50th Issue Feature
London Portrait Magazine 01-1985
This being the 50th issue of London Portrait Magazine we rashly invited Christopher Long to look back over our first four years. For once the editor disclaims all responsibility for his conclusions.
[In fact this item was never used!]
By Christopher Long
I can remember very well the first time I came across London Portrait Magazine. I had just finished breakfast at the Chelsea Arts Club in January 1981 when there, on the doormat, was a thinnish, greenish and rather stylish-looking magazine with small ads all over the front cover.
It arrived with no fanfare and no fuss. It simply plopped through 50,000 letter-boxes in Kensington, Chelsea and Westminster London's first courtesy magazine.
Today, of course, it thuds through 100,000 letter-boxes and tomorrow, they assure me, it will take two men and a boy to deliver each copy.
My first reaction was: 'Ah! How nice. A new art magazine'.
One look inside and I found myself sitting down for an after-breakfast cup of coffee (much needed after a Christmas and New Year of unremitting excess) while I studied a modest new phenomenon.
All right, I reckoned, it's paid for by the advertisers. OK, so they're heading unashamedly up-market. But will it work? Will people accept it and read it? More to the point, could they use a journalist like me, I wondered?
Exactly four years later the answer to all three questions is yes.
To be quite honest I don't think even its original directors, Colin Lansley, Peter Carvel and Charlie Weld, could have answered the first two questions. So far as the third question is concerned, it just goes to show what a generous, big-hearted and forgiving lot they all are.
The big question was whether the average Londoner would allow himself to read and enjoy something that came through the letter-box for free? More to the point, would London's advertisers think they would?
In hindsight it's surprising anybody ever had any doubts at all, bearing in mind that we're all quite accustomed to receiving all our radio and most of our TV free and quite unsolicited.
So, as I came to the conclusion that not too many struggling artists would be in the market for sumptuous houses in Upper Cheyne Row at £350,000, it dawned on me that the January 1981 issue of London Portrait just might be the dawn-chorus of a publishing revolution in Britain.
Flipping through the first issue, back-to-front, I found that Leticia Parmer's horoscope for Virgoans succeeded in being both devastatingly accurate and inaccurate at the same time:
'January dawns with something of a hangover...' too right, Leticia '... but you will soon be back to your old self, albeit wiser for the experience...' wrong, Leticia '... and you will be more at peace with yourself than you have been for some time...' when oh when, Leticia?
Next I came across Linda Mindel who wrote a column about Americans in London. In it, Miss Mindel (now assistant editor so I go down on bended knee) predicted a sharp fall in the social prestige of the peanut following the defeat of President Jimmy Carter. In its place would rise the jelly bean (Reagan's favourite sweet), she claimed.
But her most acutely observed remark in January 1981 concerned the chances of Shirley Temple-Black being appointed American Ambassador to London. On this point 'a cheese-straw-poll was taken at a recent party in Kensington', Miss Mindel reported. Of course it was!
From there we were introduced to the pleasures and pitfalls of owning a Roller, while John Rendall finished an article on Sir Freddie Laker's 'Skytrain' with the immortal prediction that: 'Sir Freddie's impact on the fare structure of airline companies, once thought to be a flash in the pan, now looks like changing our pattern of travel in the Eighties'!
Next came an article on the joys of chartering a luxury yacht, hotly pursued by one of Portrait's fiendish quiz competitions.
These should be banned. Nothing is more calculated to make you feel like a piece of ignorant chewed string.
On one occasion I rashly agreed to compile one of these quizzes. It took hours and hours to write and two months later, when the readers' solutions came in, it took me almost as long to remember or find out what the correct answers should have been.
To make matters worse there are actually readers who get them all correct and win prizes. God rot their socks. And while he's about it perhaps he'd also rot the socks of Colin Parsons, the evil genius responsible for the crossword puzzles.
After this came pages devoted to fashion, beauty, music, sport, money and politics - not to mention the debut of Messrs. Rendall and Adler reviewing celebrities and restaurants respectively.
