Richard Ingrams, its founder and editor, hosted a party last week, in the suitably traditional, fogeyish surroundings of Simpson's-in-the-Strand, to celebrate The Oldie's 200th issue. Around 150 people turned up, including distinguished contributors such as Maureen Lipman, Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, Richard Wilson, Michael Palin, Beryl Bainbridge and Sir John Mortimer, and raised their glasses to the magazine's unlikely survival.
When Ingrams launched The Oldie, he described it as "a crazy idea". He had become increasingly appalled at the amount of space accorded to "youth culture" in the press and on television and, over lunch with his fellow-distinguished journalist Alexander Chancellor ("It may even have been his idea..."), decided to start a magazine that would address the concerns of the over-50s and the old-at-heart of all ages. He approached the ebullient publisher Naim Attallah who already backed The Literary Review, then edited by Ingrams' friend and Private Eye colleague, Auberon Waugh. Attallah was enthusiastic, and, with additional support from various friends, the first edition appeared in 1991.
Ingrams had, of course, edited Private Eye from 1962 to 1986, and there were many similarities between it and The Oldie. (Had he been missing editing? "Not at all. It was such a sweat at the Eye. And you had to write it as well as edit it. Compared with the Eye, it was very leisurely.") They were both fortnightly, both assembled with artless design, and neither had a contents page, nor any cover lines ("I think we were the only magazines in the world that didn't have cover lines").
There was a blaze of publicity at the launch, and an initial dramatic sale. It had a first-rate slate of contributors: Beryl Bainbridge on theatre, Candida Lycett Green on "Unwrecked England", contributions from Miles Kington, Auberon Waugh, Mavis Nicholson, Alice Thomas Ellis, Michael Bywater, D J Taylor and Marcus Berkmann. It made a star of the comedian Harry Enfield's father, Edward, a retired civil servant. The success of his "grumpy old man" column brought him work on television and several book deals.
Also like Private Eye, The Oldie ran cartoons, in particular by the incomparable Willie Rushton. Punch closed the following year, and established cartoonists were delighted to submit their work to a new outlet.
But soon after its launch, The Oldie's sales rapidly fell below 10,000. "And after 18 months, the money ran out. We had quite a large staff, which you need if you produce a fortnightly," says Ingrams. Its closure was announced, and then, almost immediately, withdrawn. The cavalry came over the hill. Naim Attallah found some more cash. Ingrams forwent his salary, the staff was slimmed down, the magazine went monthly, and a more serious effort was made to sell advertising. Cover lines were added, too, to increase news-stand sales. Later, the Anglophile billionaire Paul Getty bought the title, and now it is part of his Wisden Group, run by his son.
Today, the 200th issue has a glossy Quentin Blake cover, 94 pages, which now far surpass Private Eye's quality of layout, and a gratifying 32 pages of ads, including many for stair-lifts, and a full-page ad for a company that makes socks in school, university and club colours.
After its near-death experience, the magazine's sales picked up and now stand at a healthy 26,000 - "20,000 subscription, 6,000 on the news-stand. It's very hard now to get distributors and big news chains to take us seriously without paying them a lot of money," explains Ingrams. Like Private Eye, it also makes money with spin-off books: Oldie annuals anthologise the best pieces. And there are also the Oldie Literary Lunches at Simpson's-in-the Strand, which are so popular, "we've started doing them in the provinces, too".
Far from being a crazy idea, The Oldie now seems to have been in the vanguard of businesses eager to attract the "grey pound". Saga Magazine was launched in 1993 by the travel company for the over-50s. Today, it sells 1.2 million copies every month and is edited by Emma Soames, who was Ingrams' deputy editor in The Oldie's early days. "We had very different approaches to editing. Emma's was very active. She'd think of an idea like, "Is the Queen a good mother?", and then get someone famous to write it. The trouble with that is, if it turns out to be unpublishable you have to pay a kill fee. That's fine if you're at Condé Nast, but not at somewhere like The Oldie."
Ingrams prefers to let writers come to him with what they want to write about, and the writers needn't be famous or even professional. Once he had established such regular slots as, "I once met...", readers eagerly submitted their own contributions, which, after suitable editing, were published. (Ingrams gratefully acknowledges the accomplished and rapid editing skills of Jeremy Lewis, the veteran publisher and biographer, who is the magazine's commissioning editor.)
Indeed, unsolicited articles are among Ingrams' favourites: an account of a year spent as Rebecca West's personal assistant by Gill McLaren Rowe, and an astonishingly funny article by Iain Topliss about his attempt to confirm a piece of information that he first found in his 1953 Schoolboy Pocket Diary: that the fastest creature on the planet is the deer botfly, supposedly clocked at 818mph.
To read The Oldie is to get the sense that it is owned by its readers. No editor at any other magazine would have commissioned those pieces, and few editors would have published them unsolicited. Its eclectic embrace of the variety of human experience is a monthly rebuke to the formulaic and narrow concept of features in newspapers and magazines, where the lives of celebrities and what happened last night on television constitute the major source of ideas. And that, after all, is exactly what The Oldie was intended to do.
As for Ingrams, although the biographical blurb on his first book (God's Apology, a biography of three literary friends, Hesketh Pearson, Hugh Kingsmill and Malcolm Muggeridge), in 1977, stated, "this is his first full- length book, and probably his last", he has published two books this year. Just out is My Friend Footy, an account of his long friendship with the campaigning journalist Paul Foot, who died last year. And in the summer, there was his biography of William Cobbett, the radical journalist of the early 19th century (and a hero of Ingrams'), which received considerable acclaim. He's now considering doing a biography of G K Chesterton.
And his memoirs, possibly? Probably not, as he says that he doesn't keep a diary and his memory is too poor - even for the memoir of Foot, he occasionally needed the help of Francis Wheen, Private Eye's deputy editor, famous for his total recall.
For 18 years, Ingrams also wrote a column for The Observer, but, from this weekend, his byline will be appearing in the Saturday edition of The Independent. "For some time, I've had a semi-detached feeling about The Observer. I just feel the paper hasn't had the necessary editorial bite that it used to have," says Ingrams. "And it's a bit of a thing to write for a paper that you don't read any more!"
Richard Ingrams' first column for The Independent will appear on Saturday
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My Friend Footy, by Richard Ingrams, is published by Private Eye, £9.99Reuse content