I recently received an e-mail from a nice person at Prospect (a British magazine). The email asked if I’d like to review their magazine. After being completely flattered, I said, “Of course!” And then I waited nervously hoping that the magazine was good and that I wouldn’t have to say anything mean about it, because I would. Oh yes, I would.
But I don’t have to. They grabbed me right off the bat because the c & the t in the title are connected by a little filigree doodad. I love typography, so that little flourish was a selling point (okay a superficial one, but I liked it immediately).
The “subtitle” of the magazine is “Good Writing About Things That Matter” and it is a totally apt description. Prospect is a monthly magazine that covers all aspects of society: British, European, American and the world. And, indeed, the writing is quite good.
In many ways it reminded me of The Walrus, a favorite magazine of mine. (It’s a weird comparison since The Walrus has only been around for a few years, while Prospect has been around for about 13 (the November issue is number 164, so I’m guessing here), but it’s an apt comparison for its coverage: politics, culture, arts and more.
Because this was a new (to me) magazine (and because I knew I’d be reviewing it), I decided to read every article. There were a few that I thought I wouldn’t care much about. But the writing totally grabbed me. For instance, the article about Princess Diana (about whom I am indifferent) was fantastic. It was cynical and funny and totally engaging. And the same was true for just about every article in the magazine.
Normally I like to have at least two issues to refer to when reviewing. So there may very well be things about this issue that are different from the others. So, forgive, please, if I generalize incorrectly.
The first thing I wanted to mention was advertising. In the magazines I read, I pretty much completely ignore the ads. I see a picture of a car and I flip the page. But in a new magazine, especially a foreign magazine, I like to see what’s up for sale. (I especially like to see ads for products that are unavailable here). But Prospect is virtually ad-free. I’m not sure how things work for British magazines and advertising–if like NPR, there is a “sponsor” or two, or if it’s a pay as you go thing. Anyhow, flipping through, we get a few full page or two page ads in the beginning: BMW, IBM and Baillie Gifford (which I’ve never heard of). But once you get into the heart of the issue, there’s really no more (well, one for ExxonMobil just before the Letters). But after that the ads are small and are for web sites that I’ve never heard of (a lot of publishers & small businesses).
The last few pages also have Classifieds Section (like the ones in most of the progressive magazines I read). And that’s it. It’s rather refreshing. (But I guess I’ll have to read Heat to get the fun trashy ads–and yes I only know about Heat from The IT Crowd).
But moving on…
The opening article, In Prospect discusses what’s in the magazine. This issue has a special section on the upcoming Copenhagen Climate Conference. I’m not sure if all of the issues have special sections like this (set off in a different color and everything) or if this is a one off.
The thing that I liked immediately about the magazine was the If I Ruled the World Column. From what I can tell, this is a regular feature of the magazine in which various people tell how they would make things better. What an interesting concept, especially if the authors are smart (not just celebrities). (Or maybe it’s a regular column by Sam Leith…I’m not quite sure).
Next, there’s the second thing that delighted me: Six Things to Do This Month. Lots of magazine recommend entertainment to see and do, and it’s interesting to see what kind of taste a new magazine has (while it’s true that these are all things happening in England, you can still judge the taste of the magazine as it applies to your location). So, they suggest (and gives reasons why you should see): Film (An Education); Art (David Hockney); Music (Martha Wainwright(!)); Painting, Dance and Theatre. So, even though I won’t be able to do 5 of the 6, I enjoy the artistic taste of the magazine.
This is followed by Political Notes. It’s a brief article British politics. While this may not affect me directly, whoever wins the British election will shape the world. It’s an interesting insight into the politics of the magazine to see what they talk about here.
Next comes Diary (and this reminds me a lot of the opening Walrus pages). It contains short articles about various things around the world: Media (Giving the newspaper game away in London); Finance (Global finance keeps on drifting eastward) North America (Obama and the Nobel Peace Prize…which offers an insight I had not heard before and one I found quite useful). And (my friend Rich would have loved this) evidently a monthly column by Brian Eno (!). I also really enjoyed the “Word of the Month” paragraph. (This month’s was “Dingbat,” a font type that I always talk about in my computer classes).
The Data page presents a few factual tidbits: a chart (about internet use) and a series of facts and quotes from various sources (In Detroit the average sale price of a house is $7,100 (from The Wall Street Journal)). And, my favorite: Didier Drogba studied accountancy (from Didier Drogba’s Facebook page).
Next comes Letters and Opinions. The first piece discusses the option of diminishing the power of British arms producers (to save the budget for the military). The second encourages Bill Gates (and the Gates Foundation) to go after HIV like they did Netscape and wipe it off the map (great parallel there). And then two articles: one about the Soviets and one about suffragettes which show personal insights into these issues.
From Our Correspondents has stories from across the globe. It’s always embarrassing when you have to go abroad to hear about your own country, but the article about Republican Eric Cantor was completely enlightening to me. The other articles abroad this month were from Brussels and China.
Then some of the major articles come up. The first is about President Obama and his failure to heal party divisions in the country (despite his political successes). There’s a second one about Obama’s foreign policy. In the States, we’re stuck hearing the same talking points over and over again (just watch the Daily Show to see how many media people use the same exact phrase over and over.) So it’s refreshing to have a thoughtful new perspective on something so close to home.
The rest of the big articles are what I love about monthly newsmagazines and why they are so much better than weeklies. First off, if you need news now, you go to the internet, there’s no question. But the problem with a weekly is that they often get stuck reporting about what’s happening NOW, THIS WEEK! whether it is significant or not (balloon boy?). A monthly magazine, on the other hand, may not be current, but it can always be significant.
