A Diary of The Lady: My First Year as Editor by Rachel Johnson

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A Diary of The Lady: My First Year as Editor by Rachel Johnson

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Clare Reddaway
Reviewed by Clare Reddaway
Summary: Boris Johnson's ball-busting sister leaves a trail of fire and shattered careers as she tries to drag the venerable institution of 'The Lady' into the 21st century.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: September 2010
Publisher: Fig Tree
ISBN: 978-1905490677

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Along with most of my contemporaries I've never read 'The Lady' except once when looking for an au pair job in my student days, and that, it turns out, is the problem. Before Rachel Johnson was appointed in June 2009 the average age of the readership was 75, the circulation was dropping and the magazine was haemorrhaging money. The Budworth family, proprietors of 'The Lady' since it was founded 125 years ago, chose son and heir Ben Budworth to turn the magazine's fortunes around before it folded. He asked Rachel Johnson to be editor.

Johnson is a well-known journalist whose columns have appeared in most of the national newspapers and Sundays, and whose novels Notting Hell, 'The Mummy Diaries' and 'Shire Hell' are chick lit best sellers. She is also Boris's sister, and a keen party girl. At the beginning of the book she finds herself ousted from her comfortable and very well-paid job as a columnist on 'The Sunday Times'. With perfect timing, she is offered editorship of 'The Lady'. The only magazine she had previously edited is the student magazine 'Isis' at Oxford. This book is her diary of her first year. It is presumably part of the PR campaign for the magazine devised by Ben Budworth and Ms Johnson which has her sitting on many a TV sofa and sipping champagne at all the right social gatherings, getting the name of 'The Lady' 'out there'.

Johnson writes, of course, very well. The book is funny, sharp and surprisingly unputdownable, partly because of the car crash that is her arrival at the magazine's headquarters in Bedford Square. She is scathing about the quality of her predecessor's staff, and about the content of the magazine. One of the threads running through the diary is a fly-on-the-wall documentary which is being filmed for 'Cutting Edge' on Channel Four. In it, Ms Johnson memorably says that 'In the real world this is a piddling magazine that no-one cares about or buys'. Although she claims to regret her Ratner remark it is hard not to believe that this is what she really thinks.

At the beginning of the diary Ms Johnson is breathtakingly arrogant. She wants to transform 'The Lady' into the Telegraph magazine, and she hires all of her writerly friends to do so – names that are already seen in every national magazine and newspaper. She spends a considerable portion of her time trying to get 'Debo' (Deborah, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, née Mitford) to be an agony aunt on the magazine. 'Debo' is one of the three women Ms Johnson admires most in the world – the others being Jilly Cooper and Margaret Thatcher, which perhaps gives a hint of her politics and social attitudes. Many of the first entries in the book consist of lists of people she has met at parties, which, rather like a compulsory overdose of Tatler's society pages, left me slightly nauseous. She criticises one friend for 'mentionitis', a real case of pot calling kettle. Astonishingly, it is not until January (the diary starts in June) that she asks herself the questions Who is ['The Lady'] for? Would I buy it? Who is it aimed at? What is its audience?

However, as the book continues, she does become marginally more endearing. She is mortified when the Channel Four documentary is transmitted, not least because she is filmed telling her boss to 'Grow a pair of balls.' She is also struck, as she watches the film, that when she enters a room, all the staff flinch. And the book is funny. Her insistence on redecorating her office with an orange velveteen chaise longue had me laughing, as did her interview with Julie Andrews. Her lists of the contents of her In Tray are excellent, ranging as they do from brownies to bizarrely dreary article suggestions on lighthouses and witches. She is unstinting in including the unflattering and critical emails she receives from readers.

The book stops very suddenly, after just over a year of entries. For the reader, this is rather a cliff-hanger, as a crucial meeting of the proprietors is about to take place when the entries cease. However, I don't think that it is a spoiler to say that a quick Google reveals that as of today, 'The Lady' is still being published and Rachel Johnson is still editor.

If you want a Who's Who of the glitterati, a exercise in self promotion and a quick gallop through the basics of magazine editorship, then this is your book. A number of her sacked staff are writing books about her management style, and in true soap opera form, I am tempted to search them out. I might also glance at a new copy of 'The Lady', which is surely Ms Johnson's aim. However before I do I'm going to go out and buy 'The Socialist Worker' to remind myself that not everyone lives in Notting Hill.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion:

Notting Hell by Rachel Johnson

St George: Let's Hear it for England! by Alison Maloney with an introduction on Englishness by brother Boris

Writing for Magazines by Adele Ramet so you too can contribute to Ms Johnson's overflowing inbox.

Buy A Diary of The Lady: My First Year as Editor by Rachel Johnson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Diary of The Lady: My First Year as Editor by Rachel Johnson at Amazon.co.uk


Buy A Diary of The Lady: My First Year as Editor by Rachel Johnson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Diary of The Lady: My First Year as Editor by Rachel Johnson at Amazon.com.

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