What’s changed? Ev­ery­thing and noth­ing

For­mer Edi­tor Clive Aslet has been con­nected with Coun­try Life for all of his work­ing life. Here, he ex­plains how the mag­a­zine has man­aged not only to sur­vive, but to pros­per de­spite an ever-evolv­ing cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal land­scape

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

For­mer edi­tor Clive Aslet ex­plains how the mag­a­zine has man­aged to sur­vive and pros­per

For 120 years, Coun­try Life has de­fied logic. Search the world and you will find no other mag­a­zine quite like it and no­body, these days, would dream of launch­ing one based on its win­ning for­mula, yet it en­dures. At a time when the presses are ceas­ing to roll for many long-es­tab­lished ti­tles, we con­tinue to sell strongly, speak­ing out on Bri­tish cul­ture and causes we hold dear. We’re proud to be dif­fer­ent. Ec­cen­tric? Yes, we ad­mit it.

It’s of­ten said that Coun­try Life doesn’t change. Cer­tainly, the spirit has re­mained con­sis­tent. The DNA was set early: long, schol­arly ar­ti­cles on coun­try houses and gar­dens, pro­mo­tion of ru­ral sports, an as­sump­tion that to live in an ar­chi­tec­turally distin­guished home sur­rounded by your own acres rep­re­sents the sum­mit of hu­man ex­is­tence and the fa­mous Fron­tispiece. Did Ed­ward Hud­son, the prin­ter who founded the mag­a­zine in 1897, know ex­actly how the child he brought into the world would turn out? I doubt it.

The fam­ily firm, Hud­son and Kearns, es­tab­lished in 1831, had some down­time on its presses and Hud­son thought a mag­a­zine would take up the slack. The first, Rac­ing Il­lus­trated, was a flop and, af­ter a year,

‘Coun­try Life had been from the start a pro­gres­sive pub­li­ca­tion ’

he folded it into his new pub­li­ca­tion, Coun­try

Life Il­lus­trated. The first is­sue did con­tain images of a coun­try house—bad­des­ley Clin­ton, in War­wick­shire—yet still smelt strongly of the turf and ken­nels.

It was soon set on its feet. Within a few years, the coun­try house had be­come cen­tral, if not para­mount—the sun around which ar­ti­cles on gar­dens, col­lect­ing, sport, farm­ing and the quid­di­ties of ru­ral life or­bited like plan­ets. Es­tate agents pro­vided some of the al­limpor­tant ad­ver­tis­ing.

How­ever, jour­nal­ism works ac­cord­ing to Dar­winian prin­ci­ples, in which only the fittest sur­vive. An or­gan­ism that re­pro­duces it­self ev­ery week evolves to meet the de­mands and op­por­tu­ni­ties of its en­vi­ron­ment and the chang­ing times. By the 1910s, beau­ti­fully il­lus­trated ar­ti­cles on aris­to­cratic man­sions were com­ple­mented by ones on the Small Coun­try House. These homes were not so small by to­day’s stan­dards, but rep­re­sented a new build­ing type in­tended to ac­com­mo­date the bar­ris­ters, re­tired colo­nial of­fi­cials, se­nior civil ser­vants and City types of the re­cently emerged up­per mid­dle class. Sup­ple­ments in­formed read­ers of the lat­est tech­nol­ogy.

The ad­ver­tise­ments—rarely bound with the mag­a­zine, but oc­ca­sion­ally to be found in li­brary sets—make com­pelling read­ing. Par­tic­u­lar favourites are: ‘For ev­ery home the “Geeko” tele­phone. The Ser­vant Prob­lem solved by at­tach­ing these Tele­phones to your Elec­tric Bells’; ‘The “Zero” Store Cool­ing and Ice Mak­ing Ma­chine (‘Can be driven by Elec­tric Mo­tor, Steam, Gas or Oil En­gine’)’; the Bri­tish Por­ta­ble Vac­uum Cleaner op­er­ated by a maid— the as­ton­ished foot­man looks on, re­lieved that he now longer has to carry out the rugs for beat­ing; and ‘Puc­cini en­dorses the Pianola’.

Gad­gets that must have been an ex­pen­sive cu­rios­ity be­came a nec­es­sary fea­ture of many peo­ple’s ex­is­tence, as they strug­gled to adapt to a dif­fer­ent scale of life af­ter the war. Spot­ting an op­por­tu­nity, Hud­son launched

Homes and Gar­dens, from the Coun­try Life sta­ble, in 1919. We shouldn’t be sur­prised that Coun­try Life em­braced new do­mes­tic ideas—it had been, from the start, a pro­gres­sive pub­li­ca­tion.

