Toilet Reading: The Economist

Tagline: It doesn’t have one. The Economist is too mature for taglines.

Price: £5

Who is this magazine for? I’ve subscribed to The Economist for a while. If you asked me why, I’d find it difficult to give you a convincing answer. I might construct a laboured argument about it providing an international perspective you don’t get from the newspapers or the telly. I could contend that the fact it distils a week of news in a style well suited to the time-poor, effort-poor metropolitan lifestyle I claim to lead. But that wouldn’t really be true.

In fact, the reason I started buying The Economist was based on a lie. The mag, you see, has always boasted a jaunty front cover. Nothing funny in the sense that normal people would recognise by laughing, but at best gently satirical in a way that might be rewarded with an ‘aahhh’ and a round of applause from a Radio 3 audience.

The Economist cartoon

The funniest thing in this week’s Economist.

Marvellous, I thought, a substantial but humorous take on the week’s news. It might cost me a fiver, but what could be better for that seven-hour train journey? And then of course, you actually read the mag and realise it’s not funny at all. It’s not even trying! It’s like going on a Match date where the girl who claims to be into Daft Punk and boutique coffee, turns out to be primarily enthralled about her job in business process design.

The Economist has far higher aspirations than being a gag mag. This is a current affairs magazine that courts a readership of influence, doubtless with quite a lot of success. In my day job, I have met some important people, giving them the benefit of my keen insight as I hand them their change and Egg McMuffin.  What these movers and shakers want boils down to two things: to appear clever, and not to look stupid. In acting as both a scout and distiller, The Economist strives to serve them with both, albeit through the eyes of a 28-year old graduate economist who writes with the pen of a bewigged Victorian industrialist.

What did you get for your £5? The Economist has a well-worn roll call of articles. It kicks off with a rattle through the week’s top stories, invariably finishing with one which it considers to be on the ‘lighter side’. This edition’s fluff is riffing off references to ‘Dude, Where’s My Car?’ in relation to Uber, a link that accurately sets the magazine’s cultural compass at fifteen years before the present day.

Persistently sprinkled throughout The Economist are examples of what I’m afraid I’ll have to describe as intellectual whimsy – the kind of witticisms that  are written by people who are desperate to appear in dictionary of quotations one day. This crapulent behaviour tends to jar against the seriousness of the content. If, for example, a well-known hotel near Green Park were bought in a deal of questionable legality by the Russian head of state, the resultant Economist article would – without any shadow of a doubt – be titled ‘Putin on the Ritz’.

The news in brief is followed by a series of leader articles, with most of the magazine split along geographical lines: Britain, Europe, US, Asia, and so on. The mag concludes with finance, science, book reviews and some lovely data tables.

The Economist is venerable enough to have developed some admirable quirks, but two stand out. The first is the lack of bylines. In a digital age where the most inconsequential Buzzfeed guffpiece is accompanied by the gurning mugshot and Twitter handle of some jobbing hack, this is actually rather refreshing.

The second is a tendency to focus thoughtfully on things at the fringe of the public discourse – stuff like the decline of CCTV and the collapse of Argentina’s Kirchner administration – that you’re pleased that someone cares about, even if you can’t quite face reading 2,000 words about it.

Features: Unlike most of the other mags I’ve reviewed here, The Economist has a fairly clear political stance. Insofar as I understand it, libertarianism is the order of the day – smallish state, personal freedoms, big business is OK, and all that jazz.

That angle is applied with great confidence to the issues of the day. Europe is perpetually about to dive headlong down the toilet. Immigration, technology and free markets drive efficiency, so let’s not fiddle with them too much. And for Christ’s sake, let’s not do anything drastic – instability messes with stock portfolios and who wants that?

The problem with The Economist is that if you read it once, you’d think: ‘Goodness, they are smart people, and they’ve used numbers and everything. They must know what they’re talking about.’ The reality is the mag gets stuff wrong all the time. It confidently predicted Greece would leave the Euro. To date it has not, much to the disappointment of everyone who found a handful of drachmas in the crevice of an old suitcase.

