Good old New Society

It was a magazine whose influence extended beyond its readership


Friday 5 October 1962 was my sixteenth birthday, but is better known for the coincidence that the first James Bond film, Dr No, was released that day and so was the first Beatles single. Some people have portrayed it as the day that the Sixties really kicked off, but I was unimpressed. I thought that The Beatles was pathetically corny as the name of a group and that Love Me Do was just a stereotypical pop song. Having read the Ian Fleming novel, I didn’t like the casting of a balding Scotsman with a speech impediment as James Bond (couldn’t they have waited?). But something else happened that did have a much greater impact on my life: the first issue of a magazine called New Society was published.

The publishers were Harrison Raison and the project was firmly based on the success of their magazine New Scientist, which had been launched in 1956. There was also a connection with Picture Post, where Maxwell Raison had been general manager. New Scientist brought the findings of scientific research to a broader and less specialist market, and it was envisaged that the new magazine would do this for the growing social sciences.

There was thought to be a growing market for a magazine of that kind in the expanding universities and professions like social work. It was quickly identified as the magazine of a new intelligentsia. The editor was to be Timothy Raison, the publisher’s son.

There is sometimes an assumption, building to a myth, that this was a “left-wing” magazine. For example, when the Guardian ran a retrospective article on the subject in 2012 most of the contributors bemoaned its loss as that of (yet another) left outlet. But this is a complete misunderstanding. Tim Raison went on to be a Tory MP and a junior minister under both Heath and Thatcher, and his successor, Paul Barker, the most important figure in the history of the magazine, always described himself as a libertarian.

Probably the most famous special issue, in March 1969, was called “Non-Plan: An Experiment in Freedom”. It was written by Peter Hall, Rayner Banham, Cedric Price and the editor, and it was a celebration of individualism, enterprise and suburbia, all anathema to the old left. There were always “left” social critics such as Edward Thompson and Jeremy Seabrook, but there was a wide range of political persuasions represented. Many of the contributors could be described as establishment centrists or academics seeking to publicise research they regarded as politically neutral.

The name was probably the source of a good deal of the myth and clearly there were those who made the inference that the magazine was part of a project to build a “new society” which must be radical or socialist. But the idea behind the name was a new way of looking at things and of promulgating ideas, an exact parallel to New Scientist.

New Sociologist would not have done because the aspiration was to cover a wide range of disciplines. New Social Scientist might have been less misleading, but would have been clumsy and would have suggested a “scientistic” premise that many people, including Paul Barker, would have disliked. It was unfortunate, too, that when the demise of the magazine came it was in a merger with the New Statesman and under the editorship of a more conventional left-wing journalist, David Lipsey, now Lord Lipsey and a Labour peer.

This myth is unfortunate because an ideological breadth and a kind of neutrality were crucial to the magazine’s influence. You can apply the Mandy Rice-Davies formula to most newspapers and magazines and declare, “They would say that, wouldn’t they?” but you simply couldn’t do that with New Society. It was highly likely that what you were reading this week would be arguing the opposite of what you were reading last week. And the magazine’s influence was huge and arguably unique. It was almost tangible: the full-time staff used to joke about certain articles and claim to set their watches by the length of time it took for BBC producers to respond to a newly-raised issue.

An academic wanting a broader audience for his or her work on (say) cults among London teenagers would know that their best shot was to reformulate their 10,000-word journal article into a 2,500-thousand word NS piece. Reciprocally, television and radio producers would know that the magazine was their best filter for new subjects.

The first time I had the cover story was in 1976 with a feature on soccer in the US; I later saw the ideas and some of the structure and even some sentences from the piece reproduced in an ITV documentary. I wasn’t consulted, but according to my calculations I would have been wandering round the US when the programme was made (and writing an article about the experience). And in any case I didn’t care: the job was to set the ball rolling in terms of information and ideas and that had already been achieved.

A young woman journalist once shouted at me to stop pretending I was Lincoln Allison

I wrote for the magazine from 1975 until it merged in 1988. From 1979 to 1984 I had a particular commissioned role as a kind of travel writer, most of those articles being based on a day’s walk around a city or an area. As any freelance writer will confirm, you don’t have that kind of exposure unless you have a good relationship with an editor, in this case Barker.

