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Towards the end of the last century, I made the ghastly mistake of offering to join journalist, and good friend, Thomas Rees on his new magazine in London’s Notting Hill. He and I have a history of collaborating on writing projects from time to time, most of which almost result in fisticuffs.
A freelance journalist, Thomas has written for numerous publications including The Observer and The Guardian. He was once the editor of hunting magazine Horse and Hound.
Financed by a wealthy local estate agent The Portobello Review was intended to reflect the area’s burgeoning art scene. On a budget. A tiny budget.
Initially, through a haze of alcohol, things looked very rosy. The format was slick enough and the design was eye-grabbing in a ‘what’s all this about then?’ sort of way. With the first edition featuring an interview with Tim Roth, it seemed to be on the right starting block. There were plans afoot for interviews with film director Nick Roeg, and film score composer the late Mike Kamen for later issues. I knew Mike from selling him the occasional antique on the Portobello Road. In theory, the project was as sound as the Titanic on an ice-free sea.
In practice, much of helping Thomas consisted of regular visits to the Kensington Park Hotel, a pub once frequented by mass murderer John Christie back in the 1940s. Christie is known to have killed at least seven women before concealing their corpses behind walls and in the garden of nearby 10, Rillington Place. He was hanged in 1953.
On the corner of Cornwall Crescent and Ladbroke Grove, the KPH was still a bit seedy in the 1990s, the perfect venue to team up with Ray Jones. Ray seemed to be the publication’s undercover deputy editor. Popularly known as ‘The Librarian’ for his ability to nick expensive books from Waterstone’s bookshop on Notting Hill Gate to order, he was a mug for the nags.
No sooner had a round of Guinness been ordered than Thomas and Ray would proceed to discuss the day’s racing over a copy of Sporting Life. They’d weigh up the relative merits of one nag against another, and read out what was running in the 2-30 at places like Kempton Park, or Towcester. They’d mull over whether the going would be soft or not, and which beast that might favour. As pint after pint was downed the fate of latest issue of The Portobello Review wouldn’t even be mentioned. This went on till all our money ran out. I quickly learned to conceal a fiver about my person, just in I case felt like eating later in the day, hoping it wouldn’t come to a shake down.
A couple of hours usually elapsed before I’d wobble out of the bar and into the blinding light of day, suitably drunk, to spend the rest of the afternoon visiting local butchers, dry cleaners and junk shops of the neighbourhood in pursuit of the hopeless task of tempting them to advertise. If that wasn’t humiliating enough, the hardest part of the job came last. Calling back to collect advertising revenues due, on which the fate of the magazine partly depended, was the bit I came to dread.
Admittedly, there were times in the beginning I felt a bit like a mafia bagman bleeding the hood. But my delusion soon evaporated in the knowledge the mafia doesn’t have to resort to grovelling for its funds. A visit from some very large, and very clumsy, people is usually enough to persuade even their most reluctant clients to cough up. In return for all my trouble and grovelling I was promised a paltry fee for an occasional brief column on the antiques trade. I did say promised.
If Thomas and I didn’t visit the Kensington, we’d pop into The Duke of Wellington on a corner of Portobello Road to meet with Juan Carlos Gumicio, London correspondent of El Pais at the time. He’d usually be up to his elbows in newspapers poring over the day’s stories with a correspondent for Spanish radio, looking for leads. I almost felt like a real newshound.
Juan Carlos was a journalist in the old sense of the word. The sort of reporter you’d expect to meet in Casablanca, the city as well as the film. Fearless to the point of recklessness, he stayed on in the wartorn Beirut of the mid-1980s after AP (Associated Press), the news agency for which he worked, ordered all its staff to leave, as the threat of kidnap grew too great. Not wanting to move, Juan Carlos promptly joined The Times as its war correspondent. He and Thomas met in Lebanon. Though I knew him but briefly, he was a real inspiration, and fantastic fun to be with. Sadly, he is said to have died from a self-inflicted gunshot in early 2002. Some still question the circumstances.
But my first dalliance with dreams of fame and fortune in the newspaper world didn’t last long. Even contributors the calibre of the late George Melly, jazz musician and art critic of The Observer couldn’t save the ‘voo, as I fondly came to call it in my head. For some reason the name didn’t catch on. Probably because it remained in my head. Besides, you have to give time to allow nicknames like that to sink into the human subconscious, and time was one thing the ‘voo didn’t have. The short-lived arts magazine lasted no more than two editions. Probably a late twentieth century record. They’ll never be able to beat that one now. Even The Norseman, a newspaper I produced by hand in the school holidays at the age of nine, lasted longer. I wrote three editions before I ran out of ink and crayons. So I know how difficult getting a magazine started can be.
What the flip is this supposed to be about? Ah, yes, The Dura that’s it. The Bickell brought me a copy all the way from Mildura on a recent lightning visit. So proud of it was he, he might’ve written it himself. And I was duly impressed.
The Dura is the sophisticated sort of publication you’d expect to find in New York or London, rather than in rural Australia. Only much better. Its unusual A3 format printed in monochrome on thick, high quality paper gives the quarterly a luxurious, sexy feel. You want to take it to bed with you, but don’t for fear of crumpling it.
Brimming with interesting articles, even the advertisements for building consultants, tax advisors, bars and opticians are delicious eye grub. And I very much like the ants wandering across the pages. After trying to swat one with a much poorer quality Spanish daily on newsprint, I realised it was part of the design. The graphics, typography, photography and illustrations are a marvel for someone who studied graphic design in the days when a single computer, with slightly less memory than a modern vacuum cleaner, took an entire building to house and cost the price of a fleet of luxury liners. With my college’s limited funds it meant we had to learn to do almost everything by hand, which instilled a tremendous amount of respect for all aspects of graphics and its related specialities. I see the same appreciation for the importance and sheer beauty of excellent design in The Dura. Whilst reflecting the historical subject matter of much of the content in approriate retro style, the magazine still manages to appear completely up to date. To be able to add more than a touch of tongue in cheek satire to that is no mean feat.
Leafing through at random, Dr Jennifer Hamilton-Mckenzie’s article, entitled I need a Drink, caught my eye straightaway. Grog being one of my favourite topics, her history of Mildura’s class-oriented drinking society proved to be as fascinating as the title promised. As did Luke Coleman’s riveting story of Slash in From Tehran to Mildura the story of an Iranian teenager into heavy metal. It tells of how his refusal to conform led to violent brushes with the police in Tehran. Eventually, he had to flee the country of his birth, ending up in Mildura. Among many others, there are articles on natural history, ‘gentlemen at leisure’ and a pirate named Bartholomew Roberts, known as King of the Carribean. I look forward to reading them all.
Editor Harry Rekas’ successful background in publishing shines through like a lighthouse in a desert. The creator of Melbourne’s pop-culture magazine Large is one of Mildura’s own. Nevertheless, however good the editor, at the heart of every successful publication lies a good team. And Harry has obviously managed to put together a brilliant one.
I only wish I could get my hands on a copy each quarter here in faraway Conil. Alternatively, how I’d love someone to start a magazine like The Dura in Andalucia.
Copyright ©2014 Bryan Hemming
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