I, magazine geek: Why I love magazines, Psychologies, and the “changing of the month” in WHSmith

The kind of thing you get on Google if you type in “print is dead”. SIGH.

Everyone says print is dead. I, for one, seem to bear out that theory, spending nearly all my waking hours online, connected.

Like a lot of my peers, I consume media online, 99% of it for free (The Times subscription excepted), and I get mildly peeved when magazines have rubbish websites or news agencies expect me to get my credit card out just to read a piddly 200 words of copy.

Yes, I am part of the “print is dying” problem. And, as a journalist, surely I should know better. After all, I want to be paid for my work (and I consider myself fairly lucky in this day and age that generally, I am paid for it. FINALLY).

But I also want media to be easy to consume, to be Google-able, share-able, bookmark-able. Not only so that I can procrastinate by reading it when I probably shouldn’t, but also so that I can keep better track of the best articles when I want to. Online often means free. Online means easy-to-use and find, with access from various platforms (laptop, phone, tablet).

That’s the theory, anyway.

So why is my life still punctuated by the thrill of seeing new magazines on the newsstand? Why do I still care about layout, sub-editing, and the feel of paper?

WHSmith – my spiritual newsagent home

As a little kid living in France, I used to get excited when I saw the package my grandmother used to send from England ‒ the Beano for my brother, Mizz magazine or Bliss for me.

That thick, paper package heralded the moving forward of the months, a new selection of pages to rifle, a new book of brightly-coloured missives from a community of girls who were, against all probability, like me.

I still feel that way now, even though new technology means that I would never have to wait for such content ever again. Technically, it’s all at my fingertips. So why do I still care so passionately about the first few days of the month – when all the magazines change?

I wanted to work in magazines from a pretty young age, when I realised that I was quite good at spelling and writing, and when I realised that writing for magazines means that in theory, you get to talk to loads of interesting people about their interesting lives (hopefully making up, I thought, for the fact that I never knew what I personally wanted to focus on). It all started with those new magazines, posted through our door every month.

Psychologies_jennifer lawrenceNow, after dalliances with Glamour, Marie Claire, the now-defunct Easy Living and a few affairs with Red, my favourite magazine is Psychologies.

Largely aimed at older women than me, it is nevertheless bang up my street, focusing on mental health, ways to happiness, how to manage depression and anxiety, and how to “let go” of what diminishes and reduces your life. It isn’t obsessed with celebrities, fashion, “aspirational” materialist bullshit, unhealthy diets, and other things that really get my goat about modern women’s magazines.

I am lucky enough to have met the editor, and know a couple of people who write for it. I am always humbled by its content and find it to be that “real magazine thing” – something with which you want to sit down, with a biscuit and a coffee, and get stuck into.

There are no open-mouthed, dead-eyed, under-nourished models in ridiculous outfits here. The relatively-small beauty section focuses on how to maintain your skin/hair/nails health rather than fashion, and the only column on clothes generally talks about the psychological links between dressing and your personality.

It does have celebrity interviews but asks them about their thoughts and feelings, rather than the sensationalist elements of their love life, or how great their cleavage looks in a dress. Features are about the benefits of getting a dog (I recently met the amazing woman who wrote that piece – more on that another day), how to feel happy, the benefits of therapy, how to let go, how to feel calm, how to be confident, how not to hold a grudge.

Its adverts are about health supplements, wellbeing holidays, useful beauty products and slow-food breaks.

For the past five years or so, my ultimate dream has been to launch a magazine just like it, but for women my age. (Despite the fact that by the time I theoretically get to that point, I’ll probably be the right age for the current offering anyway. Such is life.)

Of course, Psychologies has a website, which has recently been relaunched, but it’s not at all like reading the magazine. Good or bad, it still operates on a fairly traditional set-up, in that the website is just an addition to the mag, rather than the main platform, and the magazine the slowly-dying counterpart. I for one, hope that never happens.

Because, despite my online addiction, I love buying the physical magazine. That “change over” time in the shops is still magical for me.

Right now, it’s near the beginning of the month, and I know that one lunchtime soon, I’ll wander through the crowds of the station near my work to the newsagent’s, and spend a happy half an hour poring over all the new issues – considering the thinking behind that cover star, wondering what they’ve got inside this month, sneakily reading the best pieces in the magazines I probably won’t buy (BAD JOURNALIST).