I found Paul easy to get on with. He was handsome in a kind of horn-rimmed, scholarly way, friendly, cheerfully sceptical and supremely self-confident. I once invited him to a conference and an American friend, having met him for the first time, described him as “a Left Bank alpha male”. The description had insight, but was also misleading. Paul was not especially assertive; he didn’t need to be. As a former intelligence officer who had taught at the École Nationale Supérieure in Paris and had been the boss since he was 30 his authority came quite naturally.

I think we had similar temperaments, but we also had it in common that we were both deeply provincial in the same kind of way. He was from Hebden Bridge, separated by 21 miles of the most wonderfully bleak countryside in England from my home town, Colne. We shared a kind of amused scepticism about more metropolitan people. I was part of Paul’s specific project of “otherness”. Thus I would go to Ireland during the Troubles and write about supermarkets and children’s comics, and to the Soviet Union to report on what a Tory should like about it. (Barker edited the magazine until 1986 and died in 2019, aged 83.)

Writing for new society during this time offered considerable satisfactions. Although the circulation figures were only around 40,000 the magazine appeared in most libraries and common rooms, and the readership was said to be in the region of a quarter of a million. That audience was probably closer to the peer group I would have chosen than that of any other outlet in which I have appeared. The pay wasn’t bad, either: £150 per article was a higher proportion of my income than I would ever get these days following the communications revolution. In my time the title was owned by International Publishing Corporation, so expenses were payable at the generous levels pertaining in journalism in those days. Then there was syndication and publication in anthologies, and I published two books of my own consisting mainly of material that appeared in the magazine.

But the most exciting perk was the parties, an essential part of Paul’s vision of what a magazine should be. These fell into two sorts. There were the special ones to commemorate anniversaries and launch anthologies; these tended to be quite staid and held in the Royal Society of Arts in Pall Mall. But the Christmas parties took place in the offices in Southampton Street after they had put the Christmas double issue to bed. They were rough and ready affairs with copious quantities of cheapish wine, but they brought together an extraordinary range of people. It was nice to be told by Colin Ward and Laurie Taylor that they liked my writing, but equally nice to be told by Salman Rushdie that he didn’t. Angela Carter made a point of telling me how much I would have fancied her if we’d met 20 years earlier, a strange hypothetical. George Melly oozed charm in a multicoloured suit, and I patiently listened to Ray Gosling’s expressions of pension envy. (He might have been described as Britain’s “most sought after” documentary maker, but he did go bankrupt.)

A young woman journalist once shouted at me to stop pretending I was Lincoln Allison; she had read all his articles, she said, and she knew for a fact that he was black. To be fair, I still haven’t met another white Lincoln and I had described an occasion in which young men hurled abuse at me in Liverpool. She had assumed it was because of the colour of my skin, but it was probably because I carried a notebook and pencil.

Perhaps one of the reasons for its demise was actually a strength — its ideological diversity

None of this was life-changing for me or probably for most contributors. I continued to live in the same house with the same family, do the same job and play for the same cricket team as I would have done if I’d never written a word. I wasn’t part of that metropolitan milieu and I didn’t aspire to be.

Even if I had, the matter would have been decided by the emphatic advice of Barker and Gosling that I would have a far happier life sticking with my secure salary and pension and writing part-time. Given what has happened to magazines and newspapers since, they were more right than they knew and I thank them for that. I call myself an “essayist” after all and all the great practitioners had day jobs.

The magazine disappeared in 1988, nominally merged with the New Statesman, a pretence finally dropped in 1996. When I was writing for it I thought it would last forever and, after all, New Scientist is still with us. Perhaps Paul’s “otherness” project got in the way of the original brief? In any case it seemed less suited to the Thatcher and post-Thatcher eras than to the Sixties and Seventies.

Globalisation worked well for Scientist, but not for Society. Only rarely do magazines last more than a generation and they are to be measured by impact rather than by sales or longevity. I think New Society scored highly in that way: it was central to the national intellectual life for a generation. Perhaps one of the reasons for its demise was actually a strength — its ideological diversity. But that is the very characteristic which means we will not see its like in the foreseeable future.

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