Still so un-lady like! Rachel Johnson spills the beans again on row with owner of The Lady magazine's in diary extracts

Publish and be damned: Rachel Johnson

Publish and be damned: Rachel Johnson

One year on! Against tremendous odds, I’m still editor of The Lady - the 125-year-old journal for gentlewomen, based in Bedford Street, Covent Garden.

Last year, I came pretty close to chucking in the towel after a TV crew caught me on film saying: 'The Lady is a piddling little magazine that no one cares about or buys.'

The publisher Ben Budworth, who'd hired me to drag it into the modern age, claimed I'd used and abused the magazine for my own self-serving purposes.

His mother, Mrs Julia Budworth, who sallies forth occasionally from Deerbolt's Hall - her home in Suffolk - said I'd brought a horrid taint of modern nastiness to an institution.

And her cousin, Debo, the dowager Duchess of Devonshire, asked me crossly if I was considering my position.

To be truthful, it remains precarious. Particularly as I'm about to publish a book exposing my battles with the redoubtable Mrs B...

September 8, 2010

Popping out for a coffee, I bump into Mr Bowles — Ben’s 79-year-old Uncle Tom — who lives above the office in a 19-room apartment. He’s standing outside the building, examining the peeling paintwork in a proprietorial fashion. Even though he’s handed over control of The Lady to Ben, Uncle Tom still owns the property. I notice he’s wearing trousers hoicked high at the waist and an ancient moleskin coat.

‘I’m going to get a coffee. Do you want one?’ I ask him. He looks startled — as if I’ve suggested we go to the opera and then perhaps have a little light supper somewhere in Covent Garden afterwards. He’s already picturing the smoked salmon sandwiches under clingfilm at the interval. I realise that he thinks I’m asking him for a date!

‘Why not,’ he says. He crosses the road in my wake. As we step into Caffè Nero, he removes his hat and gazes at the chilled cabinet, full of smoothies and gluten-free brownies and muffins.

‘I’ve lived here for 40 years and I’ve never set foot in this building,’ he says with pride.

Sitting outside with our paper cups, we chat a bit about The Lady, which he refers to as ‘your rotten magazine’. We speak briefly about Mrs Budworth, and I let slip that his elder sister is perhaps not my greatest fan.

‘If you disregard her rudeness and actually listen to what she says, she occasionally makes sense,’ says Tom.

September 13

I’ve sent Mrs Budworth a copy of my book about my first year as editor. But she’s sent it back, with a note saying she has no intention of reading it.

At first, I think this displays considerable style and old-school reserve. Then I find she’s left a bookmark about two-thirds of the way through, which is a slight worry.

When I call her, she launches into one of her monologues, telling me I should ‘take a leaf out of cousin Debo’s book’. ‘Cousin Debo would never be rude,’ she says in Lady Bracknell-ish tones, ‘but she manages to leave one in no doubt as to exactly what she thinks.’

Mrs B has clearly read the book. And has the measure of me exactly.

Lady of letters: Rachel Johnson checking pages of the magazine

Lady of letters: Rachel Johnson checking pages of the magazine

September 14

Ding-dong with Ben about a Jilly Cooper extract from her new blockbuster Jump!. She chose the extract herself and is giving it to us gratis.

But all Ben appears concerned about is that the extract contains naughty words, which is typically Jilly. He starts effing and blinding about how it isn’t my effing magazine and how he is the effing publisher and the buck stops with him — and how could I even consider putting such words into the magazine?

When I call Jilly, she understands immediately. We come up with ‘Everest’ and ‘lady garden’ as replacements for the offending words, and screech with laughter.

September 17

I Am a panellist today on Radio 4’s Any Questions?. On the way there, I try to read the Economist and Financial Times but keep nodding off.  

Disaster! When asked on air about the Trident nuclear deterrent, I say: ‘Dump it — it’s a willy-waving anachronism.’ I also speak fluent gibberish for ten minutes about the Pope’s upcoming visit.

September 20

I have just received furious tirade — via an email from her husband — from Joan Collins, following the serialisation of my book in the Mail. I seem to recall writing that she wears make-up at least an inch thick.