I’ll consider a new purchase, if one particularly catches my eye – such as this month’s Red, or the latest interview in Glamour, which is still a bit of a nostalgic, guilty pleasure. I’ll marvel at the Women’s Fitness issue, or the Yoga World import from the US, and consider the merits of Vogue and wonder why people love it so much.

I’ll look at the newer titles, and hope that they survive, and mentally applaud the people brave enough to launch new paper magazines in this day and age. I’ll rejoice at new ones, and lament the holes that I still see despite their being long gone – the recently-closed Zest (which I used to buy), and the now-online-only Easy Living. I’ll have a triumphant peek at the magazine I work for, have a quick leaf through our main competitor, and still feel a little bit surreal about the fact that these days, I write for, and know people who write for, titles that sit on these very shelves.

I’ll look at the foreign titles in the languages I speak – French and Spanish and smattering of Italian – and wonder if I should buy them to improve my skills. I’ll feel simultaneously happy at the massive selection, and overwhelmed by the choice, and the number of titles I could potentially write for if I was a better, more persistent, more creative, better-at-pitching journalist, with 48 hours in the day.

But I always keep Psychologies until last, appreciating its use of cover stars who aren’t half-naked or dressed in some Dolce & Gabbana contraption, and wondering at its near-perfect ability to align its headlines and focus to what’s going on in my own life. If the best magazines know their readers the best, then Psychologies is up there with the greats.

My love for the magazine has become a bit of a running joke among my friends, who tease me about its supposedly-“boring” focus, it’s middle-aged-woman audience and its earnestness.

I laugh with them because I can totally see what they mean – it’s not as glamorous as the magazines peppered with A-listers and glossy handbags. But when all is said and done, it’s in that magazine that I find my people. My motivation. My feeling that I’m not alone.

It’s that magazine that spurs me on to believe that magazines are not dead. That print still has purpose.

Despite being addicted to the Internet, I still don’t subscribe to Psychologies – despite buying every single copy for the past 4 or 5 years – because I still savour that feeling of going into the newsagents, seeing it on the shelf, and buying a physical copy of it.

It is quite literally an extension of that package my grandma used to send, except now I have my own freedom and money to go out and buy it myself. That means a lot.

Somehow, downloading it on to my phone or tablet, or even getting it through the door, just isn’t the same. That lunchtime trip to WHSmith is like a little escape to my own world, where, despite still being surrounded by people, I remember why I loved magazines in the first place, and how there are people out there, writing, speaking, organising events, on things that I love and that matter to me.

It’s a strange thing that in today’s hyper-connected, “free” world, I still feel the need to pay nearly £4 per month for a collection of dead tree leaves. But there it is.

Print might be dying in many areas and forms, but as long as people like me still relish that physical, expensive copy of their favourite magazine, I harbour a small hope that they will continue to survive.

Not least for the security of my own job – which is, as a trade magazine, still largely focused on the print side of things despite the constantly-updated website and digital issue ‒ but also for my own entertainment and love of intelligent, consumer magazine communities like Psychologies.

Yes, magazines are expensive, take up loads of space, aren’t email-able, and are non-interactive. But they are still small packages of sense – missives of solid, tangible conversations.

And although I can’t bookmark their pages or save them to Instapaper (a site that allows you to “pin” online pages to look at later), every now and again, I find a quiet afternoon to go through my old copies (which are invariably taking up too much space in my bedroom) and clip out my favourite pieces, and stick them in a scrapbook.

It’s a nostalgic, old-fashioned process, reminiscent of school fun with Pritt Stick, and entirely non-computer based. It’s like being a kid again – like those Grandma-sent packages.

Good magazines are like tangible anchors in a frenetic, drifting, ever-more digital world.

I’m not a technophobe: I love the Internet for its many advantages and its ability to open doors to worlds and people you would otherwise never see or meet.

But, against all odds, I also love the “changing of the month” in WHSmith.

Long may it exist.

