Hope I die before I get old

The Oldie is 10 years old and in rude health, its co-founder and editor Richard Ingrams tells Louise Jury
Click to follow

Critics claimed that it would survive only weeks, and Julie Burchill, still then parading as a doyenne of youth culture, condemned it as the most pathetic magazine ever published.

But The Oldie has defied its name (an advertisers' nightmare), its funding (inadequate), and the deaths of numerous contributors (perhaps inevitable in the circumstances) to reach its 10th birthday next month. It will celebrate in the manner one might expect. On 5 February, there will be a "traditional luncheon" at an oldies-style haunt, Simpson's-in-the-Strand, where Richard Ingrams, the Oldie's 64-year-old co-founder and editor, will preside and the annual Oldie of the Year title will be awarded.

One suspects a few glasses will be raised, not least because Ingrams believes in the old-fashioned journalistic virtue of a proper lunch, just as he believes that journalism should mean going out and meeting people. "It's why somebody like [The Independent's] Robert Fisk is so good – he spends an awful lot of time talking to people and you can't do that sitting in an office looking at a screen."

Besides, 10 years is quite an achievement for a magazine that nearly did not survive beyond the first two. The magazine was the idea of Ingrams and the journalist Alexander Chancellor as a counterblast to the dominance of youth culture. Advertising is geared to winning a young readership, which distorts what gets written, Ingrams says. A corollary of that is ageism among employers. "There are a lot of oldie journalists who have been put on the scrap heap yet are just as good as they ever were."

There was also a gap in the market. Punch and The Listener had closed, and the New Statesman then seemed close to death. The Spectator had its own very particular political agenda. Joined by Stephen Glover, Ingrams and Chancellor sought backing from Naim Attallah, the publisher, who invested £250,000 with the promise of being able to do interviews himself.

The Oldie was launched as a fortnightly title, and the first issue's sales burst through the 100,000 mark. "A lot of people said that the title was a mistake, and from a marketing point of view, it was disastrous. But it was quite good for publicity," Ingrams says now. But the initial success did not last. Within two years, it was in crisis and close to folding. A decision to cut staff and go monthly persuaded Mr Attallah to make further investment.

But eventually, this money ran out, too. Ingrams began the search for new backers, contacting Felix Dennis, founder of The Week, and publishers such as IPC, who didn't even reply. Eventually, Sir Paul Getty – an old friend and sponsor of the Oldie awards – suggested that he buy the magazine and John Brown Publishing, Britain's major contract publisher, should administer and print it. The deal was done at the end of last summer.

The Oldie is a magazine produced in ways now virtually unknown in the advertising and marketing-driven world of the modern media. Ingrams long ago gave up on the usual practice of coming up with ideas and commissioning someone to write them. "Half of the articles weren't any good, and then you had to pay kill fees," he says. He prefers people to write on subjects in which they are interested, and he regularly uses unsolicited contributions from readers on subjects from spotted dick to the demise of Larry Adler.

Even the journalists do it, like Ingrams himself, for love not money. "I don't really have a proper salary," he admits. His column for The Observer and ongoing work for the wealthier Private Eye, which he edited for 23 years until 1986, subsidises The Oldie. The prize-winning novelist Beryl Bainbridge is the theatre critic because she volunteered. Writers including Ruth Rendell and PD James have all contributed over the years. For 1,000 words, the maximum The Oldie might pay is £150.

But since the sale, the title has been forced to make some changes. Its advertising staff were dismissed and the work taken on by John Brown staff. Economies, such as cheaper paper, have been made. Marketing is afoot to turn the magazine from one verging on breaking even to profit-making within three years. "It had no proper business operation behind it before," Ingrams admits.

But he has fended off moves to combine his office near Tottenham Court Road with the John Brown operation in west London, where it would be impossible to amble down the road to the Eye. He is also resisting efforts to axe readers' contributions. "It's all very well if you have money to throw about, but we don't," he says.

Yet he has been delighted by the readership survey carried out in the autumn, largely because it revealed enormously high approval ratings. "I think that's why I haven't really had any comeback from John Brown," he says. He insists that he is not critical of his new publishers but he is exasperated by the trend towards using market research to tell journalists what they should be doing:"It affects editorial freedom. Editors have less and less say over what goes on."

Editing The Oldie has been a completely different experience from editing Private Eye, where "it was all written in-house and was a very cliquey thing". Incidentally, he thinks Ian Hislop has a much harder time editing the Eye today because everyone else has started to write about the things – such as Fleet Street – that only the Eye used to cover.

Richard Ingrams intends to continue as editor, optimistic that circulation will continue to creep up from the existing 25,000 readers. "I feel it's still evolving, editorially," he says.

He thinks life should be fun and he has loved editing The Oldie because it has been. It is everything he wants in a title. "I think it was Philip Larkin who said that he wrote in order to have something to read. So do I. I have a sort of boredom with other magazines."

Comments