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Features / Publication

Back of the Rack: We get to know eight of the most niche magazines occupying the newsagents’ shelves

First published in Printed Pages Autumn 2014

Words by

Liv Siddall

Illustrations by

Oscar Bolton Green

On the hottest day of 2014 I was lying on the rough, ribbed carpet of London’s largest WHSmith outlet, my arm deep in the bottom shelf of the magazine section, trying to reach a copy of Choir and Organ magazine. As I grabbed one and made a move to stand up a voice behind me said, “Excuse me, would you mind passing me one of those?” In the studio we talk a lot about the state of print; that endless debate, as boring and well-trodden as it is depressing. But rooting around on the floor of Smith’s made me wonder how it’s possible that, when plenty of new independent magazines fail to get past their first issue, publications such as The Searcher: The Informed Voice of Metal Detecting are still going strong? So I decided to go on a quest to review a selection of magazines currently on sale in the UK.

A certain level of snobbery occurs when flicking through the magazines that weigh down the shelves in bookshops and service stations all over the land. But as I sniggered at a copy of Skirmish: The Living History Magazine I realised I was surrounded by people all spending their lunch hours poring over this vast selection of niche publications and quickly felt ashamed that I had arrived, unannounced from my own, design-oriented, holier-than-thou world into theirs, just to have a giggle at their expense and retreat back to east London to write a “quirky” article. My mind wandered to the shelves of London’s art bookstores and the crushing misery you experience upon discovering your favourite art publication has just folded for lack of funding. Art and design titles like ours are on more precarious ground than Today’s Railways magazine.

So what inspiration can we take from the magazines reviewed in the next few pages? Perhaps that a magazine need not have interviews with the coolest, newest people, well-photographed or illustrated by the go-to artist of that year. It’s simpler than that. It turns out you need passion first and foremost, and plenty of insight and context. That and a really well-edited letters section…

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The Searcher: The Informed Voice of Metal Detecting
Sure, we’ve all seen topless fat guys on beaches walking along with metal detectors, but did anyone realise just how much of a big thing metal detecting is? The Searcher is a monthly (monthly!) publication edited and published by a woman called Harry Bain in Guildford, Surrey, which informs readers of news in the field – excuse the pun!

I always thought metal detectors were just greedy chancers, but this publication shows that it’s actually an extremely rewarding hobby in lots of different ways, and that the level of historic knowledge you need to become a true detectorist is pretty staggering. It genuinely makes you want to go out and buy a metal detector.

The first section is called Widescan (which is a reference to a metal coil found on most detectors). This is an informative news section of the publication containing exciting discoveries, the winner of a spade giveaway, and a really nice story about a man who, while trying to locate a lost wedding ring in some long grass, stumbled upon a hammered penny.

What’s best about The Searcher is the letters page; a treasure trove of people announcing where they’ve found exciting bits and bobs and metal trinkets. One highlight comes from a man called Edwin Tailford who won the magazine’s best coin award in 2013. “It could not have come at a better time for I am waiting to go to hospital with the detectorist’s nightmare… a bad back, and do not know how long it will be before I can hit those fields again! It hasn’t half cheered me up.”

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Military Modelling
Of all the magazines in this feature, I’m tempted to say that this is the most niche. Military Modelling is a publication that’s been going for 44 years and is a comprehensive guide to making your military models as realistic as possible. The first ten or so pages are crammed with adverts and listings, which didn’t bode well for the content within, but further along the articles and features are truly eye-opening. On page 16 of this issue is an interview with a guy called Andy Argent who gives a detailed account of the making of a statuette called Lieber Johannes (Dear John), based on a “selection of photos of grenadiers and panzer crew that were fighting on the Eastern Front in Kharkov in the winter of 1943.”

The level of detail involved in making these models is extraordinary, and there is a step-by-step photo guide to how the model was made to look as realistic as possible. There’s a model tree advert that states “It’s a jungle out there… so make it realistic!” Another great article shows the reader how to create incredibly convincing dry rust and chipping effects for model doors and walls using a selection of pigments and brushes. In fact the interviews and features in this magazine are not dissimilar to those you might find in any art or design magazine. The only difference is that the skilled craftsmen interviewed are generously sharing the secrets to their success, meaning you can replicate their genius at home.

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Today’s Railways
Another monthly magazine here; issue 151 of Today’s Railways is published by Platform 5 Publishing Ltd in Sheffield. One feature entitled The Hammersmith & City 150 Years On looks very enticing, and others include The Class 57: Chris Booth looks at the story and survival of the 33 Class 57s rebuilt from Brush 47s – which may as well be written in a different language of you’re not a seasoned trainspotter.

A further flick through the issue reveals TFL’s plans for Old Oak Common, lots of articles about funding, new access ramps on the Jubilee line, and a lot of photos of train stations. There’s a bit about the roof at Farringdon station and a nice article on a steam train in Hampshire. At the back there is a directory – basically just a train timetable – to let trainspotters know where to be at what time to catch a glimpse of their chosen mark. I have to confess that Today’s Railways is quite a tricky read unless you absolutely bloody love trains and train stations. But then I suppose there’s thousands of people out there who really do get their kicks on the platforms of Paddington station – and this is the title for them.

