from both sides of the political spectrum, we would not want to alienate any of our readers, or indeed writers, by siding with any particular party.”

A new, more uncertain age: compare now with 1997’s optimism and Things Can Only Get Better. So, timeless values are more reassuring and necessary than ever, and the re-emergence of The Lady at this time could not be more appropriate. Edwina: “We’ve gotten over the difficulties of re-launching a well known, much loved brand and are now focusing on fine tuning. Editorially, we have been given back the tools to reclaim the position we were in 50 years ago. Our readers have basically grown older with us – those who read us 20 to 30 years ago, read us still. The reason behind our re-launch was to ensure the next generation of 45+ women do the same.”

The future? Two figures who span the decades and may hopefully soon grace the pages of The Lady: the original Indian celebrity TV chef Madhur Jaffrey, and Sex and the City – and, ahem, Mannequin – star Kim Cattrall, soon to be at a cinema near you in the film version’s sequel.

Whatever happens on 6 May, The Lady is back in fine form. Does Boris Johnson take a subscription? It seems almost churlish to ask.

First published in March, 2010, in Lucid Magazine. This Is The World That We Live In, a collection of Lucid Magazine articles (2010) is available here:  http://www.lulu.com/gb/en/shop/sylvia-arthur-and-athena-kugblenu-and-paul-knipe-and-james-willsher/this-is-the-world-that-we-live-in/paperback/product-12034251.html 

The Lady magazine is here.

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About James Willsher

Newspaper and magazine reporter since 2004, has freelanced in Russia and Central Asia, and does local government PR. Likes green tea and interviewing people / places. Phil Garrett was a pen name. @JGWillsher jamesgwillsher@hotmail.co.uk
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