I'm thrilled that Clare Cooper (who was until very recently deputy editor of Woman's Weekly Fiction Special and deputy fiction editor of Woman's Weekly) has agreed to give us an insight into what went on in the WW offices.
I remember my first day on Woman’s Weekly. I was packed off to an induction course and then, later on, introduced to everyone on the magazine. As we went round the office (separate rooms for each dept in those days and treble the amount of staff – a stark contrast to how it is now), I remember feeling slightly shocked yet also impressed that most of them had been there for many years. I was taken aback at how OLD so many of them were, having just come from a very “young” publishing company myself, but also taking it to be a very good sign. Little did I know that I, too, would become one of the “oldies” one day and end up staying there for 29 years! Yes, I was there BC – before computers.
My boss, Gaynor Davies, who was there for 37 years, termed the phrase “The knitted handcuffs”. Once you had settled in and found your niche, it would take something quite extraordinary to winkle you out of your comfort zone.
People often mock women’s magazines, saying that they are shallow and trivial, yet we had many letters and emails from readers telling us how our magazine had helped them. I particularly remember the letter we received from a lady in Northern Ireland. She said that another bomb had just gone off nearby and Woman’s Weekly kept her sane in an intolerable situation.
Almost every week, the Champagne was cracked open to celebrate yet another rise in the sales figures. The Cookery dept would put on a spread and, round about October/November time, everyone would gather in the kitchen to devour roast turkey and all the trimmings, which had just been photographed for one of the Christmas issues.
At the end of each week, Cookery would put out all the food they had left over from testing and cooking from that week and there would be a rush to get there for first pickings. When they had an ever-popular traybakes special in the magazine, the scrum was almost unseemly.
A previous editor remarked that the fire alarm going off would elicit groans and grumbles and everyone would reluctantly amble out of the building to the designated safe space. A cry of “Cake!” echoing down the corridor, however, and it was every man and woman for themselves.
When anyone could finally bring themselves to leave the magazine, there was always a big leaving do: lunch, gifts, flowers, cake, a card with a mocked-up WW cover with said persons’ face on it along with suitable coverlines, and a vat of Pimm’s so huge you could almost take a dip in it, traditionally made by the Knitting dept for reasons lost in the mists of time.
When I joined, I was told about the famous Woman’s Weekly birthdays. They were pretty special: presents, cards, flowers, everyone singing “Happy Birthday” to you, a long lunch with 30 or more staff and a birthday cake baked especially for your tastes. So, chocolate for me, always, but for Gaynor, who couldn’t eat wheat or dairy, a fabulous concoction of different flavours of fruity sorbets and ices. I wish I had kept the email that came round, some years ago now, in which Cookery very apologetically explained that, due to staff and budget cutbacks, they could no longer make a birthday cake for everyone. The word “Spoilt” hovered in my mind at that point. In a sad way, though, it was the marker for many more changes and things were never quite the same again.
Still on the subject of food, a gang of us would troop up to the canteen every day (on the 29th floor, with dizzying, jaw-dropping views to distract you from your meal), where the carvery used to cost just one pound. The salad bar was of the “all you can eat” kind and a particularly greedy colleague used to pile her plate so high it was embarrassing. Her nickname was “Desperate Dan” and the till staff were often overheard making rude remarks about the size of her plates. There was always laughter, though and ours must have been the liveliest table there, especially on the day when a rather buxom colleague dropped an earring into her cleavage and, quick as a flash, our sharp-witted production editor, Alan, said, “There’s gold in tham thar hills.” The entire table erupted.
Magazines held regular staff sales of clothes, shoes, knitting, fabrics, cushions and other home-related goodies, books, make-up, wine, cameras, horsey items and anything and everything relating to the many magazines in the company. Manners seemed to fly out the window at these and I once witnessed a woman running around the tables in an effort to beat the rest. And two women in a very unseemly grapple for a bottle of perfume. It got so bad, an admonishing email was sent round informing everyone that, if they didn’t behave, the sales would cease.
Proceeds from our own sales throughout the year went towards our Christmas party, sometimes held outside the office if we had had a particularly good year, or inside if not. Dismantling and removing the computers, setting up the bar on one of the desks, draping tinsel everywhere and dancing round the photocopier (tapes provided by staff; DJ Kevin from the art dept) are all fond memories for me.
Readers trusted us to the point of madness. One woman wrote in to our problem page with the name of the tablets her doctor had prescribed for her. She didn’t know what they were for, and wanted us to tell her! Given the lead times for the magazine, the poor soul may well have been dead by the time the issue came out, if indeed her letter was even printed. But I imagine someone would have told her to go back to her doctor or, at the very least, speak to a chemist.
Our problem page editor was also the Mother of our union chapel. During one meeting in her office, her phone rang and it was a reader whose tampon had got stuck. In front of everyone, the editor talked the distressed reader down, inch by inch.
One year, we raised funds for “Wells for Gambia” which was a charity set up by the author Philippa Gregory, who used to write for us. One day, we received through the post a very small, thin envelope which was tightly packed with what amounted to a thousand pounds, in notes, with no covering letter. The girl who opened it was shaking. I can see it now and I often wonder who had sent it – and in such a casual fashion!
We had cover-mounted gifts in those days – remember those?! On one occasion, it was dried mashed potato that had exploded when it got damp in the warehouse and on another, a comb complete with ready-supplied lice.
There was a rather nice bike on offer in the magazine once and I can still see our deputy editor, John, riding it up and down the corridor to test it out.
Jiffy bags or, sometimes, boxes of books for review arrived in to the office on a daily basis – like Christmas every day. And even more so when we did the Christmas books pages. One year, my task was to package up books and send them out to selected celebrities to review. After a couple of weeks, I had to ring them all up to get their reviews over the phone – not everyone was on email in those days. I particularly remember how lovely Pam Ferris and Lynda Bellingham were.
We used to run serial writing competitions many years ago. The awards ceremony lunch included speakers such as Maeve Binchy and Rosamunde Pilcher, who were both charming, and our workshops in the early days invited publishers, agents and such literary luminaries as Philippa Gregory, Fay Weldon and – er - Edwina Currie (who was much prettier in the flesh and actually very nice - softly spoken and unexpectedly modest).
Still name-dropping: When our Features dept, knowing how I feel about him, asked me to interview Pasha Kovalev from Strictly over the phone for a short feature in the magazine, I nearly dropped through the floor. I had rather been hoping for a face to face interview, but it was only a very short feature after all and the interview was over in minutes. I wished it had been somewhere more private, and was very aware of everyone around me earwigging (damn those open-plan offices!), so had to keep it polite and professional and to the point. I still have his number, though… any offers?!
Over the years, I was able to write a few short stories for WW and also other magazines in the company, under another name, plus a couple of small features. Writing is a big passion for me, along with reading. I hasten to add that I was rejected, too, by my own magazine and others. Not everything I wrote was accepted, so I do know and understand how it feels!
There were some heated debates in our dept over stories we disagreed on. I didn’t always win them but I put up a good fight on behalf of the writers, who trusted us with their precious words. I always felt strongly that someone should speak up for them and, of course, as we often said in our regular round robin letters, we were very grateful to receive the amount of stories we did.
I miss the daily contact with the writers and I miss reading all their wonderful stories, some of which struck such a strong chord with me, they have stayed in my mind for years after I read them. There is an immense amount of talent out there and I am so proud of them all.
Fiction has always been an important element of the magazine and I sincerely hope that it continues to flourish under the new regime.
All together now: “Keeeep writing!!!!”