In one piece about smartphones, the mag blithely predicts they will dominate global technology for years to come, even though the rise and fall of equally unstoppable PCs is shown on the very same page.

It’s not just bollocks as such – they get some things right too – but it is a function of The Economist’s tendency to follow trend lines with the self-assurance of the totally unaccountable. Being a confident conservative is a perfectly defensible position until things change. Problem is, that tends to happen quite a bit.

AdvertsThe Economist may be the only magazine I’ve read where the adverts are markedly less enticing than the articles. In keeping with their pitch to the ‘movers and shakers’ market, they tend to be for consultancies and investment companies.

The Economist advert

In this case, consultancies that help businesses who find they’ve accidentally ordered 400 of Godzilla’s toilet rolls.

The mag also runs quite a few job adverts. These tend to be for positions of such existential boredom that if you met the jobholder at a party, you would say ‘Oh! Right!.. Mmmm… Well. Say, have you tried the punch?’. Programme Officer, Technical Assistance Unit, I’m looking at you.

Letters pageThe Economist letters page serves one function – for self-important but irrelevant people to contribute their opinions. True of all letters pages you may say, but here the platform is given to those who once moved and shaked. Nobody really reads The Economist’s letters page, but it serves well as a retirement colony for former executives and senior public servants.

This week, the ‘British Ambassador to Russia from 2004 – 2008’, Sir Tony Brenton, gives his views on his former host nation. Or to put it in a shorter, more accurate way, a retired man enjoys a brief rant.

Rating: 7/10

Probably one of the UK’s best newspapers, The Economist has the self-confidence and wit of a polished student politician. And an equal amount of responsibility.

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Toilet Reading: Real People

Tagline: ‘Fab Stories!’

Price: 67p

Who is this magazine for? Sixty-seven pence is an odd price for a magazine. A strange price for anything, come to that. What costs 67p? Other than a well-judged bag of pick n’ mix and a small quantity of loose mushrooms hand-selected at the supermarket, it’s hard to think of many other things. So why is Real People being sold for such a precise fee?

price war, real people magazine

The poor bastards don’t realise that ‘Love It!’ is retailing at 65p.

The answer only becomes clear when the mag is sat next to shelf-mate Pick Me Up. Pick Me Up is an aggressively priced rag too, but pitched at a marginally less attractive 68p. It does not reflect well on the staff or readers of the mag that this suggests the following conversation happened at Real People HQ:

  • ‘The circulation war is getting serious. We’ve got a huge battle ahead at the 69p price point. What are we going to do?’
  • ‘Put more puzzles in?’
  • ‘No, the mag is almost entirely wordsearch-based as it is.’
  • ‘What about upping the nudity count?’
  • ‘Good idea Rodney, but boobs cost money, and I’ve heard the Pick Me Up editor is sexting that woman off Made In Chelsea. Let’s not start a war we can never hope to win.’
  • ‘What about writing some well-researched articles?’

*silence* *10 minutes pass*

  •  ‘Right, now that Hayley’s been fired, why don’t we cut the price by 2p with the money we’ve saved?’
  • ‘Brilliant. We can’t possibly lose. Those bastards at Prick Me Up will never squeeze more than a penny out of their margins.’

Real People is all about gossipy stories. These were once exchanged by middle-aged women over garden walls. Sadly, modern life has stripped those interactions away. But those same women still love a bargain and still yearn for that fix, even if they don’t go to their garden wall to get it because they’re too busy playing online bingo.

real people magazine, nagging

‘She’s a real nagger too Paula. I don’t know how her husband stands her. I told my Barry about it, but he wasn’t listening, as usual.’