I got nominated for a Liebster blog Award! :)

So I got nominated for a Liebster Award! I didn’t even know that was a thing! But it is, and now I know what it is, I’m very grateful! *claps*

As I have learned, via the wonder that is Google, the Liebster Award is a way for bloggers with fewer than 200 followers to celebrate other small bloggers, and “pay it forward” in acknowledging blogs they know (and, dare I say it, like to read).

(If you’re reading this because I nominated you, and you have more than 200 followers, then I’m sorry, please only take it as a compliment! I know that a couple of the people I nominated have WAY more followers than that, but it was just because I was desperate to include you because of how inspiring I find you! So please just carry on with your awesome self.)

You then have to answer, and ask, a bunch of questions from the blogger who nominated you, and then nominate other bloggers, with the aim of sharing a bit of yourself in the blogging community and (hopefully, very hopefully) creating more stuff that other people want to read, and more awareness of the award. Maybe some people would see it as a pain in the butt, but I think it’s pretty cool.

Thanks to the lovely theodd1in who nominated me – it’s so great to know that at least some people like your blog enough to remember it, even if extremely briefly.

I don’t write with a specific audience in mind, and am largely aware I’m basically shouting into a void, but it’s nice to know that there are some people out there sometimes!

Anyway. ONWARDS!

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Tweets from beyond the grave: Bringing a 16-year-old back to life

How one historian’s research has brought a 16-year-old girl’s diary of Belle Epoque Paris back to life, exactly one hundred years to the day since it was first written

This article first appeared here on the historical website Historical Honey. Thanks to the lovely people at HH for publishing it and creating these brilliant images to go with it.

olives-diary-thumbnailTwitter might fulfil many functions, but bringing people back to life isn’t usually one of them. And yet, in the case of Olive Higgins, a 16-year-old girl from Margate, Kent, that’s exactly what’s happened.

Every day since 1 January 2014, excerpts from her diary have been tweeted, with links to the full version on a blog. The diary talks about Paris, the city to which Olive has recently moved, to attend school and learn French. She talks about the food, the language, shopping, the people, and how she’s feeling. So far, so normal.

Except Olive died in 1914, from a sudden illness, just eight weeks after beginning her diary.

Her Twitter account comes not from her iPhone or laptop, but from a London-based journalist-turned-historian, Rob McGibbon, whose research on Olive’s 1914 diary has led him to “bring her back to life”, exactly 100 years after she started writing.

“Diaries are utterly unique in terms of publishing,” he tells me. “They remain frozen in time. You can read the most beautifully-written, historically-researched biography or novel, but it will never ever have that authenticity of a diary. It has a truth. You’re not hiding anything from anyone.”

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On relationships: “What we hold on to is fear, not love” ‒ Days Like This by Jeanette Winterson in Stylist Magazine

A beautiful short story that made me think that in personal relationships, remembering to appreciate the present moment is key

Collectors Edition: The Literature Issue

Collectors Edition: The Literature Issue

I’ve been meaning to link to this for ages – a short story by Jeanette Winterson, in the 26th June issue of Stylist, the ‘freemium’ mag handed out on Tuesdays/Wednesday.

For all its obsession with fashion and shoes/bags/makeup/objects I wouldn’t buy even if I could afford them (depressing to know even good women’s magazines can’t seem to make ends meet without this), Stylist is also a reliable and regular source of that rare thing: a genuinely good feature.

None more so than this short story, which was part of the magazine’s “The literature special” (which asked writers to contribute a short story inspired by a perfume). It perfectly encapsulates and assuages some of my deepest fears about relationships – namely, that for every beautiful moment, there’s a niggling feeling that it could all end tomorrow. That’s not a reflection of my relationship – by definition, that’s just what’s always happened to me so far. Experience, if you like.

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Rape threats and Twitter: My article on online abuse

I explain why I felt the need to write an article about online abuse towards women for my journalism Masters XCity Magazine, including interviews with Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Laurie Penny & Helen Lewis

*Tweets shown based on real tweets; not actual tweets received

*Tweets shown based on real tweets; not actual tweets received

Rape threats on Twitter, women being targeted for their apparent sexual attractiveness, anonymous social network users who seem to think any woman (or man, but less so) who dares to speak or act in a public space deserves anything they can throw at them, utterly repulsive, offensive or sexist or otherwise.

