A very sad day. The Word magazine, which I never called The Word magazine because I knew it when it was just Word magazine, has closed. The staff found out last night, just after “passing” the latest issue, Word 114, which when it comes out in a week or so, will be the last issue, also. The announcement by David Hepworth came this morning. It was a shock to us all, reader and contributor alike.
I’m kind of guessing I don’t need to spell out what was so unique and warm and special about what was, to all intents and purposes, a music mag but, to many other intents and purposes, was so much more than that. I suspect the crossover between the readers of this blog and the readers of Word is pretty substantial, and not just because I’ve written for the magazine since its inception, nine years ago.
It was launched, along with the independent publisher that published it, Development Hell, by people I’d known and worked under and alongside at what was once called Emap in the 1990s: David Hepworth and Jerry Perkins, with Mark Ellen as editor. Mark and another key launch figure Andrew Harrison had been my editors at Select when I first defected from the NME in 1993. Dave, an editorial director at Emap, subsequently interviewed me for my first job at Q. The four of us attended the same awards ceremonies, conferences and meetings for all of the five years I worked there. When they themselves defected, it was like coming home being asked to write for Word, which was their dream project. (For further crossover, gentleman scribe Paul Du Noyer had been there at the launch of Q and Mojo; “Seventies” Mike Johnson had worked as a sub at Q when I was editor; Jonathan Sellers, art editor, had been art director at Select when I was features editor; contributor Barry McIlheney had been all of our bosses, MD of Emap; contributor and creator of the always-excellent trivia page at the back, John Naughton, had been a key man at Q; other contributors with Emap form included Stuart Maconie, Jim Irvin, Mixmag‘s Joe Muggs and David Quantick. You can see why Word felt like a nine-year, post-grad PhD for so many of us.)
Thanks to its enviable address book, the mag was also able to get legends of the calibre of Charles Shaar Murray and Danny Baker regularly onto the page. And let us not overlook the writers and editors that Word magazine did not bring with them in the boot from the world of Emap, but who became in many ways even more vital to the constant turnover of ideas and wise prose, some staff, mostly freelancers: Rob Fitzpatrick, Jude Rogers, Kate Mossman, Matt Hall (now my boss at the Guardian, then the only man who could work a podcast), Nige Tassell, James Medd, Chris Bray, Graeme Thompson, Ali Caterall, and the mighty Fraser Lewry, an icon in his own way. Sorry if I’ve forgotten anybody.
I don’t have the first issue to hand, with Nick Cave on the cover, but I have a funny feeling I didn’t have anything in it. Certainly, a long piece about how to write for EastEnders was my maiden contribution. It was in 2004 that Mark gave me my own column, a TV review initially, called Telly Addict (hmmm, nice title), but this transmuted into a column about whatever was on my mind in late 2006, called Whatever. No one had ever given me a regular column before. It occasionally attracted criticism and ire in the letters pages and in the forums, but it’s better to be noticed than not. It was an education. (It taught me to keep some of my views to myself.)
Although Word was aimed at a demographic too old to worry about being cool but not old enough to kick the habit of loving and purchasing music old and new, it embraced technology (not least because of Andrew Harrison’s magpie instinct for such stuff), and its website and podcast helped to grow Word, or The Word, into a brand, a community, a way of life. It rewarded subscribers, stretched to an iPad edition, put on its own splendid gigs, carried a not-quite-but-almost-New-Yorker-esque amount of words, and – perhaps its most significant badge of honour, for me – put illustrations on the cover, some as sublimely beautiful as this one.
I was lucky enough to be part of the circle of trust, from which regular podcast guests were plucked, although if they hadn’t invited me up to Word Towers in Islington for a while, I had no qualms about asking to be invited. If you heard me shooting the merry breeze with Mark, and Dave, and Fraser, and Kate, it was generally because I’d emailed Dave and said, “Hey, if you’re short of a podcast guest … ” (I expect other regulars felt the same way.) But you didn’t have to work for the magazine to be in its club. The “Massive” were brain-picked from very early on, and often held shoulder-high and paraded around the place, whether as forumeers or gig regulars or providers of citizen copy. In many ways, Word had to stay small (or “niche”) to survive – a bit like 6 Music, which seemed to chime with the magazine’s attitude and plurality and launched at roughly the same time. But being small also means you’re vulnerable.
Development Hell survives. It publishes Mixmag, which is perhaps even more niche, but niche enough to attract niche advertisers and tick over. Long may it support the company, which remains essentially independent, and run by good people. The printed word? We all know it’s an endangered concept. But we don’t wish to see magazines we’ve grown to look forward to arriving on our doormats, and which we cherish, and fondle, and interact with, and rely upon for sustenance in an increasingly vanilla, pasteurised, market-led world, disappear from view.
As a writer, I think I might have possibly done some of my best writing for Word. If so, it’s because a) they gave their writers the freedom to stretch their legs, but not to overindulge and only to a clear brief, b) you were always sensitively but firmly edited (Mark may seem like a soft touch, and he kind of is, but he’ll also let you know if you’ve gone wrong, or created a cul-de-sac of solipsism, and has spiked at least one of my columns for this reason in the past), and c) you were mainly asked to review things you thought you might like. Since very little of what we all wrote was published online, it is for collectors of the magazines to look back on. I might publish a couple of my columns on this blog, just so they’re out there. But maybe not the one about squirrel racism, or the one about militant atheism. (I only wrote two covers stories for Word, pictured above, and they both made me feel inordinately proud, and a bit like a journalist again.)
We must raise a glass to this great institution. It’s like a library has closed, as I wrote on the Word forum this morning (and where a condolence book is expanding faster than Prince William’s bald patch), but a library where you knew all the staff and they knew you, and where there was a bar, and live music, and a quiz, and you never got charged if you brought a book back late, as long as you were prepared to sit down and have a constructive and tangential dialogue about it over a pint.