John has been a freelancer for over two decades and contributed many pieces for the magazine. His regular feature was the ‘Call My Bluff’ of pop culture, ‘99% True’. The reader had to pick out the made-up fact from a list of implausible truths. I never got it right.
What was your background before working for Word?
I went to University in Manchester and finished in 1986. I did Politics and Modern History and had no interest in doing journalism at that point. After messing around for a year, I got a job as a type-setter at City Life (a Manchester listings magazine), It was a workers’ co-operative in those days. We started on the grand wage of £65 per week and you could get £5 extra if you did the office cleaning on a Saturday morning. It was a great environment; I learnt a lot, met loads of great people and got the bug to be a journalist. After starting as a typesetter I moved over to the editorial side. We used to produce these big screeds of film and it would be cut onto the board, a real old-school layout. So, that was for 2 years and then it went bankrupt – or taken over by Manchester Evening News – which is another story…
Who were some of the other people there at that time?
Mark Kermode was there – he was Mark Fairey then. We were also working on Gay Life, another North West listings magazine. He was trying to sell advertising space but he couldn’t ring people up with that surname so he changed it to Ferry. He used to do film reviews for me for a fiver each. He wasn’t on the staff but he was in and out of the office all the time. Jon Ronson also did film reviews. We used to go down to The Aaben in Hulme and watch Jack Nicholson films. I went and interviewed him in London for Word when one of his books was released. He was always a talented guy with an unusual take on things and you could tell he’d probably do well. Andy Spinoza was an editor there at the time and went on to form a PR company in Manchester.
After it was taken over I stayed in Manchester for a year working on some little magazines. Some of us had the idea to do a listings magazine for the whole of the north of England. We touted it around to various people but no-one was really interested. Eventually we talked to The Radio Times and I ended up in their Special Projects Unit. A guy I met there went to work for Punch and he invited me to work there as a sub-editor alongside Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall – another person who’s gone on to be quite successful! I was only there for a short time but the best thing about Punch was that they still had the original table that Dickens and Trollope had sat round. They had a ‘Punch Lunch’ most Fridays and sometimes invited staff to make up the numbers. I went to a few and during one of them was seated next to Mark Ellen. I loved Q which was doing really well then and we just chatted away. He was preparing to leave for Select, I think, and Mark said he might have a job for me. I ended up becoming Production Editor at Q and Paul Du Noyer became Editor.
I stayed there until around 1993, then went to Premiere the film magazine and after that went freelance – which I’ve been ever since. I worked a lot with Danny Kelly on Total Sport in the mid-90’s, which was almost a full-time job. We did each issue in about 3 days; it was a monthly magazine but we’d mess around and not do a shred of work for 3 weeks! Q was similar; more structured but with the same manic urgency at the end of the month. The offices at both magazines were fun because they had some big personalities, people who would come in and just shoot the breeze. I loved the office atmosphere but found it hard to write anything there. I have to cut myself off to work. Total Sport was a much-loved magazine that didn’t sell enough and was closed-down, perhaps prematurely.
By the time Word came along, I’d known Mark on and off for a long time though never as an editor. He asked if I wanted to do some work and I’d go in every few months and have a cheese omelette and a chat. I wrote the odd feature for them but my main contribution was ‘99% True’.
Where did the idea for that come from?
It was already fully-formed in Mark’s head but he asked me to do it, which was very sweet. After the initial idea it just ran on rails. People seemed liked to like it, it was fun to write and easy in that you didn’t have to interview anybody. You only needed some weird books for reference and an internet connection. I did it pretty much every month until the magazine folded.
I did the odd interview feature and other articles too like a little piece on Molesworth and Ronald Searle. You wouldn’t get to publish that anywhere else. It was a real niche thing and I got some lovely letters about it. Mark was always good at passing on any positive comments – any scintilla of praise that came from anywhere, he would forward it on. He wanted everyone to be as encouraged as it was possible to be really. As a freelancer you send your writing into the void, you get no sense of how your copy goes over. You may get a phone call of appreciation sometimes but normally there’s no follow-up. Freelancers are a strange breed, sitting by yourself all day in a room. Mark was good at bringing you into the fold and saying “You’re doing great, these people like your stuff!”
I never wrote about music really. From my days at Q I always knew that there were a thousand people who were much better informed than me. I can write about film and sport and hold my own in both areas, though I’m no expert. Mark was good at pushing the non-music stuff my way and I did a fair bit of work for Jude Rogers and then Kate Mossman. They were equally great to work for because it was very straight forward and they didn’t mess you around. They had a good approach to books; they weren’t bothered about having the first review out but they wanted a considered piece. If it didn’t come out in time for the book’s release, they’d just put it in the following month.
Did you ever venture into the magazine’s forums?
No. I knew that there was a passionate online community but I already have so many modes of procrastination that I really didn’t need to find another! I went to the first North West Massive’s mingle and got a gauge from that. For a load of strangers to come out and have them talking passionately to each other about music was fantastic. That was a unique thing I think. Certainly you couldn’t have done it much before because of the absence of the internet.
Do you think there’ll ever be a similar magazine?
I think there probably already is one; it’s about finding a community. As a print magazine? Well, everything comes around doesn’t it? We’ve seen that with vinyl. I don’t think it’s that important whether it’s print or online but the problem with online is that you don’t physically need people in an office to generate it. There’s something that happens in the offices of good magazines, that cross-fertilisation of ideas which you can’t replicate on the internet. I have no idea how Buzz Feed operates but I doubt they’re all in an office having a laugh while they knock out these lists. I suspect that they’re sitting at computer terminals and firing off ideas in emails to each other and that all feels a bit soulless.
The thing about Word was that the editing was always really sharp and there was great care taken with headlines and captions. That’s a good benchmark, if those things are good, you can assume that the copy will be good. The captions were always spot-on and very funny. My favourite one was “Spandau Valet” which was alongside a review of an Albert Speer TV mini-series. That shows attention to detail, that people care about the copy and that they want it to be presented in the best possible light.
I do mourn its passing. I could never understand why a bigger backer didn’t come along and think, ‘well, this is a great vanity project at the very least’. I’d make a comparison with GQ – and this is no criticism – but their resources could run 10 Word magazines. Obviously they’re different markets but I was always amazed that no-one came along to rescue it as the costs were negligible, it must have been worth a punt. It had been an heroic effort to keep it going as long as they did but it needed proper funding from elsewhere. The cold hard world of business said otherwise.