Anyway, she’s accusing me of being cheap, trashy, nasty and in need of inch-thick make-up.

September 26

Venice: Romantic break

Venice: Romantic break

Am in Venice on a romantic city break with my husband Ivo. Unfortunately, he packed our teenage son’s passport instead of his own, so I’ve already had a day here on my own.

He finally arrives and we’re about to settle down to a fish lunch à deux when my mobile rings. Do I want to respond to comments Mrs B has made about me?, says a reporter.  

As a vaporetto slides past in the greasy water, I wonder where I can buy some cigarettes without getting so lost that I’ll never find the restaurant or Ivo again — which once happened to my father when he took a girl on a dirty weekend to Paris, installed her in a pavement café and went to find a hotel, then never located the girl or the café again.

But back to Venice. ‘The main charges against you,’ says the reporter, ‘are that you’re mad, vain, a social climber, snobbish, unsuitable to edit The Lady and — oh yes — that you’re  sex-obsessed. She also says: “You can’t get her away from a penis.”’

September 29

Back from Venice. Ben tells me that Mrs B is granting interviews all over the place. Could it be that she has a severe case of late-onset celebrity addiction? She’s clearly having the time of her life. I wish I were.

In my in-tray:

n A pitch for a 765-word article on ‘fashion etiquette post-World War II’.

n Two letters to my dog Coco, who has her own column in The Lady and ‘edited’ this week’s issue.

September 30  

Squeeze into a blue sequinned dress for my book launch party, which starts in the office at 6.30pm.

I’m on the stoop, having a cigarette to calm my nerves, when Mrs B bowls up in a black cab. She walks straight past me without a glance, and stomps into The Lady’s smoking-room, where she holds court, telling everyone how awful, mad, vain and penis-obsessed I am.  

One of her milder remarks: ‘I just want to kill Rachel for putting all sorts of unsuitable stuff in The Lady.’

October 6

Up early to do the Daybreak TV show with Adrian Chiles and Christine Bleakley. Am airbrushed with brown paint, then go onto the chilly set.

‘I’m freezing but we have to keep the whole place this cold because Adrian sweats,’ says Christine, showing a dazzling set of tombstone gnashers.

Appearance: Rachel Johnson went on Daybreak, hosted by Adrian Chiles and Christine Bleakley

Appearance: Rachel Johnson went on Daybreak, hosted by Adrian Chiles and Christine Bleakley

I shield my eyes and study Chiles, who looks at me, the Autocue, and all his guests with a sort of questing sweetness, like a guinea pig who’s lost his carrot. He and Bleakley sit clamped together so everyone else feels like a gooseberry.

They ask me about my least favourite subject under discussion — sibling rivalry. So I answer their questions through gritted teeth.

I end up trading a plug for my book for the revelation that my darling Mama used to pay me to iron my brother Boris’s shirts for 50p a pop.

October 8

At a book-signing in Mayfair, a woman called Bev reveals she used to be in charge of our annual short story competition — a much-loved feature I’ve killed stone-dead.

‘We used to get hundreds of submissions from readers about wives who murdered their husbands. I used to regard the competition as a form of marital therapy,’ she said.  

She also tells me that, at Christmas, Uncle Tom Bowles used to invite the staff up to his apartments: ‘The floor show was always a lady with a banjo. She’d strum the banjo and dance, and at the end she’d raise her skirts and show us all her khaki bloomers. Tom would sit there entranced.’

October 25

Co-owner: The Lady Magazine's Julia Budworth

Co-owner: The Lady Magazine's Julia Budworth

Have been asked to talk about my book at a four-hour literary lunch at the Institute of Directors in the presence of Mrs Budworth, Ben, four of her cousins, assorted hacks and about 180 Lady readers.

Mrs B has now announced via multiple media outlets that she’d rather slit her wrists than read it —  and ‘so would all my friends’. So, a bit of a tough gig.

Mail sketchwriter Quentin Letts gives a speech, during which a Lady luncheon guest keels over.

