Serving professional journalism since 1912

Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

Farewell, This England

There has been quite a lot of coverage in the media recently about the Beano, the children’s comic that this year celebrates its 80th anniversary. The much-loved home of Dennis the Menace, the Bash Street Kids and many other famous characters is published by D.C. Thomson, the Dundee-based, multimillion pound organisation which is also responsible for a number of Scottish newspapers, the magazines My Weekly and Commando, and the website Friends Reunited. David Thomson, one of the company directors and a descendant of David Coupar Thomson who founded the business in 1905, was interviewed on BBC Breakfast, explaining why he thought the Beano has enjoyed such longevity and describing the success of the company as a whole. D.C. Thomson also publishes a popular weekly, The People’s Friend, which in 2019 reaches a notable milestone: 150 years of providing its readers with a Scotch broth of short stories, recipes and knitting patterns. From the company’s massive, fortress-like offices in the city, celebrations have already been planned, and it looks like being the equivalent of Empire Day, with representatives and employees from all corners of the vast D.C. Thomson domain paying homage, sharing memories and making their own contributions.

It is all very exciting, but there is another publication, a part of the D.C. Thomson empire since 2009, whose landmark year has, regrettably, been marked by a rather different attitude from its Scottish overlords. In 2018, This England magazine, the patriotic quarterly magazine that celebrates all that is best about England and the English way of life, reaches its half-century – 50 glorious years of entertaining readers all over the world with an informative, lively and attractive mixture of fascinating articles, stunning colour photographs, uplifting pieces of poetry and enthusiastic readers’ letters. Unfortunately, worrying recent events mean that the future of this much-loved magazine is now very much in doubt.

It was in the spring of 1968 – in a very different England from the country we live in today – that the first copy of This England appeared on newsagents’ shelves. Launched with the appealing slogan, “As refreshing as a pot of tea”, the magazine was the brainchild of Lincolnshire businessman and publisher, Roy Faiers. From his offices in Grimsby, then the world’s leading fishing port, Roy had already enjoyed modest success with six county magazines. His idea was to apply the same formula to a national quarterly publication, with articles about all things English – her history and heritage, countryside and customs, famous sons and daughters – complemented by beautiful photographs of England and a sprinkling of meaningful pieces of poetry and readers’ contributions. All inspired, of course, by John of Gaunt’s memorable lines in Shakespeare’s play Richard II: “This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle…”

Crucially, from the outset, This England was also imbued with certain values and standards. This meant articles and pictures of the highest quality, with nothing ever offensive or sordid on the magazine’s pages (and with correct spelling and punctuation at all times!), regular features supporting our Royal Family, Armed Forces and Church, and a commitment to treat subscribers and contributors honestly and politely, with a willingness to answer any queries they might have efficiently, patiently and punctually. These might be dealt with over the telephone or through – what seems strangely old-fashioned now – by letter, written by the editor’s secretary. This all helped to create a bond between the magazine and its readers that was – and is – unrivalled in the world of publishing.

Hive of activity

By the time I joined the company in 1982 it was a hive of activity located in a magnificent Regency building in the centre of Cheltenham. As well as This England (and another quarterly magazine, Evergreen, which we launched in 1985), we produced best-selling calendars, diaries, books and CDs, and sold a range of patriotic English products from flags and bunting to St. George’s Day cards and car badges depicting the English flag. A very important figure in the preparation of This England was artist Colin Carr, whose unique, whimsical paintings were a much-loved feature of each issue. We also instituted the Silver Cross of St. George, an award for men and women whose actions in a wide range of fields demonstrated qualities such as charity, courage, enterprise and self-sacrifice. This commitment to supporting English traditions and opposing any move to undermine them found fuller expression in a series of high-profile campaigns spearheaded by This England and publicised through articles and letters in the magazine. These included “Save Our Shires” to preserve England’s historic counties in the face of administrative reforms and widespread ignorance in the media, opposition to compulsory metrication which made selling a pound of apples a criminal offence, an ongoing drive to encourage the celebration of St. George’s Day on April 23, and, at a time when euroscepticism and a desire to stop Britain becoming submerged in a United States of Europe were arrogantly dismissed by most politicians and influential people in the media as the views of cranks and “Little Englanders”, a campaign that created the largest post bag This England had ever seen: “Don’t Let Europe Rule Britannia”. It was campaigns such as these, and the forthright views they encouraged on both sides of the various debates, that made This England unique and very special.

