Time Out: Four decades of capital culture

Gordon Thomson, editor of Time Out, is in bullish mood, writes Ian Burrell, as he celebrates 40 years, and the future, of the magazine that keeps pace with an ever changing London
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When Time Out began life in April 1968, it was but a single folded sheet of paper, equivalent to only eight pages of today's magazine but intending to be a comprehensive guide to going out in London. It may have been the year of revolutions but the capital seems to be a whole lot busier now.

Current editor Gordon Thomson and his team have attempted to encapsulate the extraordinary cultural evolution of the city in the past four decades in a single image – one that will span a gatefold cover that is almost the size of the original magazine – comprising portraits of the 40 people judged to have done the most to influence that change.

The pictures, taken by Time Out photographer Rob Greig include a shot of Keira Knightley, who had her security team drop by in advance to sweep the office car park, and Vivienne Westwood, who is such a devotee of the weekly guide that she asked for an audience with its revered theatre critic Jane Edwards.

According to Thomson, 36, who sits drinking lattes in the Charlotte Street Hotel near to the magazine's famous offices on London's Tottenham Court Road, Time Out has had to change to reflect the transformation of the city it covers. "My belief is that the constituency we have in London is almost global now. London has slipped its moorings, it doesn't stretch to Watford any more but to Reykjavik, Tokyo and San Francisco."

It is helpful, he says, that the organisation now produces similar guides in cities all over the world. "We have, in our international partners and guidebooks, the ability to take the world to London and bring London to the world. We know there's an incredible modern art exhibition coming to London in three months' time because our editors in Shanghai told us so. We can give Londoners that global experience," he enthuses, optimistically comparing his resources to the global network of stringers in the golden age of Fleet Street.

These are tougher times for all print products and Time Out has suffered more competition than most, with "what's on" websites springing up all over the net and the arrival of two more London free newspapers that attempt to offer a nightly listings service for their mass readerships. Thomson attempts to rise above it all. "We're up on the hill, we're William Wallace looking down on these guys scrapping it out in the valley and watching the bloodbath. It's their war – we are not a news-gathering organisation," he says, the Scottish metaphor suiting his gentle burr.

Maintaining his theme of a cultural high ground, he says Time Out's reviewers are a cut above their rivals. "Most freesheets employ professional cynics; we've got a body of critics that other organisations just don't have access to," he says. "Writers (elsewhere) don't take their responsibilities as cultural commentators seriously; it's all about filling space. People still want to be inspired to go out in London and you can't inspire people with a simple cold listing – you need writing and inspiration."

Neither does he seem worried by the Evening Standard's attempts to mark itself out as "London's quality newspaper", saying "they're speaking to a different kind of Londoner". And the Notting Hill set are not for him. "I think you can probably count the number of gentrified west London Time Out subscribers on one hand."

Thomson, in spite of this week's 40th anniversary all-star cover, says he has deliberately steered the magazine away from obsessing over celebrities during his four years in charge. "Before I became editor, there was a lot of celebrity on the cover and it had perhaps lost some of the identity that is absolutely integral to Time Out's DNA, which is that it is imbued with the essence of London," he says. "We've managed to hold our own in a very tough market by taking the magazine back to the city and being the magazine for Londoners by Londoners. That's what our readers want; they're not stupid, they're literate. If they want celebrity, that's fine, I've got nothing against it per se, but they can get that in so many different places. What nobody else can provide is the cultural insight and critical rigour we bring to the arts and London."

The internet has posed a particular dilemma for Time Out, with the risk that a full online listings guide would remove any reason to buy the magazine. Thomson admits that, until now, the organisation has struggled to find a formula which offers something online that complements the print version and vice versa. He is working towards a site that offers not just a guide to an event but information on nearby pubs and restaurants as well.

As the world's media attempts to produce information in an ever shorter time frame, Thomson is not afraid to think longer term. So he is giving distinct themes to his magazine that will last for four issues. That monthly cycle allows him to bring in galleries, cinemas and music venues as partners as he explores Art & Politics (October), Film (November) and Nightlife (December).

"For each month, there's a whole pile of external activities we are doing, partnerships with galleries and clubs, putting on great events and panel discussions. In the magazine it will be like a stick of rock running through the magazine."

To mark its 40th birthday, Time Out has produced a book, London Calling, looking at how the magazine has covered developing trends. As the city continues to change, the title's staff, says Thomson, are driven by the excitement of uncovering a new speakeasy in Brick Lane or a burlesque club in Limehouse. "Most of us in the office aren't dyed in the wool, born-and-bred Londoners but we all consider ourselves to be Londoners," says the Scottish editor. "Everybody that works on the magazine, myself included, is perpetually in wonder and awe at this city."