They had their critics but also promising beginnings, and an ‘innocence’ compared to the internet, writes Aidan Smith
The other day, on the radio, I learned that novelists can scratch a living in France because it protects books from the rampant price-slashing that’s the norm here. Meanwhile, kind of summing up the differences between the two countries, we’re mourning the demise of the lads’ mag.
Writers who were given their starts on the titles - work-experience boys who quickly moved from tea-making to ring-rounds for helicopters to “machinegun” sharks to being entrusted with assignments in glamorous or dangerous locations - queued up to lament their passing now that FHM and Zoo have gone the way of Loaded and Nuts.
Obviously gonzo journalism is not what the magazines are - or were - most notorious for. They put women on the front covers and across many pages inside, not wearing many clothes and feigning surprise. They put a wee Scottish lassie, Gail Porter, on the Houses of Parliament, her bare bahookie blown up across part of the building where ten Lords were a-snoozing during the second reading of an especially boring bill. They either created an entirely new sub-species of male or simply held up their hands and said: “Don’t blame us, the poor chap’s out there and we’re just catering for his needs.” This is all so long ago now I can barely remember.
Way back in the 1990s, when Tony Blair was hip and so were Oasis, we were told that guys were in crisis. Thirtysomethings in the main - though some were younger and a few older - they had status and money but were oddly dissatisfied. New Man had emerged during the previous decade, cooking and nappy-changing and getting in touch with his feminine side, but some blokes weren’t ready for the transition while others sneered: “Big jessies.” They viewed women - suddenly more successful and assertive - with awe and trepidation. And they wondered if anyone else felt the same way and would they like to talk about it while watching the game and munching gourmet crisps.
Thus the Lad was born. Was it a genuine movement, or a marketing ploy designed to shift more retro football shirts, George Foreman grills and vintage comedy boxsets? As I say, it’s aeons since Blair had the hand of history on his shoulder, since the Gallagher brothers misquoted Isaac Newton and stood on the (singular) shoulder of giants, and so difficult to be sure. But we certainly know that the Lad was indulged.
He got his own sitcom (Men Behaving Badly). He got hundreds of features and opinion pieces written about him (I know because I was responsible for more than a few). He got his own research department of the British Psychological Society, or so it seemed from the number of shrinks suddenly specialising in his “condition”. And he got his own magazines which celebrated Laddism.
All of which might have made him snap out of his funk right away, if he’d stopped for a minute to think about how lucky he was, compared to the previous generation. If you were a youngish man during the three-day-week 1970s then a half-dark state summed up your life, not just your curtailed TV-viewing habits. No-one told you about the “journey” you’d undergone from boy to man and indeed might still be experiencing because no-one used such ridiculous Californian terminology - and you’d have been too embarrassed to ask your father for advice.
You’d grown up with Benny Hill, Pan’s People, Roxy Music’s album covers and your dad’s “porn stash” which - in the case of one lad I knew very well - was a pile of Amateur Photographer magazines. And you’d have to flick furtively through many sunrises, sunsets, close-ups of bees, long shots of viaducts and experiments with bleeding colours (psychedelia still lingered) before happening across a tasteful nude - black and white, back to camera, wistful expression. Or so I was told, anyway.
Your favourite section of the Daily Express, your home’s second newspaper after The Scotsman, requested by your mother, was the William Hickey gossip column, for the obligatory shot of a pretty actress - Susan George, Madeline Smith, Carol Cleveland or Gabrielle Drake - dressed in a mini-dress and wet-look boots. But that was your lot. “Where William Hickey meets Michael Caine - again and again and again and again,” groaned the punk-poet John Cooper Clarke, in his classic work “I’ve never seen a nipple in the Daily Express.”
Believe it or not, lads’ mags weren’t wall-to-wall with nipples every panting issue, at least not in the beginning. Believe it or not, there was some responsible stuff in them, like: “What to do when your girlfriend finds a lump.” There was good writing as staff responded to the challenge of trying to be Hunter S Thompson in the Easyjet age. There was humour as all the men’s men, real and fictional, were invited to take a bow (though scandalously Gerald Harper as Adam Adamant Lives! was missing from the roll-call). There was the acceptance that men are basically a bit rubbish - that they shouldn’t forget this but not get too down about it. And these mags were not grimly obsessed with the most expensive watch or most desirable car like the so-called upmarket titles, making you feel inconsequential for not being able to afford them.
But obviously there were women, wearing less and less as time went on, as the smart guys who founded the mags moved on, as sales dropped, the irony got forgotten and everything became a bit sad and desperate. Man-boys of the 1970s got away with ogling women. Nowadays the word is “objectify” and of course you can’t do it, as I’ll be telling my young son.
For him, an infinitely more explicit world will be a click away, which is a terrifying thought. I’d like to hand him a copy of Hickey: the Susan George Years, but no such publication exists. Neither, any more, do lads’ mags. Like Gail Porter on the Houses of Parliament, their bum’s oot the windae.