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Master Detective: Summer Special 20 All True Murder Stories
Admittedly, this is a spin-off magazine taking the best bits from other publications such as Master Detective, True Crime, True Detective and Murder Most Foul, so I’m not sure if it counts as a magazine in itself, but we’ll let that slide. The front cover boasts some truly disturbing features within, such as Execution by Firing Squad: Full Report, Scotland’s Head in a Bag Horror, and South London’s Shocking Bedsit Murders. I’m not proud to say this, but I really go in for this shit. We all do. Ever wonder why nearly all the books in service stations are about murders? We dig horror, and the publishing world is just picking up the coins that fall from our pockets as we jump to nibble at the terrifying carrots they dangle for us.

Anyway, you can kind of guess the contents of this magazine; a bunch of real-life horror stories punctuated with old photos of children, and men being led away in handcuffs. One article, entitled My Life in the Sex Farmyard is about a murderer and sex pest who enjoyed having it off with chickens – very disturbing, but hard to resist reading. The rest of the contents go from kind of interesting, to sordid, to plain gratuitous, and if you’re squeamish then the pull-quotes alone are enough to put you off your lunch. Even so it’s compelling reading and really hard to put down.

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Practical Sheep, Goats and Alpacas
Phew! Nice to get away from all those grisly murder stories and get down with some of the world’s most entertaining animals; sheep, goats and alpacas. Primarily this magazine is for people who own or look after herds of these beasts, and provides tips and advice on how best to rear them. For people like me (and I would imagine you) this is just an excuse to look at loads of funny pictures of sheep. The opening page has a really friendly editor’s letter describing the beauty of nature and the changing seasons, with a quote from a Philip Larkin poem and a photo of said editor (Liz) on a tractor.

The best bit of this issue is an article called A Lamb With No Anus written by a man called (I kid you not) Jack Smellie. The guys behind this magazine seem to really know their audience as there’s also a piece that asks the reader Do you need a tractor? closely followed by an article entitled Where to Buy a Tractor. The only downside to the whole magazine was a photo on page 23. I did not need to see close-up evidence of infection on the underside of a sheep’s hoof. Nobody does.

Where Today’s Railways felt very much like a niche magazine, Practical Sheep, Goats and Alpacas turns otherwise rather odd articles like Fibre: The Joy of Using a Drum Carder into tempting, readable features using clever design trickery. It’s colourful, lively and fun, and I don’t think there is one photo in the entire magazine that doesn’t feature someone smiling.

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Kindred Spirit: Sharing spiritual wisdom for over 25 years
Kindred Spirit boasts articles about spiritual development, therapy reviews, food and numerology. When I picked this up I was pleasantly surprised to find an insightful look at modern day spirituality tackling subjects such as the effect social media has on our lives, and whether or not to home school your kids. It opens with a charming reader-sourced feature inviting people to submit wise sentiments that “resonate well and inspire us to live joyfully and with heart.” These quotes range from Buddha to Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho and are illustrated with images like those you might see on the walls of a spa foyer.

The letters section is a total dream: one woman writes in worried that her friends think she’s weird for leaving parcels of food out for the faeries in her garden. There’s also a great feature about the impact the Beatles’ trip to the Indian ashrams had on the rest of the world in encouraging open-minded spirituality.

The only drawback to Kindred Spirit is the overuse of wistful stock imagery (pebbles stacked on top of each other and feet poking out of hammocks). To be honest though that’s not really a bad thing as it somehow managed to make me feel totally chilled out – these guys must really know what they’re doing. Like many of the magazines, this is a doorway into a whole world that I had preconceived assumptions about but never actually understood. But it promotes the social aspects of spirituality; the festivals, circle dances and other opportunities to meet like-minded folk. Did you know there is an annual UK Shamanic Conference? Thought not.

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Choir and Organ
This was the only magazine I bought that, upon opening, was chock full of leaflets and fliers. Very cool! Anyway, Choir and Organ is a monthly magazine edited by a woman called Maggie Hamilton that looks at all the goings-on in the surprisingly intense world of organs and choirs. As well as going into a fair bit of technical detail about the ins-and-outs of brand spanking new organs, this magazine seeks out composers, conductors and proms directors for interviews alive with passion and professionalism. It’s useful and inspirational at the same time, with a five page directory of international pipe organ builders nestled in the centre. The palette used in the design reminds me of the soft furnishings in the living room of a priest, or choirmaster – lots of dusky reds and golds and warmth.

Apart from some good articles about creative composers in World War One, there isn’t much unexpected going on content-wise in here, just loads and loads of articles about organs around the country. Which is great, if you’re into organs. It’s professional, intelligent and has a real touch of class. Unlike Sheep, Goats and Alpacas, it probably can’t be enjoyed by everyone.

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Skirmish: The Living History Magazine
Ah yes, Skirmish: The Living History Magazine. There’s a lot of this stuff going on at the moment in the UK; people gathering in Greater London playing fields to throw javelins at each other and drink mead. This magazine is for those people, sure, but it actually covers a much broader spectrum of reenactment including Zulu, Lace Wars, Frontiermen, The Dandy Chargers, The Ragged Victorians and The Poor Bloody Infantry among others. On the first page editor Dave Allen boasts that, “this issue has more pages, better quality paper, and a thicker cover” which is pretty rare; not many niche titles can afford to splurge on more expensive paper weight and I doubt many would have the courage to boast about it either. But then, the photos of the battle reenactments show happy crowds of hundreds, nay thousands, gathered politely behind ropes to watch the battles commence, which indicates why this magazine is doing so well.