Thursday 14 September 2017

Woman's Weekly - the inside story!

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!!!!”


Anonymous said...

What a lovely piece - thank you Clare - and Patsy! I'm assuming that Clare might read this comment, so I'm writing it as though she/you will! Sounds like a wonderful place to work, especially in the 'good old days' - I'm not surprised you stayed there for 29 years! And lovely to know too, that you're a writer yourself, Clare. My little heart used to skip a beat when I got an email from you because it usually meant a story was being accepted..(although sometimes it was just to acknowledge you'd got it or occasionally to ask me for a re-write). Happy days! Wishing you all the best in whatever you do in the future. Helen

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a great place to work, Clare. Thank you for the acceptances over recent years. May I wish you many good things in the future. All good wishes Kate Hogan.

Clare said...

Thank you, Helen and Kate! It was lovely to work with you both. XX

Jo said...

That was fun - thanks! I can see you'll really miss that job.

Anonymous said...

I'm still getting over the shock of you all leaving... and I still expect Maureen to appear in my inbox. I know Jackie sent an invite, please take it up if you miss mixing with writers. No pressure. They are a bit of rowdy bunch though, what with all the drinking and swearing (that might just be me).

Jo Styles.xx (Facebook - Womag Writers and Company).

Unknown said...

What a fabulous post. I remember the Horse and Hound samples cupboard on the 22nd floor of King's Reach Tower (no horses, sadly) and the "guess who they work for" when you joined a crowd in the lifts. Ripped jeans = music mag, pie frill collars = Country Life, hayseeds in hair = H & H. Good luck, Clare - and thanks, Patsy. I haven't met either of you, but feel as if I have thanks to the wonders of FB.
Carolyn Henderson, journo and author

carrie said...

Really enjoyed reading your wonderful experience, Clare, it is sad the good old days are gone. Wishing you well on your new journey, may it bring as much fun as the last! Regards, Carrie

Clare said...

Thank you, Jo. I am missing it already! X

Thank you, Jo Styles. Yes please, I would like to join you all. Let me know what to do, please. I don't drink much but I do swear rather a lot, lol. Thank you for the offer! X

Thank you, Carolyn. Gaynor often said the same as you. She described it as being a "holiday camp". There were away days, group outings, even cruises at one time. Lots and lots of lunches and parties and all sorts of shenanigans at the annual awards, lol. We were always laughing. I was known for my laugh! X

Thank you, Carrie. I do hope so! X

Kathleen McGurl said...

Wonderful! Thanks Clare for taking the time to write this. Another anecdote 're WW for you - my mother suffered from post stroke pain and nothing seemed to work for her. Then she read a WW feature about someone with similar problems who was taking an anti-depressant which also helped the pain. Mum took the mag to her doctor and got the same prescription and it worked!

Anonymous said...

Hello Clare, have sent you a link. This will appear in your Message Requests box on your Facebook page.

Jo Styles.

Anonymous said...

I loved reading this. What a wonderful career and thank you for sharing your memories.

Linda Gruchy

Unknown said...

What a fantastic post!! Thank you, Patsy. And, thank you, Clare, for sharing all those lovely stories with us - how wonderful to have such delightful memories of your career. I wish you many more 'laughs' and writing successes in the future.
I never thought I would say this - but I am actually missing Maureen's emails now! XX

Karen said...

What a fascinating interview, so interesting to hear what it was like 'behind the scenes'! You're very much missed, Clare xx

Clare said...

Thank you, Kath. That's brilliant! I do hate it when people diss magazines as frivolous and unnecessary, when stories like this disprove it time and again. X

Thank you, Jo. X

Thank you, Linda. It was great fun. X

Thank you, Margaret - ha ha, I will pass that on! See if she can send you one just for old times' sake, lol. X

Thank you, Karen, that's lovely to hear. X

JohnD said...

I was both shocked and saddened to learn of your leaving. I will always appreciate the fact that you gave me my first break into women's magazine fiction. I wish you all the very best for the future

Anonymous said...


janewj said...

