“Vole” magazine (1977-81), green pioneer

Vole magazine was a pioneer of a species of “greenery” between 1977 and 1981. It was the creature of Richard Boston though I edited it very briefly toward the end. I have a complete collection of the magazine and aim to find the right archive for it. I am not content with my Vole recollections which appear below. I have always felt I let the magazine down. I hope I am not doing so now. Any corrections or improvements to this account will be very welcome.

I can’t remember when and how I first heard that Richard Boston had plans for a new magazine to be called The Questing Vole. In my mind’s eye at some quite early point a putative team of writers and managers met in the sunny paved back garden of 20 Park Square East, WI, a grand Crown Estate terraced house on Nash’s Regent’s Park’s Outer Circle. More certainly: the date on the dummy issue was April 1977. Issue Number 1, the name now stripped down to Vole, emerged in September 1977 and featured many of the writers who would continue to be its main contributors. The launch may have been the occasion of another gently boozy sunny lunch at which Robin Lustig of the Observer chatted with this loose team for a piece in his paper. The peri-launch publicity and mood music was propitious: there was no great clamour, but the magazine seemed to be welcomed from the first as being, as intended, sparky and less preachy than was even then a feature of environmentalism. We were, so to say, off to the races. We had no intention of competing with the nuts-and-bolts Undercurrents (1972) or the spiritual Resurgence (1973) (they combined in the 1980s) and there was ample space in which to forge our own USP, with a certain rugged elusiveness which was a very Bostonian feature.

I don’t recall that Terry Jones of the Monty Python team was much in evidence at Vole meetings, though one knew that he was important to the funding of the project and, I am pretty sure, remained so throughout Boston’s editorship. Vole’s managing editor was Charles Alverson (Wiki gives his dates as 1935-2020, an American novelist and collaborator of Terry Gilliam). I am afraid I have a only very dim recollection of Alverson, though I seem to recall that he was in the general informal anarchic school of alternativism, and amiable. Boston was no Richard “OZ” Neville, nor yet a Tony “Time Out, (1968)” Elliott. He was certainly not a Nicholas “Alternative London (1970)” Saunders. He was not a social entrepreneur or even an activist (even his real ale campaign being in part ironic). He was very hard to define. He was the anti-thesis of trendy, or hep. He was in Paris for some of the 1960s, but did not seem to me to be a soixante-huitard, in either a post-structuralist or a social revolutionary way.

One of the most distinguished features of Boston’s Vole was that its typography and its cover content was in the hands of Kate Hepburn. She had already made Spare Rib distinctive. But Hepburn made an ideal Boston collaborator: she was not a fighting feminist, but a devoted stylist of the modern, as the best designers of any type or age tend to be.

The Python’s office was almost opposite Number 20, but across the greenery, in Park Square West. We did see a bit of Michael Henshaw, a maverick accountant who owned or leased Number 20 and gave the magazine office space in much or all of his basement. Michael was a rather mysterious figure (perhaps he was shy, but possibly also a little sly in his mischief, rather as I found Glastonbury’s Michael Eavis to be).  He was clearly clever and enabling to those he favoured. He may well have guided some of the business matters which any magazine has to navigate. I knew he worked closely with the Pythons. It wasn’t until the other day, when I read the Guardian‘s 2007 obituary of this “coolest of accountants” that I found out just how wide-ranging an “alternative society” figure he was. When Boston gave up the editorship of Vole in summer 1980, I carried it on for another year in a different format and with a rather different tone. Michael kindly let me continue to use 20 Park Square East as a base, though our new owners ran our business and paid our bills.

Vole (as it had become by the time of launch) was absolutely Boston’s creature. Accordingly, it was robust and confident but hard to define. Boston was, as his first wife and lifelong friend Anne Boston said, a “belligerent pacifist”. He was highly literate with a nice eclecticism, favouring  Laurence Sterne as well as Cobbett. Accordingly, his chosen contributors were not notably hippy, few were radical, and not many were into anything like the darker side of alternativist thinking and living. Lustig had characterized me, from early on, as a “radical” (I can’t remember if I was flattered). Of the regulars I was the most drawn to “alternative technology”, and I liked (without really reading) Californian publications such as Shelter (1973) and Whole Earth Epilogue (1974). I was some sort of electro-hippy, being very interested in James Martin’s Wired Society (1978). No technophobe, I declared nuclear power to be a necessary evil, for now at least. I once excoriated the car on lines I had learned from Ivan Illich’s Energy and Equity (1974) and Jonathan Raban (a heavyweight travel writer) usefully remarked at a Vole lunch that his parents had been liberated by theirs. This was Saturday Book and Shell advertising thinking, and quite correct, in its way.