It's interesting to note that Larry Adler, always a shy and retiring man, was billed in Portrait's first issue as a star of stage, screen (?) and radio. Since then his running verbal battle with our esteemed editor (known to Adler as Quasimodo) has become heart-rending reading to all those who sympathise with the plight of down-trodden contributors.
However, the most eye-catching item in the January 1981 issue was a new version of Snakes & Ladders in which readers were asked to test their luck at Social Mountaineering.
Throw the dice and score eleven points. On square 11 you found you had taken lunch with Lord Lucan and could thus go straight up a ladder to Aspinall's at square 37. Get to square 72 and you found you'd flown in Concorde with Bianca Jagger which earned you a quick trip down a snake to Maxwell's (don't ask me why the social injustice of this game was quite deplorable). Arrive at square 62 and you were 'Late for dinner with King Hassan' and so, miraculously, you found yourself going up the ladder to meet the Queen at the Beaufort Hunt at square 86. If you were then unfortunate enough to land on 87 you would find yourself lighting the Prime Minister's cigarette before the soup which took you on a long and snaky route all the way back to La Gavroche at square 57... (and quite right too).
Fortunately this frivolous game was admirably counter-balanced by a deep and meaningful article by our esteemed editor who had somehow managed to unearth the original diaries of a certain Archibald Francis.
Mr Francis, it emerged, was the very first advertising executive appointed by the Institute of Directors in 1810 to handle the Operation Christmas account. Pretty well everything we associate with Christmas was largely the fruit of Mr Francis's creative mind, according to Peter Carvel's account of 'the diaries'.
Not surprisingly large numbers of readers wrote in to Portrait saying how sad they were to see that poor Mr Carvel had gone completely round the bend at the very nadir of his publishing career. Could London Portrait survive, they asked.
The answer was that it did indeed survive beyond that first issue in January 1981. It was still around in November 1982 when I first visited its offices in Grosvenor Crescent Mews behind St George's Hospital in Belgravia.
The mews house office was Portrait's first home and one which required the intrepid visitor to negotiate large horses, huge piles of manure and the hefty-thighed presence of innumerable stable girls before reaching the front door.
Less daunting and far more interesting was the amazing selection of London's most desirable females who staffed the office when one got there.
Then, as now, Messrs. Lansley, Carvel & Weld seemed to have a remarkable ability for finding stunningly decorative assistants, talented in all senses, and mostly possessing the sort of exotic names one might expect to find in a Mills & Boon novelette or gracing the pages of a Shirley Conran pot-boiler.
At that time, until November 1982, Portrait had risen from an original 50,000 circulation to 60,000 and then 70,000.
Soon afterwards, in mid-1983, the office moved to larger premises at 49 Hugh Street which seemed palatial until, within weeks, everyone was complaining that there still wasn't enough space. Circulation duly rose to 100,000.
To some extent this was not surprising. In addition to London Portrait there were several new titles including Scottish Portrait, London Property Magazine (now called Property & Investment) and the massive annual Selfridges catalogue, while plans were already afoot for yet another magazine (launched last month) to be called The London Gentleman.
This rapid expansion from very small beginnings seemed to be as much of a surprise to the people at Portrait as to everyone else. Things have come quite a long way since that first issue in January 1981.
Of course, the contributors still sit in serried ranks, over-worked and under-paid, while our editor scourges his galley-slaves into action over their weary typewriters.
Naturally I refrain from shocking the sensibilities of our gentler readers by recounting the full facts of the miserable lives we lead. There are small comforts every now and then. Sometimes Adler will pick up his harmonica and play us a dismal dirge and, every now and then, John Rendall is allowed out and comes back with tales of a better life in Monte Carlo, Cape Cod or Marbella. Our fantasies are sometimes enlivened by the sight of fashion editor Linda Mindel as she wafts among us in some slinky little number that reminds us of happier days...
But even so I still find it hard to remember what life was like before that fateful breakfast at the Chelsea Arts Club in January 1981 when dear Leticia promised that 'you will be more at peace with yourself than you have been for some time'.
Heaven knows what she'll have in store for us by the time we celebrate Portrait's 100th issue.
See also: Other London Portrait Items
© (1985) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
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