I've always been something of an Anglophile. Great Britain, like most countries in the world, has its problems, but I've always been interested in what the British have to say and how they view the world. Being a magazine addict, I find the best way to learn how the British are doing is by reading that nation's periodicals, from scholarly quarterlies to the British counterparts to the National Enquirer.
The best British publications are among the world's best, and the worst are probably the worst in the English language. Among scholarly publications, for example, it is a general rule that a British journal is better-written and more interesting than its American counterpart. Political Studies, for example, provides more pleasure than the American Political Science Review. Philosophy has more to tell the serious nonacademic than The Journal of Philosophy or Philosophical Forum.
British lowbrow publications, on the other hand, with their steady diet of sex, violence, scandal, and jingoism, are far sleazier than their American counterparts. Anyone who argues that Britain is inherently superior to the United States should be asked to explain the popularity of the Sunday Sport, Britain's worst tabloid.
Perhaps the most interesting British journals, however, are the "quality" weeklies and monthlies, which include The Economist, The Spectator, New Statesman and Society, and Encounter. These journals are the four most important being published in Britain, and describe the way Britons live now better than any of their rivals.
The Economist has been discussed in this column before. (See "Adding Up to Good Reading," February 1989.) It is the best English-language news magazine. While The Economist has its problems (particularly in its "American Survey" section) it provides more information and is better written than any of its competitors.
New Statesman and Society was formed last year, as the result of a merger between two long-standing English weeklies. New Statesman was the most prominent British leftist magazine, the counterpart to The Nation. New Society, was a weekly for social workers dealing with welfare issues, a social-science counterpart to New Scientist.
New Statesman nearly went bankrupt in 1988, but a fortuitous grant from a chocolate maker allowed the two weeklies to merge. As proof of their endurance, the newly merged journals proudly announce in each issue that New Statesman and Society is published at "Perseverance Works" and "Foundation House."
If New Statesman and Society is an accurate indicator, British leftists are not enjoying life. To them, Margaret Thatcher is the anti-Christ, a prime minister who combines the worst aspects of Adolf Hitler, Leona Helmsley, and Miss Piggy. But the writers and editors of NSS have no love for the Labour Party; its leaders, from Neil Kinnock downwards, are routinely portrayed as wimps, cretins, and buffoons.
What do New Statesman and Society's writers believe in? Desperately trendy art, of course. Articles in the July and August issues included a profile of one Jeanette Winterson, author of Sexing the Cherry (not a treatise about horticulture) and a feature about an art exhibit entirely composed of paintings whose images and themes were stolen from other artists.
The New Statesman and Society reader also enjoys travel. The magazine organized a trip to Dominica, where for only £1,580, the readers could visit "the world's second largest boiling lake" (where the editors, in their leisure time, would toss ideological deviants and heretics into the roiling waters); other treats in store included a visit to Dominica's independence day celebration, featuring "street parades, 'jump ups' and speeches from the government." (It is a sign of the New Statesman and Society's readers devotion to their ideology that they would travel more than 3,000 miles to listen to politicians.)
Politically, New Statesman and Society's writers have yet to find a cause to replace the socialist faith that sustained them for decades. To the outsider, the British Labour Party seems a relic, a statist dodo that does not yet know that it is extinct. Surprisingly, many NSS writers agree; as Ben Pimlott noted in the July 21 number, "Labour has yet to recapture the aura of progress and modernity which carried it to victory in 1945 and 1964." This leads the magazine to consider ideas such as education vouchers that they would have dismissed as heresies years ago. The New Statesman and Society even, in a moment of surprising fairness, profiled the British anarcho-capitalist movement.
But despite these occasional bright spots, New Statesman and Society is the equivalent of a stately mansion fallen on hard times, where most of the rooms are boarded shut and the remaining tenants worry about the heating bill. Most of the major leftist writers in Britain have abandoned the magazine; John Mortimer, for example, contributes to The Spectator, not NSS. Despite flashy graphics and occasionally interesting articles, New Statesman and Society is one of the grimmest magazines I've ever read.
But grimness is not confined to the British left. Consider Encounter, Britain's leading monthly.
