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My Life in Mags...with Simple Things editor, Lisa Sykes

My life in mags

From first comic through teenage years to today’s best indies, Iceberg Press co-founder Lisa Sykes remembers life through the magazines she read and loved.

Every week my Nan took me to the sweet shop. What we’d now call ‘an old-fashioned sweet shop’, full of jars to weigh out and penny pick ‘n’ mixers on a tray on the counter. Next to it were magazines, laid out, still crisp and unopened. She always bought me one – even now the smell of pear drops makes me think of Twinkle, the magazine ‘specially for little girls’. I’ve no idea whether there was an equivalent ‘specially for little boys’. But it wasn’t plastered in plastic gifts like the magazines I later bought my own kids AND I had a ponytail with a ribbon just like Twinkle herself, so I was in.

Bunty came next, ‘every Tuesday’ very wholesome, full of outdoor fun, schoolgirls and – the highlight – a cut-out-doll with outfits so you could dress her yourself. Along with Sindy dolls, this was the extent of expressive freedom fashion-wise for someone whose mum dressed her in beautifully sewn but largely home-made clothes until the age of 11. (Even the Sindys got extra home-made outfits thanks to the talents of mum and Nan). The tomboy in me took over at some point and the 70s was a golden age for comics so I ditched Bunty for another DC Thompson classic, The Beano (although I often let my sister get that because I secretly preferred Whizzer and Chips).

Teenage years are a serious time and there are important issues of education that needed to be provided for (make-up, boys, how to handle bitchy friends). Cue Jackie for the advice and My Guy for the photo stories. But even then, these magazines seemed old and established. Before the era of young adult books, we graduated from Enid Blyton and pony stories to stealing Jackie Collins and Jilly Coopers from our mums. No one, it seemed was writing for us. So, when Just Seventeen arrived on the scene just as I was 15 in 1983, it was a revelation. I was the target audience. More importantly you were finally actually doing most of the things it talked about, thanks to its advice. The first issue, which I kept for many years, had a girl wearing Boxing Gloves, a symbol of girl power over a decade before the Spice Girls burst in. And I didn’t have to look this up and check. It was an important moment that genuinely changed my life – and became such a fortnightly event that we would group read it at break. Boys would steal our copies to learn more about girls.

The clever thing about Just Seventeen (it only became J-17 later) was that it launched off the back of the best-selling music mag at the time (and by the same team) and alternated its fortnightly schedule. Every teenager had to have their music mag. It was the rule, along with watching Top of the Pops on a Thursday evening and buying the Band Aid single. If you weren’t particularly cool then it wasn’t NME or Melody Maker, and if you weren’t hip enough for The Face or ID then Smash Hits was what most of us not just read but devoured. We blue tacked the posters on our walls, read the lyrics like poems, got the in-jokes and loved the bitchy asides. For most of my teenage years I never missed an issue.

You stick with the magazines that speak to you, that feel like they know you, then it’s natural to move on as you grow and change; Marie Claire influenced my 20s, Living etc decorated my first home, Women & Sport (a fantastic US indie later bought then closed by Conde Nast) made me strive to improve and train, Outside (another US mag – great writing and photography) inspired me to travel and see the world, Country Living encouraged me to make the move from the city to the country. As your confidence in yourself grows, it’s your interests that shape the magazines you buy; campervans, cycling, family history and growing my own saw regular mag purchases from the bursting shelves at WH Smiths.

 A new mag on the block is always a bit of a moment. I remember where I was when I first read them and thought ‘this has got it’. Green Magazine (the first national consumer mag about environmental issues) reached the tiny kiosk on the end of the jetty in Tresco on the Isles of Scilly where I was working while applying for a magazine journalism course (I later became its deputy editor). The indie version of Coast a beautiful, cleverly put together mag and run remotely before that was ever a thing, arrived on my desk when I was features editor at Country Living (Hearst later bought it and I worked on it). The contrast in budget, size of team and production was vast but it was what made me realise that you can make a good magazine without ‘big publishing’. The idea that I could one day run my own magazine was planted.

