The Joys of Modern Life: 30. Women's Weeklies

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The Independent Culture
DINNER LADY By Day, Sinner Lady By Night! Marry Me... Or Die! The Eyes of a Killer! No Sex Because He Hates My Breasts! And (my personal favourite) A Wheelie Bin Saved My Life! These are all headlines from a blissful Nineties publishing phenomenon: the cheap 'n' cheerful weekly mag that mainly relies on readers' true experiences. The likes of That's Life! Take A Break and Chat are all racier reads than the old stalwarts such as Woman; they pay their readers to reveal all and it is astounding just what people are prepared to admit to for a fee of a few hundred quid.

All human life is there: feisty mums and brave kiddies battling against the odds, heroic grannies, villainous cheats, two-faced friends and faithless spouses, birth, love, sex and death. Trite and banal, of course, but that's their great strength.

Best of all, every single story has to be illustrated with genuine photos of the people involved, and those grainy, badly ocused snapshots of the pale, the spotty, the overweight, the weirdly dressed, the strangely coiffed, in short the normal, speak more poignantly than any glossy posed-by-models shot can ever do; boy, are these people real.

To this already heady mix, the editors add liberal amounts of extra sex and gore and other such general good humour. Know a good rude joke? Send it to That's Life! which pays pounds 15 for every near-the-knuckle chuckle printed. Another publication has a column called "My Operation", bearing a helpful label that warns the squeamish on no account to read it when there is a particularly gruesome procedure being described. Another has a regular feature in which life-saving dogs and comforting cats write in to describe how they have kept hope and love alive in their human owners.

And these magazines are the home of one of the most fantastical notions ever dreamt up by a fevered editorial brain in search of an economical space-filler: the readers' thrifty tips column. The versions that have since appeared in some newspapers and glossier mags are just pale and feeble imitations. Each issue carries a perfunctory nod towards cookery and interiors articles, but these are easily skipped.

Printed on flimsy paper, these mags are ideal for folding into a handbag to while away a boring journey. Of course, it's not quite the same as being seen reading The Economist or Prospect, but I've caught plenty of quite respectable-looking fellow commuters reading over my shoulder; I mean, who could possibly resist such nuggets as My Hubby Ran Off With My Horsy Best Friend But He's No Stallion, or Watching My Husband Make Love To My Neighbour Turns Me On?

This kind of stuff can be purchased for a very reasonable 62p a week - hardly pricey even when you become addicted and have to get all of them 52 times a year (yes, it happens). In most women's magazines the problem page is one of the most exciting; in this bunch the problem pages pale beside the real-life stories, which would be pretty refreshing at any price.

(Incidentally, in case anyone is wondering about the life-saving wheelie bin: two young mums were snoozing unsuspectingly as one of their children played with matches and set the house on fire. But they were all saved when they managed to scramble out of a first-floor window, using a handy rubbish receptacle to facilitate their escape.)