It was 1986 and I had dutifully signed up to the Enterprise Allowance Scheme, making merry with my £40 a week, and started my own business. Margaret Thatcher – had I cared what she thought about me, which I most certainly didn’t - would have been proud. I was being a good girl, after all. Or perhaps not. For my business wasn’t hairdressing or photography. It wasn’t secretarial services or catering. It was publishing. And feminist publishing at that.
Sorry to keep banging on about the year but for those not around at that time, it’s hard to explain what a political cauldron it was then. Margaret Thatcher was in power. The scars of the miner’s strike had yet to heal. Wapping. Westland. The GLC. You get the picture. For people of a certain age those words can still make the hairs on the back of their neck rise. But the most important thing to realise was that with such a strong ideological Tory government (‘the lady’s not for turning,’ remember that?), the sub-culture – if that’s what you want to call it – was under attack. But, by God, it was fighting back. In some ways, it’s never been stronger. Whatever you were – working class, gay, female, pacifist, communist – there was an organisation for you. And the idea that we don’t need to fight for those things now, that these times are ‘post-feminist’ is ridiculous. You only have to have half an eye on what’s happening to women and minorities to know that.
But I digress. Let’s return to those heady, feisty days of the eighties when you wore a white poppy on Remembrance Day and a UB40 t-shirt every other day.
So yes, I’d signed up to be my own boss and by doing so had triggered a whole raft of organisations to descend upon me with business training, offers of funding, mentoring etc etc.
Some were a joy to work with. The Prince’s Trust, still a great organisation, understood immediately what the point of the magazine was, helped me draw up a business plan and offered financial support.
It was not so easy with the others. Most were run by middle-aged men in suits who frankly didn’t know anything about publishing, less about feminism and sweet FA about creative writing. It wasn’t their fault but neither was it much help. Made worse when my business plan and financial forecasts didn’t fit into the usual groove.
Nevertheless we ploughed on. By now it was a ‘we’, thanks to my wonderful friend, Louise Stewart. Together we determined to make our magazine, Aurora, a reality.
It’s all a bit hazy but I’m sure it took at least a year to get Aurora off the ground. There was no shortage of publicity, both local (I was in Liverpool at the time and the Merseyside media were generous in their coverage) and national (Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, no less). Contributions of writing flooded in. Our little PO Box was overflowing with literary goodies. And we had subscribers too. Not masses of them but enough to know that we had indeed found a gap in the market. Yes, there was Virago, and yes, there was the Womens’ Press. Both brilliant. But what we were offering was something more easily digestible than a book or novel, a magazine full of short stories, poetry, interviews with women writers. Edited by women (myself and Louise), designed by women (well, that never happened but we did try) and with illustrations by women (no problem there, we had illustrators, brilliant illustrators, queuing up).
And what we produced wasn’t half bad. The first issue had contributions from Anne Born, Jill Dawson, Janice Galloway and Carol Ann Duffy and we launched it with the help of chain-smoking genius Beryl Bainbridge, Heidi Thomas (now a BBC screenwriter famous for Call The Midwife among others) and Liverpool poet, Gladys Mary Coles.
So, I hear you say, with all that clout, why wasn’t it a success? Why, you might ask, aren’t I reading it now? Good questions. Answered in one word: Distribution. Or, two, if you’ll allow: lousy distribution. Or three: bloody dreadful distribution. Am I making myself clear?
There’s no other way of saying it but the distributors of Aurora just couldn’t be arsed. They had massive circulation periodicals on their books and we were small fry to them. A large proportion of the magazines we sent them – the magazines we’d slaved to put together, to raise money for etc - never even left their warehouse, let alone made it to the hallowed shelves of WH Smith. In fact, when we folded, which we sadly did because of non-existent cash flow due to poor distribution, the distributor even had the cheek to ask us to come and collect the piles of Auroras festering in the warehouse. What’s the point of having great publicity if you can’t buy the product?
It wouldn’t matter these days of course. You could download it, order it online, print it out and wear it as a hat. But in those deep and dark days of Duran Duran and Derek Hatton (1986 remember?), it was WH Smith or broke. And we were the latter. Literally.
Creditors did indeed turn up on my doorstep, though they were sent away with a flea in their ear by my debt counsellor. But even he couldn’t wipe out what I owed. I paid it off at a measly amount a week, finally clearing it in my early thirties. Living with debt is miserable and demoralising. I could write a whole other blog about that but it would be even more depressing.
Am I proud of Aurora? Apart from the odd typo, yes.
Would I do it again? Not in the 1980s, but today, yes, yes, yes. There’s still so much to say about womens’ writing, so much to admire and so very many brilliant women writers out there desperate to be published. Mslexia has beaten me to it but maybe, just perhaps maybe, Aurora helped pave the way. And for that – and for being one of the first to publish Carol Ann Duffy in 1986, did I mention that? – I am very proud.
I called the magazine ‘Aurora’ after Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s groundbreaking novel/poem ‘Aurora Leigh’. But Aurora also means dawn or dawning. And yes, I think it was.