What did you get for your 67p? Fab stories, that’s what. The ideal gossip mag story is one you can imagine gleefully telling about that gauche woman four doors down (‘Oh, Mrs Lar-dee-dar over there buys her milk from M&S Paula, it’s a bloody liberty.’). At a minimum, a good story should have your bingo-winged chums going ‘no!’ and ‘never!’ and ‘I always thought there was something odd about that couple, you know, but I don’t like to pry.’

The front cover provides an assortment of teasers that are a classic example of the gossip ragman’s art. Obviously, your common or garden gossip about divorces and HRT is a bit tame (unless it’s about celebrities of course, but that’s a different genre). So, Real People delivers juicier stuff – sex, violence and babies. In many ways, Real People is a reminder that different between the sexes is small; there’s plenty of common ground to be found on boobs, fights and psycho partners. Swap articles on cats for cars and you’ve got a ready-made male equivalent, which presumably is called Feel People.

Anyway, the front cover promises lurid tales of benefit-snatching toy boys, a women popping out kids faster than I can shell pistachios, a crazy husband fire-bombing a house, a man who was nagged out of a coma and a poor woman suffering from enormous breasts. I’m not a regular reader of Real People, but I’m willing to bet that in regard to the latter story, next month will feature a piece on a woman’s redemption from tiny breasts. It’s like the tides.

real people magazine

There are button mushrooms that could submit a successful entry to this competition.

Although the mag’s main stock is in stories, it’s offers a fine line in puzzles too. Real People is to be enjoyed as a break-time read, perhaps with a nice cuppa, and it generously offers no fewer than twelve brainteasers to help you pass the time. Cash prizes are offered for all of these, an offer that looks especially generous when you consider that a) the mag costs less than a quid and b) a typical question is: ‘Which Michael Jackson album is the biggest selling of all time? A) Thriller B) Chiller.’

This question is on a page where the word ‘Thriller’ is mentioned no fewer than seven times.

Features: The stories in Real People are a roller-coaster ride through the human condition. Unfortunately, it’s one of the those roller-coasters that you get at travelling fairs where the safety bars don’t really come down over your shoulders and the carts smell strongly of horse.

A key detail about Real People is that the protagonists are paid for their stories. Up to a grand, according to the front page. The fact that these women were desperate enough for a cheque to give up their tales to the slavering gossip hounds is pretty depressing. Personal traumas laid bare for a few hundred quid so people can tut and snigger over a Nescafe.

real people magazine

For someone with acute body image issues, these are suspiciously well shot photos.

But still, rule one of gossip mags applies to Real People: the actual story is far less exciting than the front cover would have you believe. In the case of the coma-curing nagger, the medical evidence for a link between mithering and treatment of acute disseminated encephalomyelitis remains inconclusive. That woman did have really big boobs though, so I can’t fault the journalism there. 36NNN apparently, which doesn’t sound so much like a cup size as the straining noise the support bra must have made, poor woman.

Adverts: Adverts are pretty thin on the ground in Real People. I’d have bet good money that those zany people at Gala Bingo would be in there – it’s hard to imagine an easier market segment for them to hit – but the four adverts in the mag’s paltry 50 pages were for shampoo, other magazines (about soaps, which I suppose is essentially the same premise as Real People but for Not Real People), rice that possesses a magic slimming effect (possibly because it resembles sick), and a creepy bracelet.

I enjoyed the creepy bracelet very much because it reminded me of the mocking adverts for useless toot that Viz does. The ‘For My Son’ bracelet looked about as appealing as the ‘Life of Christ in Cats’ plate set, right down to their Pay Nothing Now promise. This is naturally followed by mysterious multiple payment installments and ambitious P&P costs. All in all, your proud, God-fearing mother would be shelling out £66.96 for something you could probably pick up at Argos for a fiver.

The bracelet was so good, in fact, that I decided to hasten to the website of Bradford Exchange, the company unabashedly flogging this stuff. They have been selling arse for ‘over 40 years’ apparently, and good for them.

