Profane,sniggering,rum-Swigging Rapscallions with Lah-Vley Dresses. My Merry Hell Leading the Gushing Gals on Board the Good Ship Tatler; 300 Years after the Birth of Britain's Most Eligible Glossy, One of Its More Unlikely Editors Recalls Her Dizzying Social Climb to the Helm of the Tatler - and Her Rapid Descent

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), October 11, 2009 | Go to article overview

Profane,sniggering,rum-Swigging Rapscallions with Lah-Vley Dresses. My Merry Hell Leading the Gushing Gals on Board the Good Ship Tatler; 300 Years after the Birth of Britain's Most Eligible Glossy, One of Its More Unlikely Editors Recalls Her Dizzying Social Climb to the Helm of the Tatler - and Her Rapid Descent


Byline: by Libby Purves

Look, this isn't a bit of my CV I normally dwell on. I like to think of it as a rare and elaborate form of postnatal depression, in which you accidentally edit the most unsuitable magazine in sight. It began in the freezing January of 1983 when, as a new mother, I received an inexplicable letter care of the BBC office where I was doing some freelancing. It asked whether I would consider being editor of the Tatler when Tina Brown left.

The BBC man who passed me the letter kept giggling and we assumed it was a hoax. Weirdly, it was not. Conde Nast kept sending enormous cars down in the snow to collect me from Greenwich - complete with Moses basket, I had no nanny as yet - and persisted in offering me money. I was a precarious freelance, having packed in being a Today presenter because I seemed unable to get pregnant while rising four days a week at 3.45 am. In the fog of flattered confusion, I overlooked three facts: that I had never edited anything, hated smart parties and was - then, as now - known for a distressing indifference to personal chi. I remember those trips to Vogue House in Hanover Square vividly. Every lift contained well-painted girls in hand-crumpled Kenzo, looking one another up and down and saying: 'Oh, it's lah-vley. Who's it by?' I felt very M&S. This was, of course, the same building into which Princess Diana was being regularly smuggled, to be advised by Vogue stylists. Never saw her. Or maybe I did and took her for one of the 40 or 50 well-born clones of her who worked there.

Mystery shrouds the management's determination to have me: one story goes that I was recommended by Min Hogg, founding editor of World Of Interiors, after a cheeky piece I wrote in Punch saying her magazine was nothing but 'a great big glossy nose pressed to the windows of the rich'.

Miles Kington, on the other hand, wrote that Conde Nast was probably scared of Tatler - which it had only lately bought - and wanted someone reassuring. As the most reassuring institution in Britain is Radio 4, they picked me . Well, I fell for it. What Eng Lit graduate wouldn't? Tatler was founded by Addison and Steele at the dawn of the 18th Century, flourishing in an atmosphere of pseudonymous mischief and political gossip to instruct 'Persons of zeal and weak intellects what to think'. Jonathan Swift wrote for it, H. M. Bateman drew for it, Diana Mitford penned breathless 'Letters from Paris'.

Moreover, its recent history was piquant: after a moribund, drearily atavistic debby doldrum in the Labour years, it was revived by Tina Brown in 1979. She, a fearless twentysomething, was one of the first to create an Eighties spirit of spendthrift, irreverently boho snobbery which mocked and adored in the same breath; her philosophy was in the title of her 1983 anthology - Life As A Party. She tripled the circulation to nearly 40,000, whereon, just before my advent, its owner sold it to Conde Nast, owners of Vogue and Brides magazines.

This change - though I did not realise it in my innocence - had been an emotionally cataclysmic one for the magazine staff. It was like co-opting a pirate ship into the Royal Navy and expecting its crew of profane, swaggering, rumswigging rapscallions to conform. Tatler had moved from its shabby, matey offices into the British headquarters of the world's most exclusive and rarefied magazine empire; it felt huddled and defiant, existing in an uneasy bubble of individualism and faint contempt.

This may have contributed to Tina's decision to leave and become a full-time writer again (though within weeks she was lured back by Conde Nast to work her magic on Vanity Fair in the US).

In my handover meeting, she was brisk, unsentimental, and betrayed no evidence of sorrow at handing over her creation. Sitting, immaculate, at her icy marble table she ran her finger briskly down the names on the masthead.

'Good at layouts, temperamental, don't let him get away with anything - this one's a real party boy, tends to kick off - this girl's an efficient sub, but no ambition. …

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Profane,sniggering,rum-Swigging Rapscallions with Lah-Vley Dresses. My Merry Hell Leading the Gushing Gals on Board the Good Ship Tatler; 300 Years after the Birth of Britain's Most Eligible Glossy, One of Its More Unlikely Editors Recalls Her Dizzying Social Climb to the Helm of the Tatler - and Her Rapid Descent
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