Someone brought the first copy of The Simple Things into the office when I was editing Prima and we actually crowded around (a la Just Seventeen years before) to ooh and ahh. It broke so many accepted magazine ‘rules’ that it also broke through the natural cynicism that accompanies any magazine editor looking at someone else’s magazine.

                       The Simple things Issue 1   The Simple Things Issue 110

The Week Junior is not an indie but in terms of independent thought, it is a genius invention. Made for kids but bought by parents eager to educate their offspring beyond the school curriculum it’s perfectly possible to be a well-informed adult on the issues of the day by reading no other news source and for years – until my now teenage daughter stopped opening them and I sadly cancelled the subscription – I did just that. I was not alone.

A funny thing happens when you turn a hobby into your job.Environmental magazines became what I did rather than what I read when I joined Green Magazine. I no longer read a magazine cover to cover. I buy a lot of magazines but the moment I look at whole mag I either wish I’d done something like that in my own magazine or wish they hadn’t because it didn't work. Constant critique is not downtime and that’s what magazines should deliver above all. But I do read articles that grab me; Intelligent life (why did they re-name it 1843?) for pieces I wouldn’t have read otherwise and Vanity Fair for coverlines and exposes and Stylist for being on the button on the hot issue.

When I became Editor of The Simple Things it was the then new indie Ernest that caught my eye. The magazine I wish I’d invented, it promises curious histories, workmanship, slow adventure, timeless style and wild food. Every feature is ‘insanely specific’ as the editor Jo Tinsley once told me. But that’s what makes it special – this isn’t stuff you can just google.

               Bloom Issue 9       Positive News 106       Ernest Journal 10

Bloom is the first gardening magazine that talks my language. The commonly held view in mainstream publishing is that everyone who likes gardening buys BBC Gardeners World and there’s no advertising in gardening titles. Bloom has taken the innovation that runs through all indie mags and combined it with expertise, a conversational style and a beautiful look and feel – the essential ingredients of every good magazine. Positive News is refreshing and uplifting and therefore the ideal antidote to what’s so often going on in the world.

And, of course, there’s The Simple Things. If I wasn’t the Editor I’d be a reader – I want to ‘take time to live well’ just like we inspire our readers to do. I also prefer a could-do list to a to do list, I have treasured belongings and favourite clothes, I grow veg and like to gather old friends around my table but I also want to still learn new skills and re-discover forgotten wisdom. Just as with every other magazine I’ve read and loved, I see and hear the self I sometimes am and sometimes strive to be in its pages. And right there is the essence of magazines, find yourself in the one that speaks to you.

What magazines have you loved along the way? Share in the comments!

You can buy Ernest, Bloom, Positive News and The Simple Things along with over 150 other indie magazines from Pics & Ink. Browse, read reviews and order copies at picsandink.com

2 Responses

Lucy White

Lucy White

July 24, 2021

Aah, the golden age of magazines! I love this interview for tapping into our collective nostalgia; I too remember being in thrall to Twinkle, Bunty, the Beano, then feeling all grown-up when reading my older sister’s Blue Jeans, Jackie. Later, the best days of the week were Magazine Day, when Smash Hits, Just Seventeen, Look In and Big out (when we were going away on holiday – France, caravan, obvs – I’d give my friend my pocket money so I wouldn’t miss an issue). Later still More, NME, Melody Maker, Q, Sky, Empire, Marie Claire. My grandpa’s brother, Charlie, had a newsagent – very much like the one Lisa describes – and when we were really little he’d give us big batches of Bunty, Blue Jeans, etc, or else ask us to pick a few we wanted off the shelves. It was heaven, and it’s little wonder that I went on to have a career in magazine and newspaper publishing and still love the work of the columnists from the Smash Hits and NME era.

Anna Moore

Anna Moore

July 24, 2021

What a brilliant article… it took me back to my formative magazine years so poignantly! I could almost see and feel the Paul Young Smash Hits poster on my wall and the relief when Just Seventeen covered some intimate issue you were dying to solve….. thanks so much.

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