Encounter was the subject of the most unfortunate magazine review I've ever read. In a 1986 article in National Review, Scott Lahti said that reading Encounter was the intellectual equivalent of taking "a journey in a sealed railway car from Zurich through Germany to the Finland Station, in the company of Raymond Aron and Arthur Koestler." The problem with sealed railway cars is that their passengers are trapped; and Aron and Koestler are, unfortunately, dead.
This is, indeed, the feeling one receives when reading Encounter.
Like New Statesman and Society, Encounter is mired in the 1950s. While NSS is trapped in a world of "I'm All Right Jack" unionism, Encounter is still looking for Stalinists to slay. It's a very austere journal. Reading Encounter is like being on a forbidding mountain peak, where, on the frosty pinnacles of Western civilization, no one is allowed to smile.
One wants to like Encounter, the principles it stands for are certainly worth defending. But the journal suffers from two fatal flaws. First, there is no reporting in Encounter: the magazine exclusively consists of intellectuals writing about other intellectuals.
Second, Encounter is not timely; ideas and information appear in it months and years after they appear elsewhere. I'm not accusing Encounter of irrelevance. The best magazines are "irrelevant," because they push readers to consider ideas and subjects that are important, not trendy or fashionable. But the best magazine editors choose pieces out of enthusiasm or delight; Encounter's editors appear inspired by the same motivation that moves the authors (and readers) of The New York Review of Books—to put all the information they acquired in graduate school to good use.
When Nicholas True, for example, in a June 1989 piece on the Byzantine Empire, refers to "the celebrated dictum ascribed to the Grand Duke Lucas Notaras" ("Better the Sultan's turban than the Cardinal's hat," in case you forgot) he's not just saying this to make a point, but to impress the reader with his superior wisdom. Similar bits of tiresome knowledge appear in other issues. Reading Encounter is like cramming for the final exam you've always dreaded and hoped to avoid at all costs.
A far better conservative publication is The Spectator. I'm not sure if, as an American, I'm allowed to like The Spectator, because I gather it doesn't care for my country very much. If the editors of New Statesman and Society see the United States as the Great Satan and the Evil Empire, The Spectator's staff see America as a garrulous cousin one wishes would go home.
The Spectator is enjoyable because it is a truly general-interest political magazine. It's steeped in English history; I can't imagine any other magazine publishing, on the bicentennial of the Mutiny on the Bounty, a revisionist account suggesting that Captain Bligh was much less of a bad guy than his reputation would indicate.
By taking the long view, The Spectator covers stories other journals miss. This year, for example, The Spectator reader would have read about the first Soviet retreat from Afghanistan (in 1928!) as well as the fascist origins of the European Community. (According to a September 23 article by Noel Malcolm, The Spectator's political columnist, politicians in both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy called for a "European Community" to be established, and a leading advocate of European union in the 1950s was onetime British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley.)
To give a sense of The Spectator's range, here are some topics covered in three issues published in September and October: the continuing repression of Ukrainian Catholics; a look at new translations of the Bible and why they're all inaccurate; a report on the annual convention of the International Association of Art Critics; a tribute to Wilkie Collins on the centenary of his death; a visit to Medellin, Colombia, the world's cocaine capital, with an observation that 60 percent of Colombia's farmland is now controlled by cocaine traffickers; a look at the current state of the Afghan civil war, debunking the notion that the Soviets distributed "toy bombs" to maim children; and a profile of Lord Hanson, a British capitalist who owns dozens of firms.
Much of The Spectator is inexplicable. I wonder, for example, why columnist Auberon Waugh is trying to be the John Lofton of Britain, or why the "Wallace Arnold" column is funny. And for a magazine as expensive as The Spectator, ($99 a year) there are an appalling number of typographical errors.
But the range and breadth of The Spectator are unmatched by any other English-language publication. I pay more for The Spectator than for any other journal, but my dollars are well-spent. If the editors of New Statesman and Society or Encounter need hints on how to improve their publications, The Spectator should provide them with many useful lessons.
Martin Morse Wooster is the Washington editor of REASON.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Magazines: British Quality".