I’m afraid to say it looks as if she’s died. The paramedics arrive and the guest is stretchered off — happily, still breathing.  

When it’s my turn to speak, I have to go into the Mrs B saga a bit, which is gruelling as she’s sitting in front of me, boot-faced. I don’t get many laughs.

On the way back to the office, Ben says: ‘Have you had media training? Remind me to set some up, will you?’

November 1

In the in-tray:

n A sweet, shamefaced letter from Joy, the reader who fainted, lamenting the fact that she and her friend missed the speeches: ‘Will we be allowed to come again?’

November 2

A new member of staff, Matt, has arrived and we’ve parked him in a damp room that smells of rotten eggs. Maybe I can create more space by getting rid of the fashion cupboard, where we store clothes for shoots?

I open it to find three four-way stretch nighties, some Slenderella long johns and a Puffa jacket on a wire hanger.

November 10

In the in-tray:

n Offer of a piece explaining how to make a Christmas crib with Sellotape, MDF, acrylic paint and a cardboard box.  

n Letter marked ‘personal’ from Mrs B: ‘Dear Rachel, How would it be if I guest-edited the anniversary issue in mid-February? If Coco can do it, so can I.’

I write back, thanking her for her generous offer of editing the magazine instead of me, but declining it.

November 17

Cover story: Lord Bath

Cover story: Lord Bath

OH MY God! Piers, the IT guy, has spotted something so ghastly that I can only hope and pray Mrs B hasn’t seen it.

For our cover story on Lord Bath, the opening photo is of the Loins of Longleat holding a paint-encrusted palette and wearing a Liberty-print waistcoat over a plaid shirt.

It’s such a busy image that none of us noticed that he’s standing in front of one of his murals — on which he’s depicted trademark scenes of carnivalesque depravity, involving two men, a woman and a lot of bare flesh.

I used to laugh off Mrs Budworth’s charges that I’m penis-obsessed as the ravings of a woman who’s lived for far too long on her own.

But after a pornographic spread that would make Bob Guccione blush, I haven’t got a leg to stand on. When I go into see Ben, ready to beg forgiveness, we both end up laughing helplessly.

December 3

Email from Ben: ‘Please put eight pages aside for the magazine’s 126th anniversary special. These eight pages can be edited by Mrs B. Thanks. Regards, Ben.’

I assume this is a joke, so I merely whizz back: ‘ha ha ha.’

January 5, 2011

Have flaming stand-up row with Ben about Mrs B editing the eight-page supplement. He looks cross and evasive and claims I knew all about it. ‘But I thought you were joking,’ I say. He insists that the supplement will placate our more traditional readers and his mum at the same time.

January 6

Just had a tweet from Nick Hewer from The Apprentice, saying he’s astonished at how vulgar my website is. So then we start having a flirt via Twitter.

It’s a bit like Shane Warne and Liz Hurley — though Hewer astutely detects that it’s of more benefit to me than him (he has 20,000 followers, I have 6,000).  

January 7

I’ve decided that I’m being mean-spirited and am all in favour of The Lady supplement on one condition: that Mrs B manages to wring a piece out of Cousin Debo.

I make Matt call Mrs B on Friday in front of me — so I can be like GCHQ and monitor the exchange. We can hear her barking all the way from Suffolk. ‘Well, she certainly doesn’t like you, does she?’ he says, when he put down the phone.

January 12

Chamber of the Important Gentleman: Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen

Chamber of the Important Gentleman: Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen

The TV presenter Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen arrives in a floor-sweeping black leather coat and three-piece suit, having invited himself to tea.

LLB talks nineteen to the dozen about how horrid it was being ‘papped’ on a Barbadian beach wearing swimming trunks (he declines our offering of some Victoria sponge, patting his tummy).

Then he moves on to Prince Charles’s obsession with his wife Jackie’s breasts.

As he’s leaving, Matt asks him what his aftershave is.

‘It’s not aftershave,’ LLB discloses. ‘It’s room spray from Florian in Venice. It’s called Chamber of the Important Gentleman.’