Letters page: There’s not that much call for a dedicated letters page in Real People, as the entire magazine is basically one big letters page.

Real People

Poor kid can’t even answer back, the monsters.

However, a vague effort is made at the start of the magazine, which offers comedy news in brief interspersed with a sprinkling of missives and photos for readers seeking out the 25 quid payday on offer.

Some people have taken their enthusisasm for £25 to the point of exploiting children that aren’t even their own.

Rating: 8/10

Hell is Real People. But at 67p, who’s complaining?

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Toilet Reading: Treasure Hunting

Tagline: ‘Britain’s Best Selling Metal Detecting Magazine’

Price: £3.85

Who is this magazine for? It doesn’t get much more romantic than buried treasure, does it? Sailing the high seas with men of questionable haircare choices. Racing the tides and moustache-twirling baddies hellbent on seizing your haul. Following a map that displays no more than a childlike grip on the intricacies of cartography (why don’t treasure maps ever include contour lines or a reasonable key?). This is the stuff of heroic tales, myths and legends. Treasure Hunting is for those who live life to the full.

Ah no, wait. It’s actually about plodding across a muddy field, wielding a strange plastic implement that resembles a hoover.

I was under the impression that all buried treasure was the property of the Crown – if you bag yourself a haul of coins, you are obliged to give them up to the police. Admittedly this knowledge was based entirely on the plot of a Roald Dahl short story, a tale included in the same collection as one which convinced me that, with enough training, you could see through playing cards by looking at them really, really hard.

However, the very existence of Treasure Hunters proves once again that the knowledge I so carefully accumulated during my childhood is so much bollocks. This is obviously a mag for people whose previous financial strategies – playing the Lottery, crossing their fingers, looking at playing cards really, really hard – have failed.

Disappointingly, treasure hunters have apparently decided to refer to themselves as ‘detectorists’. I would have thought ‘detectives’ would have been far less cumbersome, but then again, these may be people who wish to avoid attracting any attention from the police.

What did you get for your £3.85? The big giveaway that Treasure Hunters is for those literally seeking paydirt is that the magazine is full of adverts. At least a quarter of the magazine’s pages are given over to glossy double page spreads, extolling the virtues of one particular type of plastic hoover over another. And nobody is more likely to make an unwise investment in an expensive prop than someone who is completely convinced they’re a few hours of light wafting away from life-changing financial salvation. It’s like fat people and tracksuits.

The second giveaway is on the contents page (page 7, following six pages of ads), where the bottom third is given over to a fairly brazen offer: ‘Celtic hoards, large or small, we love them all. And we pay cash.’ The hoards in this case are coins, by the way, not massed ranks of Iceni warriors.

Elsewhere in the mag we find a news and views section, which brings tell of a new detector showroom opening at the Orchard Business Park, Kingsclere, a location that I imagine will not draw a great deal of passing trade. Treasure Hunters also offers a healthy sprinkling of features about various digs, a kit review, the dreaded club and rally round-up with WI level’s of trifling detail, and a how-to guide on building your own sand scoop. The latter is written by a Mr Beach, someone who is either impeccably qualified or who is working under a pseudonym. Perhaps his real name is Terry I’ve Never Made A Sand Scoop In My Life.

Treasure Hunting

You’d certainly be ready to hit Mr. Beach.

Features: The magazine’s writers make a decent fist of trying to make digging holes exciting. Nevertheless, there is a feeling through Treasure Hunters that quite a lot of effort is being put in to stretch it all to an acceptable length. The aforementioned sand scoop guide has 31 instruction steps, more than an Ikea sofa. This seems on the excessive side for an implement that is, when all’s said and done, a cup on a stick.

In a feature explaining how to get started on a tight budget, a balding man explains his move from Lotto tickets to detecting. After purchasing a cheapo hoover, the size of his finds steadily builds up; a quid in a bush, some small bits of copper, a silver sixpence from 1697, before building to his biggest haul – the fee for writing 700 words in Treasure Hunter magazine. Success!

