Fishing Lines: The heady art of coarse publishing

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The Independent Online
I WAS worried to hear that the world's worst angling magazine was all set to smarten up its act. Its editor, David Hall, appalled at a new, slicker rival selling treble his circulation, decreed that after nearly 20 years the Private Eye of fishing was going to heed footling details like design, content and covers.

A small step in the world of publishing maybe, but a giant leap for Hall, who has spent most of his life doing precisely what he wants. It looked like the beginning of the end for a magazine that has collected more law suits than the tailor in Chancery Lane.

You might reasonably wonder how a monthly about fish could possibly attract even a rude letter. But Hall has been sued by the very best, including the Sun. This is partly explained by his admission: 'I knew nothing about libel when I started. But if it was true or probably true, I printed it.'

Here are some typical examples: someone's wife is described as 'a model for engine sumps'; one angler, it is suggested, failed to catch fish because he spent the previous evening smoking marijuana; a reader expresses indignation at a joke about himself (Q: What's the difference between D*** A*** and a supermarket trolley? A: A supermarket trolley has a mind of its own).

The strange thing is that Hall, who looks like a banker, should be running a magazine about coarse fishing at all. At 31, he was managing director of a public electronics company. 'But dealing with merchant bankers and constant travelling got me down, and I just resigned,' he said. He walked out on the business he had started, leaving behind a Mayfair flat and an E-Type, with no idea what he wanted to do.

He decided to launch a monthly coarse fishing magazine, aimed at a market accustomed to short words and big pictures. 'I thought being an editor just meant sending a lot of articles off to a printer, and when you had enough, printing a magazine,' he said. Journalistically, it was a disaster. But against all the odds the magazine was a success.

It soon acquired a cult following because, Hall believes, 'its heart was in the right place'. A mixture of the sublime and the appalling, it stomped all over the governing bodies and abused grammar, punctuation and spelling worse than a bilingual holiday menu.

At the height of the magazine's success, Hall lost interest. Confident that the magic powder would work on anything he touched, he went into advertising, PR, and launched more magazines. He might have been a candidate for 'Snide Rumours and Dirty Lies', the most popular column in his fishing magazine, when the whole thing fell apart.

'It was a painful lesson, but it taught me to concentrate on what I'm good at, which is fishing magazines,' he said. So he launched the modestly titled David Hall's Coarse Fishing Monthly, and slowly the readers came back.

The surprise is that Hall even bothered to take notice of EMAP's Improve Your Coarse Fishing. In the old days, he would have ignored it or, more likely, insulted it. 'I've acquired a bit more sense now,' he says. 'When I found out that they were were selling three times as many copies, I decided to find out what I was doing wrong.'

Imagine my trepidation when the redesigned, revamped David Hall's Coarse Fishing Monthly came through the post. Would it just be a pale clone of EMAP's successful formula? I should have known Hall better. Colour and quality paper make it look prettier but the content hasn't suffered. No commas, abuse of punctuation such as 'old wive's tale', and a portly rival editor referred to as 'Bouncy Castle'. 'I've worked much harder on the editing,' Hall said. The mind boggles.