The cartoon first appeared in American Scientist magazine, so I take it that this kind of sleight of hand is relatively common in the scientific world. But it made me laugh because the magical fudge was familiar from an entirely different realm - that of the media launch. I've even been guilty of it myself. "What will these new pages contain?" asks a sceptical editor. "Well", you reply confidently, "they're going to be witty and provocative, intelligent and entertaining." In the hopeful delirium of invention, it is easy to forget that Martin Amis might not be prepared to fight-train with Prince Naseem for the pitiful rates your budget allows. The little detail of whether Anita Brookner will actually say yes to a Club 18-30 freebie in return for 2,000 words of copy is postponed till later. In your mind the object is perfect, fulfilling, deeply desirable.
The latest journalist to have to expose her optimism in this way is Tina Gaudoin, editor of a new glossy called Frank, which today launches into the choppy waters of the women's magazine market. Asked what it would be like a few weeks ago, she replied with the standard media paraphrase of "then a miracle occurs". "We hope to provide something intelligent, irreverent, provocative, witty and non-patronising," she told one reporter. Another was assured that the putative readers wanted "politics, they want human rights, done in very serious way, but married with features that have a real sense of humour and a real irony". If the Abattoir Operator's Gazette was to relaunch it would probably receive a similar pitch - "we feel that today's slaughterman is looking for something a bit more irreverent and provocative; Captive Bolt will tackle the serious issues of the meat trade with a keen and witty edge".
And has the miracle occurred? Not very obviously, it has to be said. If by "wit" Gaudoin means punning headlines, then she has more than fulfilled her promise - The Shoe Must Go On, Treading the Bawd, Jacket All In, Kimonover To My Place. And all those despite an elegant design style which eschews headlines for most of the main features. (Occasionally you wonder whether the headline gave birth to the article rather than the other way round - for example, To Dai For, a somewhat unpersuasive survey of Wales's new fashionability). But there isn't much evidence elsewhere of humour, beyond the familiar jokiness of some writers' style.
The provocation is even harder to find - using a pregnant woman to model size 81/2 dresses doesn't really cut it so many years after Demi Moore won the battle of the bulge on the front cover of Vanity Fair. There is some mildly sapphic business in one of the fashion spreads; a model licks an occasional table; another turns a cartwheel. But such posed Fauvism has long been the stock-in-trade of fashion snappers, and the designer profiles are just as breathlessly in awe as any of its predecessors. (Somebody should have told Gaudoin, incidentally, that her description of the magazine as a "no-bullshit take on the way we live in the Nineties" is self-contradicting. Only bullshitters use the word bullshit, even in a negative.)
It isn't that Frank is embarrassing - it looks extremely elegant, as you would expect of a magazine from this stable (Nick Logan's Wagadon also publishes The Face and Arena), and there is evidence of invention and resistance to the established conventions, despite the overall sameness of the contents and a rather belated feel to the editorial (two of the more substantial articles are an attack on New Lad culture and an account of Labour's new establishment - both of which you could have read any time in the last year or so). On the plus side, there is a beautifully crafted stalker fashion spread, for example, in which the photographs appear as part of a scenario of obsessive pursuit. I also liked the interior decor report on a French designer's flat, which showed it lived-in rather than primped and prettified - the vacuum had been left out in one photograph, the leopardskin chairs had been sat on once too often and his fridge was growing one of those massy ice-goitres which eventually have to be hacked away with a carving knife.
Elsewhere, though, the fetters of fashion are locked in place.The magazine is almost hysterically preoccupied with what is cool and what is not. Page after page delivers the dope on the volatile weather of style, often to ridiculous effect. "Fridge magnets are now seen as the witty solution to the problem of what to give the hostess who has everything," reports one article. "According to Harrods the bags are flying off the shelves," notes a consumer nibble (if Harrods say so, it must be true). "Pravda is old news," warns a travel piece about New York, lest you commit the hideous solecism of patronising last month's restaurant, and there's advice on chic vegetables, too: "Leeks are fashionable again" declares the article on Wales, rather desperately trying to pad out the dubious trend it has identified. Charlotte's Web, a feature about the Internet, includes details of a "Fashion Violation" site, which records "sartorial offences", while Miranda Sawyer, in a road test of a new Honda, concludes that "it will attain neither correct Hampstead status nor surfy kitsch-cool". All this is crowned with a solemnly respectful piece about Dee Dee Gordon, a West Coast trend-analyst who is "so cool, she's practically frozen". I'm singularly ill-equipped to say what the modern 25- to 35-year-old woman wants, but it is hard to believe they are so needy for instruction as all this suggests, nor so dependent in their tastes and opinions. Then again - a miracle might occur