Treasure Hunting

Useful insight here, just in case you’d forgotten in all the excitement what a tree was.

Adverts: Advertisers have to work pretty hard in the metal detecting game, because when all’s said and done, they only equipment you need to own to qualify as a bone fide treasure hunter is a spade. In fact, I suppose you don’t even need that. A pair of functioning limbs that allow you to scrabble about in dirt or sand would probably be plenty.

Additional tools – metal detectors, pinpointers, sand scoops, all the rest of it – are there to make you slightly more efficient in your digging, and therefore infinitesimally more likely to find something. The snag is that there’s a whole bunch of surface area out there. Regardless of how much you spend on those technological aids, buying a metal detector is a bit like giving a budding astronomer a pair of glasses.

That isn’t to say that there are plenty of companies out there having a good go at convincing you otherwise.

Treasure Hunting

Disgusting.

The language used to sell metal detectors is slightly unnerving to somebody new to the field. Deep, fast, vibrate alert, ribbed anti slip design – all common phrases, all guaranteed to make most of the advert achieve Carry On Detecting heights when measured on the widely-recognised Fnarr Index. On the demand side of the market, artefact buyers tend to go in to for the capital letters, block colours and anonymous email addresses combination that may imply a less than cordial relationship with HMRC.

Letters page: Treasure Hunters gives over a healthy two pages to readers. The star letter took up a full page, something I’d normally baulk at. However, in this case it was from a bloke who had woken up from a coma, taken up treasure hunting and found a gold ring.

Good on you Paul. Although the sentence ‘it was just great to be outdoor swinging low and slow’ gives no clear indication of whether you happened to be metal detecting at the time.

Rating: 7/10

I think it’s a wonderful thing that there are still many people out there living the dream of finding pieces of eight. It’s also been nice to write a blog with the word artifact in it, a term I thought I’d waved goodbye to after completing my GCSE History exam.

Detectorists, keeping following your hopes, but stop throwing all your money at all these shysters. Invest in a pack of playing cards instead.

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Toilet Reading: Magazine Writing

Tagline: ‘Helping you get published for 25 years’ (I’ll bet the editorial team agonised over the fact this tagline can be interpreted in at least three different ways.)

Price: £3.85

Who is this magazine for? Some people see writing as art, an expression of the aesthetic divine through words. To them a page of Dostoievsky or Joyce sends echoes through the soul like the contours of Rodin or symphonies of Haydn.

Others see writing as a craft. To them it’s about being good with your hands and whittling yourself a nice wooden spoon. As a rule Magazine Writing is for the latter. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Magazine Writing is for aspiring writers who crave that warm feeling of seeing their byline, but haven’t quite made it yet. That might feel like an unfair assumption to make, but I would guess that really successful writers – those that make money and grace the pages of Your Chickens and Shooting Gazette – don’t have the time to read a mag for tips every month. The ugly truth could be that it’s actually more accurate to call the mag Magazine Readers.

Magazine Writing

Melvyn needs his hair back at the shop by 6:30.

But Magazine Writing is not for people who can’t write. Perish the thought. As the opening advice from editor Jonathan Telfer – a vaguely angry looking man who appears to have borrowed Melvyn Bragg’s hair – makes clear, 2015 should not be about getting better at writing. No, it’s time for a new project or new style. That style change could be from bilge to something good, for example.

And if you can’t be arsed with that, he says, why not try mucking in at a literary festival? As Jonathan sagely asks, ‘Are there events for children? If not, organise some.’ There’s really nothing that organising committees love more than a stranger demanding to take a hands-on role with small children as part of their event.

Just by the by, how meta is this? I’m, like, totally doing some writing about a magazine called Magazine Writing. Just imagine if I was doing some magazine writing about Magazine Writing in a magazine

Magazine Writing

Probably should have read this, for your benefit. Didn’t.

