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Still With Us PETER USBORNE
SARAH SHANNON talks to the business brain behind a relatively small satirical magazine and a very large children’s book publisher
Fifty years ago, Peter Usborne marshalled a gang of misfits into his Islington flat where they clacked away on typewriters and slowly put together a magazine. After some debate it was named Private Eye – even though Usborne hated the name and a key editorial member (one Willie Rushton) wanted to call it The Bladder. The Eye was born. And despite these school magazine beginnings it celebrates its golden anniversary this autumn.
To start one successful magazine may be regarded as fortuitous. To start a longrunning magazine and an internationally renowned publishing company looks frankly remarkable. Yet Usborne went on from the Eye to set up the much-loved children’s publisher, Usborne Books.
Usborne isn’t a name that Eye devotees would associate with the magazine. Peter Cook, Paul Foot, Willie Rushton and Richard Ingrams are the names that pop up. But ask anyone who was there at the beginning of the Eye and they will tell you, ‘It would never have happened without Usborne.’
As a youngster, Peter Usborne had been dazzled by his witty uncle Richard, a P G Wodehouse expert and one-time magazine publisher. When he arrived at Balliol College he wanted to ‘make a mark’ so he decided to publish a magazine like Uncle Dick. ‘There were two magazines at Oxford, Isis and Cherwell, both named after branches of the River Thames – so it was pretty obvious the third magazine would be called Mesopotamia because it was between the two.’ (Mesopotamia means ‘land between rivers’ in ancient Greek).
‘It wasn’t very good but it was pizzazzy and we sold it successfully. Everyone was talking about it. One chap who did come up to me and say “Well done, Peter” was a chap I didn’t know very well called Richard Ingrams. He was running a really funny magazine called Parson’s Pleasure. His magazine went under, and at the beginning of next term he came to me and said “Could we join your magazine?” Suddenly Mesopotamia became funny.’
The Mespot team came up with some great selling wheezes. They put a gramophone record on the cover featuring a brilliant mimic and new Mespot recruit, John Wells. Another issue was bound in hessian cloth, embedded with mustard and cress seeds. ‘Apply water and grow your own mustard and cress,’ it exhorted, and it worked. One issue featured an article mocking the ‘grey man’ and to publicise it, John Wells sat all morning in a shop window in the Broad typing, alongside a placard which read ‘See the Grey Man writing his essay’.
Mesopotamia was distributed by a gang of girls who touted it around college rooms, and it was marketed with typical Usborne flair. ‘We took the window of a shop and installed a girl in it just reading Mesopotamia. That got in the Times,’ he says.
After Finals, the Mespot gang got pleasantly sozzled in a hayfield. Willie Rushton suggested they should do another Mesopotamia in the real world. ‘Everyone ignored him, but little old Usborne thought, “Ah-ha! Now wouldn’t that be a fine thing.”’
Following work experience in New York, he returned to London, raised £300 from his friend Andrew Osmond, and appointed Christopher Booker as editor (Bruce Page, latterly the editor of the New Statesman, having turned the job down).
Usborne isn’t a name that devotees would associate with the Eye, but anyone who was there at the beginning will tell you it would never have happened without him
The Mespot crowd reconvened in borrowed rooms. ‘There were lots of very pretty girls from Oxford and it was fun. But I’m a natural worrier.’ Usborne organised the printer, bought a company called Pressdram, and generally made it happen. Later he worked out a proper distribution service – no more girls knocking on doors.
‘Satire was in the air, with Beyond the Fringe and the Establishment Club. We were immediately labelled as satire and suddenly we were terribly fashionable.’ Circulation leapt from 5,000 to 100,000 in six months.’
12 THE OLDIE – November 2011 Spoof photo of Mesopotamia cricket team, featuring Peter Usborne (centre, seated), flanked by Richard Ingrams (left), and Andrew Osmond, backer of Private Eye (right). Paul Foot is lying down, and John Wells is standing at the end of the back row on the right
Just as suddenly, it began to plummet as the Eye found itself last year’s thing.
‘We got into a crisis because I didn’t realise how fast it was going down. The returns started coming in – it was absolutely terrifying. I often didn’t know if we’d be able to get from Friday to Monday. We had to do things like forget to sign cheques.’
Then the Eye began its fabled career as an employer of libel lawyers. It faced a writ for alleging that Randolph Churchill had used hacks to write his father’s biography and planned to omit contentious episodes in Sir Winston’s history. Usborne inveigled himself with one of the hacks, or so he believed, and took copious notes on Randolph Churchill’s writing methods. Two days later, Usborne’s notebook arrived in an envelope at Private Eye with a note from Randolph Churchill. ‘Yours, I believe,’ it read.
‘That was a shock,’ says Usborne. ‘He’d seen all my notes. We gave up and started thinking how we could settle.’
After three years, Usborne realised the Eye was in great shape thanks to the infamy of the Churchill libel and its new proprietor, Peter Cook. Usborne, the ‘chief bottle-washer and banker’ felt the need for change. He was bursting with ideas, but the Eye team put them in a folder marked ‘Usborne’s Mad Ideas’.
‘One idea was why don’t we have listings. We didn’t do it, but someone else did. Most of the time Richard [Ingrams, who had taken over as editor from Booker] was right and I was wrong. Private Eye’s almost unchanged form is perhaps the most extraordinary thing about it. It succeeds on the quality of the jokes and writing.’
Usborne took his mad ideas off to a business school in Fontainebleau. Dave Cash, his successor at the Eye says, ‘Peter was so full of energy. He kept sending me new business models for the Eye as he learned about them.’
On his return Usborne found a job as chairman’s assistant at the British Printing Corporation. One Friday afternoon, his wife called to tell him she was pregnant. He went straight to his boss and told him he wanted to do something in children’s publishing.
Usborne clearly had incredible powers of persuasion. His boss found him a chair at a BPC company called Macdonald Educational where Usborne thought up a string of successful children’s books.
One afternoon, he was in the Gents at the same time as BPC’s overall boss who asked Usborne what he wanted to do next. ‘I said, “Well I did start Private Eye and I’d like to do something on my own again.” He said, “Don’t go to the City for money, come to me.” He lent me £200,000.’
Since it began in 1973, Usborne Books has grown to become second only to Puffin in the children’s market. ‘We have a very simple philosophy, “do it better”. What’s different about our sticker books or our dot-to-dot books? Absolutely nothing. It’s all been done before – we just do it better.’
Now 74, Usborne still comes into the office every day. ‘But I head home at three. Actually I’ve got nothing to do. I’m disgustingly good at delegation.’
He builds remote-controlled aeroplanes with his son – and flies a real plane over the Solent. He also does a bit of sailing. And continues to learn languages. ‘He’s like Toad of Toad Hall,’ says Dave Cash, ‘he has this wonderful enthusiasm for things.’
Do Usborne Publishing and Private Eye share an ethos? ‘Absolutely not,’ laughs Usborne. ‘Both have staff who are proud of what they do, but Private Eye is a pretty barbed sort of place. This is entirely kindly and civilised. I’m proud of what I did at Private Eye but this is what I really am.’
November 2011 – THE OLDIE 13