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Essays in Magazine Media, No 5, December 2012

Richard Sharpe

The 1930s were a particularly turbulent decade. The year before it started the world economy entered one of its periodic crashes: there was too much production for the levels of consumption. This led to a smash on stock markets and the failure of many banks. Unemployment skyrocketed. It looked as if the liberal, democratic capitalist model was broken. There were alternatives, on the right and the left. The Communist Party in Russia had beaten off foreign and domestic opposition in its civil wars of the 1920s and had started to build up its heavy industry. On the right Mussolini had seized power in Italy in 1922 and was making sure the trains ran on time. These two examples of alternatives to liberal capitalism excited the imagination of many. At the same time the Nazi Party in Germany gained more votes as unemployment rose. In the UK a fascist party was formed in 1932 under Mosley.

A National Government was in power in the UK from 1931: it was supported by the Conservative Party and a rump of Labour right-wingers led by the Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald. The UK devalued the pound 30% by going off the gold standard, lowered interest rates, and invested in infrastructure. Wages in the public sector were cut; unemployment benefit was also cut. Tariffs were erected around trade within the Empire.

What was the individual to do? Either withdraw into domesticity or engage with the public life. Two magazines launched in the 1930s took these two, very different paths. Woman’s Own was launched by Odhams Press in 1932 and The Week was launched by Claud Cockburn in 1933.

A clutch of women’s magazines were launched in the 1920s, mostly copies of established US titles. They included Ideal Home (1920), Good Housekeeping (1922), Harper’s Bazaar (1929), Modern Woman (1925), and Woman and Home (1926). Women were getting the vote: they were being ejected from industry to make room for the returning male soldiers, sailors and airmen demobilised after World War I.

Odhams already published Horse and Hound (1884) and a strongly nationalistic magazine John Bull (1903). Odhams also published The Daily Herald newspaper, a supporter of the Labour Party.

Woman’s Own was launched as a weekly. It offered a vision of domesticity for its women readers. Recipes, fashion and the arts of domesticity were its standard fare. The first issue had three skeins of wool as a cover mount to entice women to buy it: a clear emphasis on women’s domestic skills. Many companies in the 1930s would not employ married women; if a woman married she lost her job. The reasoning behind this was that married women should be supported by their husbands and not be on the labour market. Their labour would be in the home. Whereas Charles Dickens’ Household Words was about the outside world, Woman’s Own was about the inside world of the family. There was no mention of unemployment, the gold standard, Empire tariffs, the slump, Communism or Fascism.

Most people rented their flat or house in the 1920s. The low interest rates encouraged house ownership in the 1930s, fuelled by the credit available from Building Societies. The economy, especially in London and the South East, soon bounced back from the crash of 1929. The parts of the UK dependent on heavy industry and mining continued in a slump but the South East experienced a boom. This was partly fuelled by the house building boom and also by new lighter industries such as the radio and gramophone manufacturing industry and the consumer goods manufacturing industries such as Hoover and Gillette. These were clustered around London.

The house building boom relied mostly on ribbon development: building houses along the arterial roads out of London and on estates beside them. Strings of mock-Tudor style houses, many semi-detached, were built by private builders as speculative investments. They soon sold. Prices ranged from about £380 (£20,600 in today’s purchasing power) to £650 for a semi-detached house with a front and back garden. There would also be a drive for a car. This ribbon development caused concerns about the countryside and a green belt around London was proposed as early as 1935.

Carpets had to be bought; curtains selected; wallpaper chosen; furniture bought for every new home built. This demand kept the boom going. And kept the domesticated woman busy in her new role as consumer as well as homemaker. Woman’s Own guided her in her selections of colours and styles of furnishing.

The Woman’s Own editorial team looked at the objective world and took a domestic slice of it. The team packaged that slice and delivered it in the pages of the magazine weekly. Its women readers could upload themselves into this domestic world, selected by the editorial team, and be guided in their domestic roles as a result.

Woman’s Own hit an important target. Its circulation rose to over 2 million in the 1960s. By 2004 it was down to 435,000. It had not responded well to the rise of women’s issues. It continued to be optimistic and was overtaken by other women’s magazines which would give a more realistic picture of women’s roles. It had kept to the mantra which Margaret Thatcher had voiced in an interview with it: there is no such thing as society, only individuals and their families.