What did you get for your £3.85?  It’s not a huge surprise to find that Magazine Writing errs on the wordy side. As a general rule for this blog, I try to read the whole magazine before dumping on it. I have to admit I couldn’t manage that this time. Clearly I will never be a magazine writer.

In terms of word count value the mag over-delivers, with thirty odd articles, no filler pictures and squinty font. Read all of it and you’ll feel like a virtuous writer, even if the only thing you’ve written that day is a note informing your flatmate he’s a prick for eating your leftover curry.

The articles are broken down into multiple sections, with fiction, poetry and non-fiction all getting their own bits. There’s also plenty of competitions and a fair sprinkling of regular features, along with a separate section of literary festival listings.

Magazine Writing

Sad to see those trysts with Piglet coming home to roost.

Oddly, there’s also ‘Writers’ News’, an apparently separate publication wedged into the middle of the mag. Writers’ News is mostly full of writers plugging their recent tomes. It was my favourite part of the whole package though, purely on the grounds that it featured a council meeting in Poland that erupted into harrowed disagreement over Winnie the Pooh. Apparently, old Pooh’s ‘inappropriate clothing’ and ‘dubious sexuality’ raised questions as to his suitability for children, not least the clear anatomical evidence that suggested he could be a ‘hermaphrodite’. If Writers’ News continues to break this kind of story, you can sign me up right away.

Features: Bringing the Pooh-based enjoyment down a notch is the distinctly ‘having your cake and eating it’ Magazine Writing message. On the one hand, the guidance is clear: every writer must develop their own style and go their own way. On the other, the mag is full of modestly successful authors shamelessly flaunting their victories, with the strong implication you should listen to them.

A typical passage from an article on ‘the dating game’ of authorship:

‘I maintain a full writing CV that lists all my books published to date,’ says Suzanne, although she no longer lists every article published, because there are so many.’

Yeah, Christ, having to write down all your many successes in the ‘metaphysical, country and folklore genre’ (oh dear) must be such a bore Suzanne. This kind of puffery isn’t exclusive to Suzanne by the way. Humble brag seeps across the pages like fat on a napkin.

There’s also a sense that Magazine Reader’s writers generally consider the budding authors who buy their articles to be as thick as pigshit. In a long piece explaining how to get the most out of a writing course, Simon Hall recommends that nervous first-timers prioritise ‘knowing both the location and room’, ‘taking notes’, and ‘keeping in touch with people afterwards’.

Adverts: There are lots, almost exclusively for writing courses. Th of the kind where you have to pay considerable sums of money to a man in a flowery shirt who once got a short story published in an unpopular anthology.

I went on a travel writing course once. The teacher, who I’ll call Rodney even though that wasn’t his real name, spent most of the six evening classes complaining about Internet commenters who were dumping hard on his son’s Guardian column. ‘They keep saying it’s nepotism!’ he cried, failing to acknowledge that this was a) likely to be true and b) a fantastic learning experience for a young writer in the 21st century. If he can’t hack a load of strangers calling him a spawny twat, he may as well give up now.

Letters page: There are loads of letters in Magazine Writing, which proves if nothing else that procrastination is a big problem affecting readers.

Many correspondents bring to bear their grievances with self-publishing, which seems to be the great debate of the age. The tone of the letters finally kills off that old chestnut of authors yearning to ‘be published’. It’s a big fat lie. When you can publish your masterpiece for free, spilling your literary soul is a piece of piss, even if it is in 99.9999% of cases a matter of total indifference to the world. No, what authors want is attention and money. Does self-publishing achieve this? Very occasionally yes. Mostly no. You know, just like ‘publishing’.

Rating: 6/10

As I’m not going to pay to enter my unrhymed couplet in the magazine’s competition for the chance of a £150 prize, you can have it for free:

‘The stem of the flower leans gently in the breeze,

You can piss off if you think I’m paying five pounds.’

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