I know the claim may seem ex­trav­a­gant, but here is one of the para­doxes: a mag­a­zine that would now be iden­ti­fied with tra­di­tion­al­ism and small ‘c’ con­ser­vatism ini­tially re­flected a way of life that was, like it­self, hot off the press. Al­though it wrote about the great houses of the aris­toc­racy, with their parks and grouse­moors, the in­ter­est was prin­ci­pally his­tor­i­cal and aes­thetic.

Landed es­tates were strug­gling then. Farm­ing would not fully climb out of the Great Agri­cul­tural De­pres­sion un­til the Sec­ond World War. One con­se­quence was that landown­ers were will­ing to sell build­ing plots to the com­ing men, who wanted a ru­ral idyll, not a mill­stone around their

necks, and Coun­try Life told them how to achieve it. So far, so Arts-and-crafts— a move­ment that was both rad­i­cal and nos­tal­gic. Early Coun­try Life wrote ex­ten­sively on new coun­try houses, but stu­diously avoided those of the plu­toc­racy—or, in mod­ern par­lance, bling.

Hud­son, like his friend Ed­win Lu­tyens, whose work he did so much to pro­mote, was a prac­ti­cal ro­man­tic; much as he liked rose-gar­den­ing in Berk­shire and his Northum­brian cas­tle, he liked his Roll­sroyce, too. The mag­a­zine cham­pi­oned the early mo­torist, ex­plain­ing how ex­pen­sive but sus­cep­ti­ble mo­tors could be ac­com­mo­dated in the mo­tor sta­ble, com­plete with me­chanic’s pit, of a coun­try house.

Hud­son fully sub­scribed to the Ed­war­dian golf craze—the mag­a­zine is said to have been born on the golf course at Wal­ton Heath dur­ing a game played with the Lib­eral-sup­port­ing news­pa­per pro­pri­etor Sir Ge­orge Newnes and Lloyd Ge­orge’s con­fi­dant Ge­orge, later Lord Rid­dell, with not a Con­ser­va­tive in sight. (Rid­dell was also a news­pa­per man, be­ing the owner of the News of the World.)

Coun­try Life brought news, al­though its world was dif­fer­ent and spe­cific. It closely re­ported the adap­ta­tions re­quired of coun­try peo­ple by the First World War, pro­moted the work of war artists and took cen­tre stage in the de­bate on the form that war memo­ri­als should take. It could cope with the 1920s— it sur­vived the Gen­eral Strike, rather liked the tweedy, al­beit Con­ser­va­tive Stan­ley Bald­win and ad­mired the fashions of the Jazz Age—but a wob­ble came in the 1930s when the In­ter­na­tional Style ar­rived.

Civil­i­sa­tion seemed to be at a cross­roads and tra­di­tion was be­ing in­creas­ingly re­jected as a guid­ing light. Af­ter tak­ing such a close in­ter­est in the First World War, an ed­i­to­rial de­ci­sion was made to close its eyes to the Sec­ond. Don’t look to Coun­try Life for an an­gle on the Swing­ing Six­ties, ei­ther—there was other work to do, the mag­a­zine hav­ing be­come iden­ti­fied with the strug­gle of coun­try­house own­ers to sol­dier on, de­spite rot, damp, taxes and the cost of heat­ing oil. It be­came de­tached from the main­stream of Bri­tish cul­ture.

Coun­try Life re-en­gaged with na­tional de­bates through the con­ser­va­tion move­ment in the 1970s. The for­tunes of the coun­try house reached a nadir af­ter the oil cri­sis of 1974, al­though, even­tu­ally, the tide turned. In the 1980s, Coun­try Life was no longer a Canute, but a Nep­tune be­strid­ing the waves of Thatcherite pros­per­ity, crit­i­cis­ing ex­cesses and cel­e­brat­ing tri­umphs. With the ‘Treasure Houses of Bri­tain’ ex­hi­bi­tion, shown in Washington DC, the coun­try house be­came an in­ter­na­tional brand.

This was the great age of restora­tions by the Na­tional Trust, its eye guided and purse loos­ened by Ar­chi­tec­tural Edi­tor John Corn­forth, and of the most heroic cam­paigns of Save Bri­tain’s Her­itage, founded by Corn­forth’s suc­ces­sor Mar­cus Bin­ney and oth­ers in 1975.

