Julia Budworth: Tea with 'The Lady'

Matthew Bell takes cake with the co-owner of the genteel women's weekly magazine – and finds her in a remarkable fury over its editor, Rachel Johnson

Seventy miles from the hushed London offices of The Lady, in a Georgian drawing room overlooking a lake, the future of the 125-year-old magazine for gentlewomen is being plotted. And it doesn't involve the editor, Rachel Johnson.

"Enough's enough. I'm afraid it can't go on much longer," says Julia Budworth as she pours tea. The seventysomething co-owner of the magazine (founded by her grandfather Thomas Gibson Bowles), has been bursting into rages about her famous employee since picking me up at the station.

"Completely mad!" was the verdict as we inched out of Stowmarket. "Paid far too much – and it's my money!" as she swung the 4x4 into her village ("the ugliest in Suffolk", apparently – "you have to ignore the council houses"). Then we're crawling up the half-mile drive to Deerbolt Hall, home to the Budworth family for the past 42 years, which they bought when the last one got too small – "it only had six bedrooms" – when she stops to point out the walnut trees that have never produced a single walnut. "Almost as annoying as Rachel." Later she will fling even wilder accusations: that Johnson is a social climber, a snob, vain and "completely obsessed with penises". But first, tea.

Julia Budworth is a checklist of English propriety. The grey hair is brusquely coiffed; the twinset is navy, and she toys with the loops of her necklace as she speaks in clipped shrieks. She is in possession of a full set of marbles. It's a year since Rachel Johnson, the 44-year-old author and sister of Boris, Mayor of London, was given the reins of The Lady amid a whirlwind of publicity. The brief was to drag the ailing title into the 21st century, double the circulation and bring in younger readers. "More hip, less hip replacement," said Johnson at the time, borrowing a line of Emma Soames's when she took over Saga magazine.

The newest front in a relentless publicity drive comes this week with the publication of Johnson's book, A Diary of The Lady, chronicling her first year at the helm. In a newspaper serialisation last week, she revealed an incident when the "formidable" Mrs Budworth "stormed" into her office "bellowing" that she wanted to murder her. She is certainly no shrinking violet, but the Mrs Budworth who spends two hours gossiping and laughing and insisting I have a third slice of cake strikes me as a rather different creature from the one Rachel Johnson has portrayed.

The cause of Mrs Budworth's murderous outburst back in March had been another publicity stunt, a Channel 4 documentary called The Lady and the Revamp, in which Johnson described The Lady as "a piddling little magazine that nobody reads". As she later admitted, it was possibly not a wise thing for an editor to say of their own publication. Friends of Johnson say part of her charm is that she is unafraid to say what she thinks, but on this occasion it was enough to offend not only her boss but also dozens of the magazine's readership, some of whom cancelled their subscriptions.

But this wasn't the first time Mrs Budworth had questioned the appointment. Johnson's very first issue ran an article by Stanley Johnson, Rachel's father, about an operation on his gall bladder. "It was totally unsuitable for a lady's magazine," says Mrs Budworth. "The cover had nurses and doctors running down a corridor. It was entirely wrong."

Then there was the article by Charles Glass on how to bed the nanny, which caused a flurry of protest on the letters page. Mrs Budworth thought it was "actually rather a jolly article", but adds: "If only she had stopped at that. But she never lets go. It's as if she's almost trying to be more stupid than the last time." Then Tracey Emin appeared on the cover. "Some things just don't work. You just don't put Tracey Emin on the cover of The Lady, any more than you put your father and his gall bladder!"

It would be easy to see Mrs Budworth as a stick in the mud, the interfering mother resistant to change. Her account suggests the opposite is true. For 20 years she says she has lobbied her brother, Tom Bowles, a reclusive bachelor who lives in a flat above the office, to stem the steady drop in circulation. In the late 1980s it was at a healthy 70,000; when Johnson took over it had slumped to just 31,000.

Mrs Budworth says she saw the potential of the internet for small ads – famously one of The Lady's main attractions – more than 10 years ago. But until her brother's retirement last year, Mrs Budworth had been a minor shareholder and had no power to intervene. "He took over when our father died but has taken little interest in the magazine. In the end the accountants were pushed in and said you ought to try not to let [The Lady] close. We saved it." He agreed to transfer the majority share to Mrs Budworth but her accountants advised against it because of death duties. "I'm getting terribly old, and could die at any time, so it was thought better to split it with my sons" (of whom there are four). This, she now feels, was a mistake. "I wish that I had stuck out for 51 per cent because I would have got rid of Rachel straight away."