So, an article about Angela Merkel and the state of German elections is timely without being up to the minute. But it was wonderfully informative (and check out the awesome election campaign poster graphic they included–the German reads: “We have more to offer” (with that delightful shot of Merkel’s cleavage). Then came the article on Princess Diana (which was actually about her family’s attempt to cash in on her at her birth home). It was a first person narrative and was quite fascinating (and which I’m sure the Spencer’s didn’t appreciate).
The third one was possibly the most interesting article I have read in a while, period. “How to really hug a hoodie” discusses an attempt in Glasgow to use a controversial American technique to reduce gang violence. First off, why hadn’t I ever heard of this technique being used in America? And second, it is clearly effective, so why are people shying away from it elsewhere. This article was simply fantastic. It’s available here. Check it out!
Then comes the Arts section. Now, clearly I love the arts, so it was a treat to see nearly half the magazine devoted to them. But what I liked about them was the (in context) serious nature of the articles. Why Britain Can’t Do The Wire looks at the struggles of writers in dealing with the BBC. This very issue was brought up in the recent Monty Python documentary. They complained about how much the BBC hierarchy has changed in the last 40 years, and how hard it is to do anything creative there. Now, I of course love BBC comedies and think that many of them are fresh and better than what we can do here. But I don’t know a lot about their dramas (they compare The Wire to Life on Mars, but I thought the UK Life on Mars was brilliant while the US version was rather flat. Nevertheless, the points they makes are really strong.
Another TV article looked at the gruesomeness of current TV medical dramas. They compared the calm and mellow medical examinations of Quincy to shows like NCIS, and how we aren’t squeamish about intense medical investigations anymore (or maybe we are, but we can’t turn away).
Sporting life covers sports. I don’t really care about sports, but (and this will tell you how out of touch with sports I am), I was interested to read it because it told me about Mark Buehrle’s perfect game (and DeWayne Wise’s amazing catch in said game. I used to watch and play sports a lot when I was a kid so I am well versed in the language and can totally appreciate magnificence in sports, I just don’t care about it). So, thanks for that, anyhow (I watched the catch online and it was pretty amazing). Although I do like reading about English football, for some reason, even if I don’t know anything about the teams.
The Arts & Books section features a number of great reviews. And the reviews are fascinating for many reasons. But first, the section opens with a print of The Suicide of Lucretia by Lucas Cranach the Elder. This very painting was featured prominently in a Warehouse 13 episode we watched a few weeks before (synchronicity!).
The first book review is a first person account by another author. The reviewed book is a fictional account of the writer’s father’s suicide; the reviewer talks about her own father’s suicide. Rather than reviewing the book in great detail (she says it was amazing and kind of leaves it at that) she talks about the effect the book had on her life and on her writing. It was a unique attitude in the often dull world of reviews. There was also a review of Superfreakonomics which is just making the rounds here, and I’ll be curious to see how this review compares.
The Music article was “Who’s Afraid of the Avant Garde” and it was absolutely correct: avant garde painting is accepted (even if not everyone likes it) but avant garde music is often derided as just noise.
There’s a lot of good articles in here about painting as well. I don’ often read gallery articles because I don’t get to go very often, but this one about an unknown (to me) painter Frank Auerbach was really interesting.
The Way We Were shows extracts from diaries that are quite amusing (and I rather hope that’s a regular feature). While the Widescreen page looks at filmmaking in Iraq (and I, too, hope that the boy he mentions can indeed become a filmmaker when he grows up).
Finally, there’s Fiction. I reviewed the story yesterday, and it seems like many well-respected authors get published here. But I don’t think any of the stories are online so I can’t go back and check.
Lastly, one of my favorites: Puzzles! There’s a rather difficult puzzle (with a contest) and then a very difficult crossword (with a contest). I love crosswords, and I have always had a hard time with British ones. Although I greatly appreciate that they include the number of letters/words in the answer. So far I have managed to get only three out of some 60 clues. Phew.
And, of course, the back page. Prospect‘s back page features an Agony Aunt. I’ve always enjoyed the phrase “agony aunt,” and find it be more dynamic than our simple “advice” sections. This Agony Aunt seems to deal with various problems (elder parents, job stresses) with a very stern hand. I don’t read advice columns generally (unless, you know, I see them) but I liked the way the Agony Aunt didn’t pull punches.
The special section about Copenhagen was very informative. I’m a little weirded out that it appears to have been sponsored by Shell Oil, which seems counterintuitive (although I do appreciate that corporate “greenwashing” was discussed). The Copenhagen Conference is an important environmental meeting that, consensus suggests, will likely not do all that much for preventing global catastrophe. But these articles showed both positives and negatives, optimists and pessimists and, most importantly tried to be realistic about the whole thing. So I finished the section feeling kind of glum about the future, but with a ray of hope.
So, yeah, I pretty much loved this magazine. I feel like I may have been a little too gushy (and verbose) in this review, but this magazine spoke to me like few others do. It reminds me of Harper’s but there’s more original work (as opposed to Harper’s excerpts from elsewhere). And, as far as I can tell its not aggressively political (there is obviously a political slant to it, but it’s not in your face (or at least not in my face).
So, yes, if you can find Prospect here (and I haven’t actually seen what its availability is in the States), it’s a really great magazine. In depth, but not overlong articles about issues that impact the world. What more can you ask from a magazine?