In due course I became deputy editor and then, in 2009, when the Faiers family sold the business to D.C. Thomson, the magazine’s editor. It was a great honour to be at the helm of such a wonderful publication, with the chance to build on all that had gone before. Editorial and production continued largely undisturbed, but the alarm bells did ring when, not long into their ownership, our new management – to save money – made all our customer service staff redundant. This removed, at a stroke, years of combined knowledge and dedication and severed the close link between publication and reader. To make matters worse, enquiries, subscriptions and orders were now taken by a call centre in, of all places, Kirkcaldy. This England readers, used to friendly chats with ladies they had come to know as individuals, were less than pleased to discover they were now having to deal with men and women (often speaking with impenetrable Scottish accents) who had no understanding of the publications and no time to do anything but take payments and process orders. Not only that, but the service was appalling and resulted in a large number of complaints. Another call centre, this time in Sittingbourne, Kent, was then tried. This proved even more of a disaster and the loss of subscribers as a result (numbered in thousands) did incalculable damage. Eventually, in a desperate attempt to steady the ship, it was decided that all calls should be handled at the company’s headquarters in Dundee.

Meanwhile, down in Cheltenham, the only concern of our dedicated team of seven full-time staff (all of whom had been with the company since the 1980s and ‘90s) was to continue producing high-quality publications that the readers would enjoy. A This England Annual was added to our schedule, as well as another yearly publication, Explore England. A number of one-off special publications were also produced, including a tribute to HM Queen Elizabeth II and an Illustrated History of the First World War. And the campaigning side of This England continued: for an English national anthem for purely English occasions, to get comic genius Ken Dodd a knighthood (which he subsequently was awarded) and, as the UK leaves the European Union, to rally support for a new Festival of Britain. In order to adapt to our changed circumstances, we moved to smaller offices, but they were in a nice part of the town and suited our purpose admirably.

Contributors’ memories

The beginning of 2018 was a particularly exciting time and we threw ourselves into producing a special Fiftieth Anniversary publication, reproducing some of the articles, pictures and readers’ letters from the previous half-century. In the spring issue, as well as looking back, with contributors’ memories of how they discovered This England and sharing their thoughts of what England meant to them, we were keenly anticipating the future and the next stage of the magazine’s journey.

Sadly, this was not to be. When the lease on our office expired it was decided from on high that to renew it would be too expensive, and although alternative accommodation was found, we were informed – much to our shock and dismay – that a small independent office like ours was “no longer economically viable”, that we were going to be made redundant, and that editorial and production would be moved to Dundee. This was bad enough, but when I wrote my final Editor’s Letter in the summer issue, explaining to readers what had happened and thanking them for all their support, I discovered, when the magazine appeared, that, without consulting me, the article had been removed and replaced by a two-page poem. The content of the article was not bitter or angry, it did not criticise D.C. Thomson or question their judgement, and yet, for some reason, it was considered too dangerous for readers to see! I felt as though I had been gagged by a strip of tartan: after all these years I was denied the chance to say farewell to our readers. The same fate befell my friend and colleague, Angeline Wilcox, editor of Evergreen: her final article and explanation of events did not get past the Scottish censor either.

So, as far as our readers are aware, I, Angeline, and all the team who cared so much, have simply cleared off without a word. People who telephone Dundee, bewildered at our sudden disappearance, are simply told that we have “left the business” or “retired”. And anyone hoping to find an explanation in the recently published autumn editions of This England and Evergreen will look in vain. They will merely see a photograph of the new editor, writing about “the values of OUR founder, Roy Faiers”, and blithely carrying on as if nothing unusual has happened. It doesn’t seem, looking at the picture, that her neck is made of brass, but appearances can be deceptive.

It is being airbrushed out of history in this way that hurts us even more than losing our jobs. But it also raises serious concerns about the magazines, which is what all of us are most concerned about. The management’s attitude, in thinking they can hide what happened and bluff and bluster their way through, has demonstrated, yet again, how they fundamentally misunderstand the special relationship This England and Evergreen have with their readers: they are wise folk who expect openness and straight-dealing and who won’t be fooled easily or have the wool pulled over their eyes.

I honestly hope that This England continues to bring enjoyment to readers for another 50 years. Unfortunately, I now believe this to be highly unlikely.

Stephen Garnett, Editor of This England 2009-2018