Colin Ward, a benign figure, was the house’s proper anarchist. Other writers, now I think of it, were more New Society or New Scientist than New Age. I am thinking of Jeremy Bugler, John Adams and Adam Hopkins in that sort of guise. Vole was and still is usually described as being an environmental magazine. But it was quite different in tone from the burgeoning “green” campaigning and politics of its day. Boston was, after all, the pioneer writer on real ale who famously much (perhaps too much) preferred gin, or was it whiskey? He was not remotely folksy. I think he was a rather solemn, burdened man, and his perpetual jokiness was some sort of cover. I don’t think he ever articulated a worldview as his own. It stood to reason that he would want Vole to be wayward. There was no party line, but there was neither kowtowing to nor critiquing of Friends of the Earth or the Green (later the Ecology) Party. In 2007 Boston’s erstwhile Guardian colleague and obituarist Mike McNay described it as a “country” magazine which anticipated the environment movement. That’s right if taken to mean that Vole was certainly not Undercurrents and it wasn’t the Countryman either. It was a thousand miles away from Country Living. Richard Mabey was a staple and he and I sometimes went to gigs together, and danced sweatily.

Boston and I did not socialise but I respected without really warming to him. I thought him aloof, and it may be to the point that a certain remoteness was also a feature of Leonard Cheshire, VC,  who was, like Boston, a great practical joker. Boston was born a countryman and lived in the Vole years at Aldworth, a name as rich in literary association as Steep. I thought him Cobbett-like, travelling endlessly (if on a commuter train, not a horse), and always with a bulging fisherman’s bag of review-copy books and his own and other people’s copy. We probably knew each other’s mind more than we supposed. Certainly, I had been brought up on Osbert Lancaster, the subject of Boston’s most celebrated hardcover work. Boston’s output of books was surprisingly slight even in the latter years when he was free of editorial duties. He was always of too large a frame to be squib-like, but others will have to explain his seeming burn-out, if that is what happened.

Boston was not content to have founded and edited Vole, with its shifting coterie of regular writers. He founded and with John Ryle edited Quarto, a literary monthly, which operated between 1978/79 and 1992 before being taken over by the Literary Review. (Kate Hepburn gave it a splendid look.) With some aplomb and brio Quarto had entered a ring with several other contenders. It was filling a gap left by the temporary absence of the mighty TLS and the THES, as their owner Rupert Murdoch successfully wrestled the print unions. (Murdoch’s success gave us the Independent, whose birth rescued my own micro-economy.)  Literary journalism was not remotely my world, but the Literary Review and the London Review of Books were presumably doughty opponents for Boston. What I did notice was that Ryle, a clever and literate anthropologist and Quarto collaborator, seemed to herald a different parade of characters to the Vole offices. For a start he was interested in geopolitics and human rights. He was an intellectual. Craig Raine, the poet and critic, whom I have seen billed as co-editor on at least one Quarto edition, seemed to this bystander tobe quite the star of both London and Oxbridge literary circles. Raine was a fairly frequent visitor and seemed, like Ryle, to be somehow a sign of things to come. Boston kept the content of Vole and Quarto quite apart: but his being capable of such width of interest is an important indicator of why Vole was stylish and literate, as he brought a hint of Cobbett, Sturt, Ronald Blythe, but also something more waspishly 18th Century to the argumentative table.

I seem to have been a regular from the start of Vole. In my monthly Vole-ocipede column I eulogised the bicycle, but steered clear of the terrain well-rutted by the more technical writing of Richard Ballantine. (I was by then a semi-professional part-time bike mender in Simpson’s of Kentish Town but didn’t big that up, I think.) After a few months I decided that consumer and other waste, and the technologies for dealing with them, were even more absorbing and much fresher as issues. Boston let me switch subjects with a monthly outing called The Tip. Since the early 1970s I have always used a bike a lot, but I loved writing about the waste industry and between about 1980 and 2010 I aimed to understand and comment on it a good deal.

