'Oldie' magazine seeks life support

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These are anxious days for book lovers, jazz buffs and the militantly old-at-heart - all because an elderly publisher is selling a string of magazines, most of which have circulations smaller than Pigeon Sport or Model Helicopter World.

These are anxious days for book lovers, jazz buffs and the militantly old-at-heart - all because an elderly publisher is selling a string of magazines, most of which have circulations smaller than Pigeon Sport or Model Helicopter World.

The announcement that Naim Attallah, principal backer of The Literary Review, The Oldie and The Wire, is selling up has caused consternation among those magazines' devoted fans. Also up for sale are a couple of publishing houses, The Women's Press and Quartet Books.

The Literary Review, edited by grouch-about-town Auberon Waugh, son of Evelyn, has few readers but plenty of publicity, thanks to the many columns and diary pieces generated by its editor.

At The Oldie, Richard Ingrams's anti-yoof culture monthly, the editor reports his magazine is in good shape. It has something of the appeal of Private Eye, which he edited until 1986, with lots of cartoons and humour, but eschews hurtful gossip and media in-fighting in favour of eccentricity and a jaundiced eye on the modern world. Media commentator and former Independent on Sunday editor Stephen Glover described it as "utterly brilliant" in his column in the Spectator magazine last week.

Ingrams says The Oldie has a circulation of about 25,000. It even made a modest profit the year before last. He hopes Mr Attallah will find a proprietor with good magazine experience. "It would have to be someone who 'gets' it," he says. "Not everyone does." He mentions Felix Dennis, who bought The Week, and John Brown, who owns Viz, and thinks The Oldie would sit nicely between Brown's Wisden magazine and the Fortean Times. Perhaps it would - although who would have imagined The Oldie falling into the clutches of the man who gave the world the Fat Slags and Sid the Sexist?

Ingrams is not worried about the fate of The Literary Review, which sells 15,000 copies a month. Editor Waugh likes poetry that rhymes, novels with characters and stories with proper endings. In its annual Bad Sex Awards - for daft literary eroticism - the magazine has unleashed the power of embarrassment into the book scene, to both amusement and fury. Richard Ingrams feels The Literary Review will surely attract a "sugar daddy".

He rather grudgingly admits that Mr Attallah has been a "very good" proprietor. "He's never interfered," he mutters.

Attallah was a target for much Private Eye satire during Ingrams's tenure as editor - he was nicknamed "The Ayattallah" and "Naim Attallah-Disgusting" - but answered the call when Ingrams appealed for funding for his new magazine, which launched in 1992. When the fledgling Oldie got into financial difficulty and had a near-death experience in 1994, he forked out again, and it has since built up a loyal readership.

At least jazz fans can relax. Their magazine, The Wire, a serious-minded publication for the "non-mainstream" music enthusiast, is profitable. Its staff, led by publisher Tony Harrington, have arranged a management buy-out.

Despite persistent speculation about the state of his finances, Mr Attallah says he is selling up because he wants to retire. He will be 70 in May.

"I feel trapped," he says. "I'm very disciplined and I get up very early every day to work. Now I must be able to go away and read the books I want to read and take my wife to Paris when I want to."

He says his aim is to find "a good house for everything: a proprietor who is sympatico, who acts in a distinguished manner and gives the editor the freedom he needs".

He concedes it might be hard to find a single owner for both The Literary Review and his feminist imprint. "I might, at the end of the day, decide to keep something. It's not easy to fund these things," says Mr Attallah, who rose from being a fitter with English Electric to becoming chief executive of Aspreys the jewellers. "I've never had it cushy but we established these magazines, and now the time has come for someone with spare capital to promote them more."

Who that someone may be leaves Ingrams with one big worry. "We may end up being owned by Mohammed Fayed," he says, only half-joking. "It could happen."

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