Even typing those sentences makes me sigh; makes me angry – haven’t we done this already? How many times does it need to be said for people to realise that targeting people in this way is completely and totally not OK? And not only that; that it happens, that it’s a problem, that women suffer it daily; fear it daily, and that it genuinely shuts down discussions and only adds to the prevailing bullshit idea that women are whinging harlots merely overracting when someone disagrees with us? And that basically, we need to ‘play nice’, and as women, sit down, be quiet and look pretty?

Well, apparently more times, and more again, if the past few days are anything to go by. This is a minority issue, sure (few men, I am certain, would think the behaviour of such ‘trolls’ is acceptable) but the minority are currently ruining it for the rest of us.

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Event review: Michelin-starred chef Atul Kochhar cookery demo, Asia House, London

Atul Kochhar and his executive chef at Benares speak to the audience during his demo [My photo]

Atul Kochhar and his executive chef at Benares speak to the audience during his demo [My photo]

Atul Kochhar Cookery Demonstration – The Asia House Festival of Asian Literature 2013

The Michelin-starred head chef of top Indian restaurant Benares chats to me about how local ingredients influence his cooking, and gives a demo in honour of his father’s culinary heritage

This post will appear here on the Asia House website soon

“There is no such thing as Indian food,” says Atul Kochhar, head chef of Michelin-starred Indian restaurant Benares, to an assembled crowd waiting for his cookery demonstration at London’s Asia House.

An odd statement, perhaps, coming from one of the UK’s foremost Indian chefs, and yet it says more about his cooking than perhaps anything else he could say. Having trained at the famous Indian Oberoi hotels, he came to the UK from Delhi in 1994, winning his first Michelin star for restaurant Tamarind in 2001, and another for Benares in 2007. He has made a name for himself on television and in print, and still manages – unlike some ‘celebrity’ chefs – to put in some serious hours in his various successful kitchens.

But while his is irrefutably what we in Britain would see as ‘Indian’ food, Kochhar’s approach is actually mixed, taking influences from the UK and the rest of the world in full appreciation of how far Indian cooking has come.

“Wherever I’ve travelled, I’ve eaten curries, and have seen how differently it has evolved since it left India,” he explains. “The different forms and shapes; Africa, parts of Asia…Britain. I discovered different versions of Indian curries in America as well, that was a funny thing!”

This, in fact, is the subject of his new book, Atul’s Curries of the World. Published just two months ago, it is a celebration of curries from around the globe – a whirlwind tour of a dish which ostensibly came from the sub-continent, but now belongs to everyone everywhere ‒ in countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Britain or South Africa ‒ often having changed beyond recognition.

“That’s a very interesting story. If you look at Malaysia, the curries have taken local ingredients on – lemongrass, lime leaf… When you migrate to a country, you do it wholeheartedly or you don’t,” says Kochhar, relating this to his own open-minded approach to using local ingredients. “You can’t sit on the fence and say ‘No, I’m from India.’ Follow your own tradition, but use the produce of the country. Food is the biggest form of integration,” he adds.

He uses one of his own restaurants, Indian Essence, in Bromley, Kent, as an example for his own cooking. “I basically use classics, what people like, using local produce in Kent. I’m surrounded by farms and I use local products ‒ the new season turnip and the baby carrots and the broad beans or the watercress ‒ it’s really helping me.”

Kochhar's finished dish - Lahori Murgh [My photo]

Kochhar’s finished dish – Lahori Murgh [My photo]

And yet, for his Asia House demonstration, Kochhar has chosen to pay homage to his roots. Cooking Lahori Murgh (Chicken from Lahore, Pakistan), he explains that his father’s family came from what is now Pakistan, at a time pre-Partition when it was still just another part of the Indian Punjab.

“Pakistan has always been a great place for me,” he tells me.  “And Lahore has always been a gastronomic centre. Unfortunately, I’ve never been to Pakistan, but my family came from that part of the Punjab.

“This book is more memories of journeys. I learnt my cooking from my father, and he was born in Pakistan. This curry is in homage to him. Food has always been the common thing that takes you back.”

