Media: Kiss goodbye to the 'gels with pearls': Maggie Brown meets an editor determined to take 'Country Life' into new territory

Click to follow
The Independent Online
ONE OF the warning signs that something different, even odd, was happening at Country Life appeared in January, when this rather staid institution launched a 'bungalow eating' competition. 'If there is a particular house that spoils your favourite landscape . . . we will commission selected architects to suggest how they can be improved,' it promised.

Helpfully, the weekly magazine ran a before-and-after example of how to twee-up a featureless modern bungalow into a cottage orne, with decorative touches such as wavy weatherboarding. (Results of about 20 entries will be published in May.)

Clive Aslet, the new editor behind this wheeze, expected his supposedly grand county readers to send in photographs of blots on their landscapes. As befits a magazine now on sale at Sainsbury, however, 'a lot of people sent in their own houses, saying, 'We live in this, and we would like to do something about it.' '

Giles Worsley, the achitectural editor, says the response was revealing. 'We tend to deal with country house owners and the National Trust. It shows who our readers are, and how much wish-fulfilment and aspiration they have.'

This month, however, Simon Courtauld, a former editor of the Field, wrote an article in the Spectator, criticising the competition and lamenting what he sees as the debasement of a much-loved British institution. Country Life (founded in 1897), he wrote, was a magazine in danger of forsaking its roots by seeking new readers. A loyal audience in the shires was revolting, and the magazine would go the way of Punch.

He recounted a conversation with one of Shropshire's landowners (a group renowned for being the most reactionary in Britain), who prodded his finger at a Country Life article on role-playing adventure games, with pictures of people dressed up as monsters, and concluded: 'I don't think I can take it any more.'

For Mr Courtauld, Country Life is the equivalent of a listed building whose fabric is being ruined by circulation-seeking vulgarity. He shuddered at the photograph of Baroness Issy van Randwyck, a Dutch cabaret artist, in a place where well-bred 'gels with pearls' once reigned. He mocked a Country Life front page featuring the mournful face of a polar bear, with the line 'Quality of life, what do bears think?'

Mr Aslet replies: 'When he (Courtauld) was editor of the Field, it went from being weekly, to monthly. He is someone who likes dull things.'

Mr Aslet, 38, is a successful architectural writer, and seems far from a barbarian. He keeps a bay hunter, called Rosie, at livery near Windsor Great Park, and could almost be considered a Spectatorish sort of fogey, except that he is a member of the Garrick Club and displays personal warmth and a sense of fun.

He is certainly proud of the Lutyens chairs that grace his otherwise dreary IPC tower block; they are one of the few touches left of the magazine's founder, Edward Hudson, who prospered sufficiently to have Lutyens build him a country house. But he is also pleased at the way he has introduced articles about people into the magazine, while retaining such stalwart columns as 'Around the salerooms' and elegant reports on historic interiors.

The magazine's February cover, bearing the headline, 'Is this man a living legend?' launched a new series, bound to make the old guard wince, about people who preserve rare skills; the whiskery male 'legend' featured created furniture for hawks. More recently, the spotlight fell on a clergyman who passionately devotes hours to intricate embroidery, such as portraying the details of lamb's wool. 'We never used to have people at all in Country Life,' Mr Aslet says. 'All those houses were always seen without anyone in them.'

Mr Aslet joined the magazine, aged 23, from Peterhouse College, Cambridge, one of the smallest and cosiest of billets, and concentrated on becoming a writer. Such scholarly but readable coffee-table books as The Last Country Houses and The American Country House might have led him on to the US lecture circuit, but he decided 'it was much more fun to be an editor'. So in January he succeeded Jenny Greene, editor of five years, who had gained many column inches for features by dropping the traditional engagement pictures of the 'gels with pearls'.

Mr Aslet describes the design of the Country Life he inherited as slightly forbidding, dense, and difficult to read. The trick, he says, is to tweak the design and contents, while recognising that the magazine is a unique publication without a serious weekly competitor.

The switch to colour, however, brought a danger: it tended to make the magazine appear as pretty as other country-oriented glossies, thus diminishing its cachet. This explains the recent introduction of specially commissioned black-and-white drawings to illustrate, for example, Sir Roy Strong's 'Week in the Country'.

In truth, however, Country Life has always been a sort of pantomine horse - two magazines stuck together. The first half was a property magazine, the back end a blend of country matters and high-minded architectural articles for conservation purists.

The magazine's problem is that the mouth-watering advertisements, its traditional gold mine, have been melting away during the collapse of the property market. And when people are not spending money, expensive colour ads have tended to lose their effectiveness, leading some advertisers to question whether to use the magazine. The recession has also reduced the numbers of casual buyers who are likely to be looking for a country house through the magazine. A combination of these factors has thrown the magazine back on its second line of defence - articles that people want to read.

Mr Aslet is confident that the sober Nineties will favour the magazine, provided that it is lively, useful to people and reflects real life. By useful, he means articles about how to commission new but stylishly traditional firebacks for your home, tips on building a badger sanctuary, and guides to the 'most sparkling events in Europe' and to the best gardens for snowdrops.

He describes the Eighties as a tinsel decade, when Country Life considered pounds 2m houses to be cheap. 'It was stupid. Even people with lots of money don't throw it around. They are conscious of the value of money. The recession is not a disaster for the countryside. It has provided a breathing space.'

There are, in fact, plenty of reasons for the traditionalists to keep reading Country Life. For instance, it regularly reports on Britain's fox-hunting fraternity. 'This great tradition is under serious threat. We feel we should support it,' says the Wimbledon-born Mr Aslet, who has attempted the sport with no great success.

He makes another promise: 'We have got to get back to the girls, but they must be people doing something.' (Baroness Issy was included because she was singing at Pizza on the Park. And one of the girls this week is the cox of the Oxford reserve team for the Boat Race.) There will also be debutantes, 'maybe wearing a ball gown before the Queen Charlotte's ball'. 'All sorts of people,' he says mischievously. Such as the 21st Lady of Traquair, otherwise called Miss Catherine Maxwell Stuart, who caused a stir when photographed wearing Doc Marten shoes?

But the level of sales remains an important consideration. Two years ago, circulation stood at 46,540 a week; today it is 15 per cent down, at 42,200. 'The formula is not based on mass sales,' Mr Aslet says, 'but we need to make sure that sales go up to the point at which everyone who might be

interested is attracted. We want to be on a rising draught rather than a falling one.'

(Photograph omitted)