The previous editor, Arline Usden, was 72 and had been ensconced for 18 years, along with many other long-standing staff members. "There were quite a lot of staff who were very comfortable," says Mrs Budworth. "They had to go if we were to survive at all. We had every intention of keeping Arline but...."

Her middle son Ben became managing director and an interim editor, Sarah Kennedy, was appointed; a gradual programme of tweaking began. Then Ben, 45, had the idea of bringing in Johnson, but first she had to join a shortlist of 21 female journalists, each of whom Ben, who is single, took out to lunch, one by one. "He even ate the same food every time," laughs Mrs B, "so that he wouldn't feel he had had a better meal with any of them, and confuse that with having a better time. He can't look at another piece of smoked trout."

Part of the attraction of Johnson was her bulging contacts book, and she has certainly brought plenty of media attention to the magazine. She also came with endorsements from two of Julia Budworth's most trusted confidantes, one of them her first cousin Debo, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire. But she was expensive. Mrs Budworth says her salary – close to six figures – is too much for a four-day week. "So along she came. And the circulation crashed! I think Ben has been very worried ever since."

The more she talks about Johnson, the more animated Mrs Budworth becomes. "There are two Rachels. There's the Rachel who is pretty, very nice, very easy to talk to, very intelligent, with her lovely blonde hair. That was what we all saw. She means well, then she goes over the top, regrets it and then it's too late. She goes mad! She's a loose cannon. All she thinks of is sex. You can't get her away from a penis. I think it comes from growing up with all those boys. She is basically a boy. But we didn't pick up on this."

The clues, though, were there. Before her appointment Johnson had written two raunchy novels, Notting Hell and Shire Hell, in which domestic staff invariably end up in bed or on a kitchen table with their employers. Then there was the interview she gave after her appointment when she said: "It makes me laugh to think I'll be editing The Lady. I'm the most unladylike person you could imagine. I'm usually slobbing about in tracksuit and Converse trainers."

Taste, or lack of it, is Julia Budworth's final bone of contention. Although Johnson clinched the job after Ben asked to visit her home and found it pleasingly shabby chic, Mrs Budworth says she has "no visual sense whatsoever". She shows me a picture of Nancy Mitford (her cousin) in a recent issue of The Lady and squeals: "This photo should have been cropped at the knee: it makes her legs look like sausages."

The assault on Johnson may seem unsparing, but Mrs Budworth believes The Lady will eventually come out worse. "She is using The Lady as a vehicle for her own promotion. It's tragic but it's so obvious – it's all about her. I suppose it's the same with Boris and we should have spotted that. But nobody told us. The only boy who had reservations was William, but he couldn't back it up; he just had a bad feeling. I wish we had chosen any other of the candidates on the shortlist."

Julia Budworth would happily talk for days about The Lady, the neglected family jewel she has been wanting to get her hands on all her life. If any person is The Lady it is she. As she shows me out she hands me a copy of the 125th anniversary issue, which has a feature about P G Wodehouse. "The Lady rejected all his stories, you know," she laughs. "We also said The Mikado was a no-hoper. One day we'll run a column of all The Lady's bad decisions." The question is, will Rachel Johnson be among them?

The Lady digested: Looking for a nanny... butler... murderer?

The Lady was founded in 1885 by Thomas Gibson Bowles, the maternal grandfather of the Mitford sisters, who wanted to create a "lite" version of Vanity Fair, which he had founded in 1868.

Famous for its classified adverts, The Lady remains the first port of call for anyone seeking domestic staff, with vacancies listed for nannies, butlers and governesses. The Prince of Wales and Queen Mother are believed to have used it, and the Duchess of York famously once advertised for a dresser. Jane Andrews, who got the job, was later jailed for murdering her boyfriend.

The Lady is the oldest women's weekly, and is thought to be the oldest magazine still owned by one family. It continues to operate out of a warren-like Victorian building on Bedford Street in Covent Garden, central London.

Literary connections include Stella Gibbons, who described her time as editorial assistant as "a plum job", and wrote Cold Comfort Farm in her spare moments. P G Wodehouse had his stories rejected and would later immortalise the mag as Milady's Boudoir, the pet project of Bertie Wooster's Aunt Dahlia, which is permanently in financial turmoil. Bertie writes a piece called "What the Well-Dressed Man is Wearing", his sole experience of real work.

There have been only nine editors in its 125-year history. David Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale and father of Nancy, got his first job there as general manager. Nancy became a regular contributor in the 1930s as a social correspondent.

Recipes and domestic tips have always featured prominently, as well as more arcane pieces on cobnuts and the history of the cucumber.

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