How lovely to read this, Clare. I wish you all the very best and thank you for being so lovely to work with. I can still remember the pure joy and elation I felt when you very first rang me up to buy a story. I was so thrilled and excited. And even tho I sold a lot more to you later - and you always called, that was so nice - that thrill never did go away! Hope you and Gaynor have lots of good things planned. I'm going to be catching up with her soon. love jane x

Teresa Ashby said...

This was lovely - what wonderful memories and what happy days they were. I think it was 22 years ago that you first bought a story from me. I will miss you and not just for the good news emails :-) Teresa xx

Clare said...

That's lovely, John, thank you! Good luck for the future. X

Thank you, Leonora. X

Thank you, Jane. Believe it or not, I remember it too! X

Thank you, Teresa. I miss your lovely stories. Do keep in touch! X

ados said...

Woman's Weekly does sound like the best office to work in! Thank you for your reminiscences, Clare. As a new writer for WW and just a few successes I shall also miss you, Gaynor and Maureen. I hope you find something you are happy doing.

Penny A said...

I really enjoyed reading this! 'Christmas every day' with cakes and cushions...! Quite sure there was a lot of hard work going on too. With best wishes for your future.

Kate Blackadder said...

Lovely to see what you look like, Clare! Thank you for this - it sounds wonderful. I'm always fascinated to hear what happens 'behind the scenes'. All the best for the future.

Clare said...

Thank you, Alyson. X

Thank you, Penny. Yes, we managed to fit a bit of work in some of the time! X

Thank you, Kate. X

Sue Blackburn said...

What a fabulous peek behind the scenes. You must have such wonderful memories and be so sad to be no longer there.

I was invited to take part in the Centenary celebrating the older woman (who me?!) and what a wonderful, happy and exciting experience that was. Such a terrific atmosphere and everybody at WW was so friendly and welcoming.

Wishing you every success with your future plans Clare x

Clare said...

Thank you, Sue. Yes, I do miss the wacky world of magazines! It was a lot of fun. Glad you enjoyed your part in our centenary. X

Keith Havers said...

What an interesting post. I really enjoyed that. It's always sad and daunting when there are big upheavals but they are part of life. All the best.

Clare said...

Thank you, Keith! X

Clare said...

Thank you, Keith! X

Celia said...

Dear Clare (via this site!)
Thank you for writing this. What a lovely place WW must have been in those earlier years. Sigh for the future if all this has gone forever.
I was so so sorry to have missed the e-mail warning 'us' you were all leaving, so I never had a chance to say goodbye and thank you to you and Gaynor and Maureen (how come she always got the crappy task of telling us 'no thank you'!!??
Anyway, thank you now for all for the acceptances and guidances and beingthere-nesses whenever I had a new story to tell (erm, sell, that should read)
Please send my best wishes to M and G should you be in touch.
End of an era.
Dear Jo Styles, where is this party!!!!
Goodbye, dear Clare. I feel disloyal and such a heel about it but I need to keep sending out stories so even though you're not there, I am still trying my work out with WW. I love being in it!
TTFN (my eternal sign off, if you recall)

Clare said...

Hello, Celia. Sorry you didn't get the letter. Thank you for your stories. No need to feel disloyal. WW still needs quality fiction, so keep sending them in! Good luck for the future. X

Chris said...

That was a wonderful insight into life behind the Woman's Weekly scenes, Clare, and it's clear how much you loved your time there. I was disappointed never to meet you in person at any of the fiction workshops I attended at the Blue Finn Building, so it was good to see a photo of you at last - you're dark-haired... I always visualised you as blonde! Like Celia (above), I am still sending work to WW and hoping that Danni will smile on my efforts. We always knew that the publishing industry was cut-throat, but didn't think they would ever turn on their staff in that way. That was brutal. It was a real shock to hear that you, Gaynor, and Maureen were leaving... three of the nicest people it has ever been my pleasure to have my fiction rejected by. (Thankfully there were some yeses along the way, too). Again, my best wishes to you all and I hope to see your name on a short story very soon.

Chris Sutton

Clare said...

Thank you, Chris. Very sweet of you! That has been said before about my hair colour, lol. Good luck with Danni! X

Unknown said...

Dear Clare,
I want to contact Gaynor Davies. Do you know where I can do that? My email is
Thanks felicity