This private, domestic focus was one response to the turbulence of the 1930s; another was taken by Claud Cockburn in The Week: a focus on the public life and what was happening behind it. Cockburn called his publication: “Unquestionably the nastiest-looking bit of work that ever dropped onto a breakfast table.” It was duplicated with dark brown ink on six sides of foolscap. There were no illustrations. Words told the story and drew the picture. And it was a picture which no other publication at its time was willing to tell. Cockburn had resigned from The Times in disgust at its policy of appeasing the new dictators of Europe. Be decided that he could use his many contacts to tell the story of behind-the-scenes manoeuvring to a select band  of subscribers. His was a limited audience, so small that the first issue gained only seven subscribers. But it soon grew. Journalists who could not get their stories into the mainstream press told him what they had heard. He checked. And he delighted in details. The big picture could be told by anybody, but only The Week could get the inside details. He launched it from a small office by Victoria Station only weeks after Hitler gained power in Germany.

He argued that main-stream newspapers needed a wide audience to sustain their income. And so needed to appease a wide audience. He would focus on a small audience, but still people who needed to know what was going on. The circulation built steadily as a result of the quality of his coverage and his insightful analysis grounded in his left wing beliefs. He liked to predict what would happen. He also liked to print rumours as they were as important, he argued, as established facts because people act on rumours. He covered politics, the City and world events.

The breakthrough came during an international economic conference called by Ramsey MacDonald to try to find a way through the depression of the 1930s. The main-stream papers were publishing the official line that the conference, held in secret, was a success. Cockburn was told by his contacts that it was failing and told his subscribers. MacDonald called a press conference and denounced The Week only to have reporters at the conference clamouring for details of the publication. Its subscriptions trebled overnight. It was posted on Wednesday and would be in the hands of London subscribers on Wednesday evening. Well ahead of the weekly magazines. As one subscriber said of it: “The equation of rumour with fact made The Week an intoxicating newspaper: written for the knowing by those in the know…in the august and persuasive language of The Times.”

Cockburn said that The Week “reported exclusively on what was really being said sotto voce by informed observers… All sorts of people, for motives sometimes noble and quite often vile, would approach The Week to draw its attention to the most extraordinary pieces of more or less confidential information. Sometimes it came from frustrated newspaper men who could not get what they considered vital news into their own papers. More often such confidences were the outcome of obscure financial or diplomatic duels. They would come, for instance, from the Counsellor of an embassy who was convinced of the wrong-headed policy of the Foreign Office and the Ambassador and wished, without exposing himself, to put a spoke in the wheel.”

He was convinced that the fascists in Italy and the Nazis in Germany wanted war. He was an impulsive man: he suddenly announced he was going on holiday and left the office. He travelled to France and was sitting in a cafe trying to find something to write about for the next issue when he found a piece of paper in his pocket about an investment ring established to build a road in Abyssinia. He wrote, just in time for the post to London, a piece predicting an Italian invasion into that country along the road. He was right.

When Franco in Spain with the assistance of Mussolini and Hitler tried to overthrow the elected government Cockburn was smuggled into Spain and joined the government’s militia. He was persuaded by fellow Communist Party members that he would better serve the cause as a journalist. He returned and often acted as the foreign correspondent of The Daily Worker, the Communist Party newspaper. He travelled extensively in Europe, collecting information. He even travelled into Nazi Germany under a false passport to get some children of an anti-Nazi out of the country.

He lied for his cause: making up a story about a revolt in the heartland of Franco’s Spanish Morocco to persuade the French government to allow a train of guns and ammunition to pass to the Spanish government despite France’s policy of neutrality in the civil war.

He exposed and named the members of the Cliveden set, a group of English politicians and industrialists who supported Hitler. When war broke out The Week continued to attack the poor preparation for the war, the poor material supplied to the armed forces and the poor general ship of the political and military. For his pains The Week was banned in January 1941 following a long string of Allied defeats. The Daily Worker was also banned by the government. This restriction was later lifted, after Hitler attacked Russia, but The Week could only limp on: Cockburn had decided to have it printed rather than duplicated and the extra costs sunk the publication.

What had Cockburn done for his small group of readers? He had taken a slice of the world, mixed it with his analysis and presented it to them. They could see the world in a different way as a result of his publication: they could see the internal mechanisms of power which he exposed.

Cockburn, P (1968) The Years of The Week London: Comedia

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