Kochhar spends a long time explaining this philosophy to the audience, taking pains to ask us to consider how non-homogenous – and yet so varied ‒ Indian food is, as his executive chef from Benares (here to assist) gently stirs a huge pot of rice in the background. Unsurprisingly for someone who has made a successful TV career for himself, Kochhar is as good-natured and adept in front of an audience as he is behind a stove.

As soon as the onions go into the pan, wafting their incredible aroma into the air, it feels exciting. Here is a famous chef, with a book, TV and multiple-restaurant career, cooking chicken curry for this one small audience, on this random Saturday. Why would he choose to do a demonstration at this kind of low-key event, I ask him, with such a successful, starry and varied a career as his?

“Asia House is a famous cultural centre,” he tells me, before the demo begins. “I’m an Asian. I think it’s important.  I’ll meet new exciting people here, and there’s always the hope that I might be able to bring my restaurant to a whole new group of people.”

The plate of spices... [My photo]

The plate of spices… [My photo]

And he is completely at ease, explaining the three ways to cook Indian onions (from clear for kormas, golden brown for masalas, to dark for rogan josh-type dishes) and how important oil temperature is, making jokes about how much spice to add and refuting the recommended amounts in his book as rubbish. “Watch carefully,” he says in mock-seriousness, as he bungs in a random-looking amount of brightly-coloured powder, once, twice, three times. “Book publishers always say you need a measure,” he says, “But spices should always be like seasoning – you use the spices according to your own personal taste.

“Don’t follow the recipe blindly – use my book as mere guidance. People should do their own thing; food is a personal impression.”

And he moves on to take audience questions, adding tomatoes, chicken and – oh, quite a lot – of green chilli. The smell of perfectly-balanced flavours fills the room.

As the mixture bubbles away, a debate begins about the merits of ginger garlic paste, which Kochhar says can be used in this dish. If you want to, homemade is best, he says, and should be added after the onions are ready.

Talking of onions, Kochhar is clear that they can really make a difference. One day, he explains, his wife – Deepti ‒ made a dish and it tasted so good, he asked what was different (“She’s a great cook, don’t get me wrong!” he jokes). She was using Indian onions, he realised, which are stronger, pinker, and have less sugar. “They were selling them in Tesco and cheaper than the others, so I bought them,” Kochhar remembers her saying. “Good answer,” he nods.

But despite all this talk, no-one could forget about the curry being cooked right now, slowly simmering away in the silver pan.

Kochhar and his executive chef help serve the dish to everyone in the room [My photo]

Kochhar and his executive chef help serve the dish to everyone in the room [My photo]

And when it’s served, it’s delicious. Even the small portion metered out (so that everyone can have a bit) is enough to tell. From such familiar, un-showy ingredients, it’s fantastic: fragrant and delicate, the chicken is succulent and perfectly dressed, with just the right amount of spice and garnish to crush warmly in the mouth, and just enough sauce to cover the flawlessly-cooked rice (an amazing feat in such a makeshift kitchen setting – we’re using camping stoves, here).

So simple. From the beginning, Kochhar has handled the room, the audience, the pan, and the plate with relaxed poise. As he takes questions from the crowd, stands around as book after book is handed to him to sign, discusses question after question with people who insist on telling him just how their Indian mother made it, and smiles good-naturedly again and again as people ask for their photo to be taken with him, he quietly radiates the the calm look of a man at peace with his cooking, and, as befits his open-minded approach, at peace with a world that offers up such inspiration.

“These are rich, big, bold flavours,” he says. “I’m not holding back. This is classic and I want to keep it like that.”

Couldn't resist getting a photo! [Photo: Adrienne Loftus Parkins]

Couldn’t resist getting a photo! [Photo: Adrienne Loftus Parkins]

At the end of the demo, I ask Kochhar’s executive chef what he is like as a boss. “Tough, like all bosses are, but he allows me to be creative,” he says, telling me that despite training at Oberoi (like Kochhar), before meeting the chef, he hadn’t really worked with Indian food. “I told him I wanted to learn how to work with spices, so he offered me a chance at Benares,” he explains. He’s been there ever since.

Kochhar may believe that there’s no such thing as Indian food. And yet, if he is anything to go by, I’d say there definitely is such a thing as an Indian chef – and a brilliant, down-to-earth one at that.

This post will appear here on the Asia House website soon