January 19

Lady writer Giles Wood tells me that Mrs B is trying to get the board to unseat me and wants to have my handwriting analysed by a graphologist to assess my character flaws and the scale of the problem I represent.

January 20

Good news! Mrs B has persuaded Debo to write about her father David Mitford. He was once general manager of The Lady and used his pet mongoose to catch rats in the basement.

January 21

In deference to our readers who don’t have the internet, I’ve reinstated something I canned when I arrived: a regular letter from a reader who wants a question answered.

The first reader’s question is: ‘Where can a mature lady buy a pair of capacious bloomers — so useful in this colder weather?’

January 25

A man in Italy, whose olive farm has featured in the mag, has ordered 10,000 copies of the January 9 issue because he wants to distribute the three-page piece among his friends and family. Unfortunately, the remains of that issue has just been pulped. ‘Well, why don’t we reprint it?’ I say, thinking: 10,000 friends? I don’t know if I could round up a dozen.

Then I have a better idea. ‘Look,’ I tell Ben, ‘why don’t we just run the olive-picking feature again? It’ll be much cheaper.’

‘Cheaper’ is always a good word to throw around with publishers, I’ve noticed. ‘Our readers are so old,’ I add, ‘that they won’t notice.’  Oh dear. Ben hates it when I say anything about the readers’ ages (average: 78).

Secret committee: Jemima Khan

Secret committee: Jemima Khan

January 28

Am a member of a secret committee — set up to defend the right to publish —  that’s preparing a sharp open letter in support of WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange.

'Oh no, I've gone and run a picture of Lord Bath in front of one of his debauched murals. I hope Mrs B doesn't notice!'

At the first meeting I went to, attended by several of the world’s leading intellectuals, my only contribution was to suggest that Jemima Khan — who’s always being photographed at Assange’s elbow — should be invited to join the committee.

So when I turn up to the meeting today, she’s there, in Prada leggings and a lovely, slouchy grey Burberry coat. ‘We did yoga for pregnancy together, at the Life Centre in Notting Hill,’ I simper.

‘You were nine months pregnant but so slim that I complained to the instructor you were in the wrong class.’

As we carry on chattering, a waitress takes our orders for tea. At which point, the writer Henry Porter explodes. ‘Yoga!’ he shouts. ‘Peppermint tea! We’re here to save freedom of speech, not have a Notting Hill coffee morning!’

We giggle. Jemima is sculpted out of caramel. I love it when she says ‘Hugh’ because she’s talking about Hugh Grant!

When I get in the car afterwards, one of her long auburn hairs is sticking to the cover of my iPhone. I almost keep it as a holy relic.

February 1

To Downing Street for a reception for magazine editors. Inside, it’s all plush carpet and stripy wallpaper and long corridors.

See Dave Cameron, whose face is a curious bubblegum-pink colour.

I am too frightened to talk to him after the editor of the Spectator kept saying, ‘Rachel Johnson has defeated the Government on the forests sell-off,’  after I founded the campaign group Save England’s Forests — as if no PM has ever suffered a greater public humiliation.

Much speculation among magazine editors about Dave’s migrating bald patch, but I can’t see one at all.

February 9

Editorial meeting. We’re running the piece about olive-picking in Tuscany again.

In the same week that the mag’s price is going up. So the readers will be paying an extra 20p to read the same piece again!

February 17

Email from Maureen, Ben’s PA: ‘Hi Everyone, someone will be coming round tomorrow morning with samples of new toilet paper. I’d like your opinion on them.’

February 23

Another email from Maureen! ‘Hi Everyone, I haven’t had a lot of response on the new toilet rolls. You must have all used the toilet by now. Awaiting your responses.’

Right, I now need to prepare a detailed dossier on toilet-tissue options. As ever, the serious and important work of The Lady editor must go on.

  • Extracted from A Diary Of The Lady: My First Year And a Half As Editor by Rachel Johnson, published by Penguin at £8.99.  Copyright (c) 2010 Rachel Johnson. To order a copy for £7.99 (incl p&p) call 0843 382 0000.