I have always been at the very least conflicted in my views, and increasingly realize that I would rather be energized by the fragmentary nature of my mind and being than by some overwhelming unitary vision. Thus, in the Vole years I was an admirer of Ivan Illich, and Norman Mcrae of the Economist. I persuaded the latter, a confirmed optimist, to read several Illich books and write an appraisal of them. He kindly did so with a good deal of spirit. I would say that my other great tendresse at the time was for EP Thompson, the historian of the working class. When I edited Vole, Thompson and I had a couple of very good, very cheap bean soup and kebab lunches in my favourite off-Charlotte Street mom and pop Formica and fluorescent cafe. He seemed admirable for his military service, his being poetic as well as historical, and his great beauty. He was a socialist, but that hardly came into the frame. He was a great anti-Bomb campaigner, and I was happy to have him promote that cause in my pages. I can’t recall when I was simultaneously falling under the influence of Herman Kahn, whose futurism was not unlike McRae’s, but who was rather pro-Bomb, with his On Escalation (which has – so far – seemed more prescient than Thompson’s Bertrand Russell school of CND thinking). After the Vole years Kahn and Julian Simon produced The Resourceful Earth (1984) which was a ground-breaking work of Cornucopianism. It set the challenge which has beset me ever since: is one a Boomster or a Doomster?

When I took Vole over from Boston many things changed. Our new owners were a medium-sized, thrusting, publisher of caravan magazines based in Sidcup. The father was a busy, friendly no-nonsense man with a newish Rolls Royce. He was keen to make this new left-field excursion an unfussed tribute to a son who had recently died. He wanted or needed the “book” style Vole to become an unstapled multi-folded tabloid. Apart from editorial freedom and a temporarily-assured minute budget, the big plus of the new arrangement was that the owner’s remaining son (I think called Mark) was also both trusted by his father and a spunky, talented and competent designer and production editor who relished this new challenge. I found few of the old Vole writers unresponsive to my requests for copy and liked finding strong copyright-free images for the cover. I made some stupid mistakes, mostly in over-reach as I let controversial “explosive” exposés into the paper without (in the worst case) properly challenging the author and cross-checking with his supposed villains-of-the-piece as to the veracity of his claims. (Duly stung, I became better equipped to be the Independent‘s environment correspondent a few years and books later).

But my heart wasn’t really in it. Vole had lost Boston’s muscular elan and eclecticism and not gained in newsy journalism or intellectual value. I was bored with Vole‘s readership, which was seldom appreciative or interesting under my watch (nor had it been under Boston’s). The magazine was neither Arthur nor Martha on my watch. Looking back, I have no idea why I wanted to keep it going, granted that I had no settled picture of what my views were, except that they didn’t coincide with many of my readers’. My guilty failure as the magazine’s editor plagued my dreams for decades after it closed.

Amongst several lucky finds, a few stand out. My then wife’s friend Susan Marling was a senior teacher in a comprehensive and keen to become a journalist: she cut her teeth with some solid writing for Vole. She became a powerhouse independent radio producer, and later we worked on a series for (I think) the BBC World Service on corruption around the world. I first met Charlie Pye-Smith when he seemed like one half a conservation duo, with Chris Rose, as they offered punchy stories.  Charlie became a friend and collaborator, and we still discuss the same green-ish issues.

I gave up on the magazine about the time the new owner did, and suddenly he shut us down. I don’t think it was much missed. Resurgence, under Satish Kumar, had been a presence since 1966 and it still is. Along the way it had absorbed Undercurrents, and thus covered the alternativist waterfront with a cod spiritual twist in a way which did not interest Boston or me. Satish would quite often appear at Vole‘s office and was a very endearing and I think rather kind figure. I rather admired Satish, who had around him a very likable family. There is a pretty good tradition of Britished Eastern gurus who are also efficient entrepreneurs. At any point when I thought him a spiritual humbug pandering to affluent middle class angst, I was brought up short by his charm, which may well have been aware of the comedy in his role. Resurgence would not have been a bad home for a post-Boston Vole, except that Kumar’s magazine was long on a kind of dreaminess which was not remotely Boston. The Ecologist, not least under Zac Goldsmith, looked after the anti-technological Greens. It, too, was absorbed into Resurgence. I do not know for what milieu Vole was the house magazine, and I don’t know how much either of its iterations were missed. Oddly, though, neither Boston’s Vole nor my version of it aimed to be improving, superior or all that gratifying. We were, it is fair to say, pretty questing, but not in a pilgrimage sense.

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Publication date

30 August 2022

Categories

Mind & body