Even­tu­ally, the old-fash­ioned ma­chines were su­per­seded by web off­set and the mag­a­zine burst into colour. This change was fol­lowed by an­other shock for Ul­tras, many of them —as I, the new Edi­tor, dis­cov­ered from my post­bag—liv­ing in the con­ser­va­tive states in the USA, when the No Peo­ple rule was lifted in 1993. Pre­vi­ously, the mag­a­zine had por­trayed the world as one that had been hit by a neu­tron bomb: build­ings and gar­dens had been left stand­ing, but all trace of liv­ing hu­man­ity was ex­punged.

An early ben­e­fi­ciary of this new pol­icy was the Liv­ing Na­tional Trea­sures se­ries, cel­e­brat­ing crafts that en­rich Bri­tish life—my favourite be­ing the vicar who moved house on a bi­cy­cle (a spe­cial­ist skill, I ad­mit). An­other leap of faith, am­ply jus­ti­fied, was a car­toon strip in the shape of An­nie Tem­pest’s Tot­ter­ing-by-gen­tly.

Change came to the ‘girls in pearls’. Early Fron­tispieces didn’t fea­ture girls so much as peo­ple of note or So­ci­ety ladies, of­ten moth­ers, dan­dling chil­dren, who had no doubt just been pre­sented to them by Nanny. By the 1980s, the tra­di­tion had long been to show en­gage­ment pho­to­graphs, taken by a se­lect sta­ble of pho­tog­ra­phers, who sent them in to be con­sid­ered for pub­li­ca­tion.

Our prob­lem was the rise of the por­ta­ble cam­era. By the 1980s, the tra­di­tion of the stu­dio pho­to­graph was on its last legs; no one seemed to want those rather stilted pho­to­graphs any more. Dur­ing her ed­i­tor­ship, Jenny Greene ex­per­i­mented with pictures of (older) women of achieve­ment, even men, but her ef­forts did not an­swer. How­ever, po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect it may be to say so, read­ers wanted to look at young women.

As for en­gage­ments, they come later, if at all. Girls in their twen­ties are much more likely to be rid­ing across the At­las Moun­tains for char­ity, found­ing a busi­ness or pur­su­ing a ca­reer in the Arts. The page was up­dated —mod­estly, one might have thought—but each in­cur­sion into the mod­ern world, how­ever ten­ta­tive, was greeted as a land­mark in so­cial evo­lu­tion: the first girl in jeans, the first belly­but­ton pierc­ing, the first Doc Martens, Madonna’s cook—each was splashed across the news­pa­pers. And there was the first nip­ple, in the first is­sue of our cen­te­nary year, 1997; in a fash­ion shoot by John Swan­nell, the model wore noth­ing but pearls. Pulses were set rac­ing in White’s.

My time as Edi­tor (1993–2006), was one of re­morse­less gloom for the coun­try­side: ris­ing ru­ral crime, scant ser­vices, farm­ing be­set by BSE, foot-and-mouth, bird flu and the rest, a hunt­ing ban in­ter­minably de­bated and then passed into law—these ex­ter­nal fac­tors were ac­com­pa­nied by a shift in mood mu­sic away from coun­try-house ex­u­ber­ance to­wards met­ro­sex­ual Min­i­mal­ism and Cool Bri­tan­nia. War (open and covert) was waged against tra­di­tion by New Labour.

The cur­tain has fallen on that era and lifted on an­other, pre­sent­ing new chal­lenges for my suc­ces­sor, Mark Hedges. He has to com­bine be­ing ‘keeper of the na­tion’s ar­chi­tec­tural con­science’ and of ed­i­to­rial stan­dards with more dar­ing im­agery, eti­quette ques­tions that res­onate na­tion­ally, ex­clu­sives that only a mag­a­zine of this cal­i­bre can com­mand and tele­vi­sion pro­grammes that don’t shy away from squea­mish is­sues.

How­ever, ar­chi­tec­turally, 1,000 flow­ers still bloom, the coun­try-house dream will never die, Coun­try Life will al­ways be a by­word for taste and politi­cians still need to be prod­ded about what mat­ters. Brexit will be te­dious, but it brings a re­assess­ment of what it means to be Bri­tish.

A new morn­ing—weather as yet un­known —will as­suredly dawn for the coun­try­side over the next cou­ple of years and loyal read­ers can ex­pect Coun­try Life to make its voice heard. The mag­a­zine will face the is­sues of the day as they af­fect our world, as it al­ways has. To bor­row the wis­dom of Giuseppe di Lampe­dusa’s The Leop­ard: ‘Ev­ery­thing must change so that ev­ery­thing can stay the same.’

‘Search the world and you will find no other mag­a­zine quite like it’ ‘The mag­a­zine will face the is­sues of the day as they af­fect our world, as it al­ways has

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