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CASE STUDY: independent media

Laura Sevier

1st January, 2009

It’s the polar opposite of the glossy celebrity and lifestyle magazine, celebrating the personal and the everyday. Laura Sevier meets the creative force behind Karen

Most lifestyle magazines present a glossy, airbrushed, idealised version of life to aspire to. Karen magazine does the opposite. In Karen, images of food are unstyled (at first, I mistake a close-up of a Ryvita spread with pâté for cat sick), clothes are unfashionable, people are ordinary-looking and their jobs are unglamorous – a butcher, a coalman and a housewife instead of models, actresses and pop stars. There are no must-haves, best buys, it-bags or beauty tips. There aren’t even any adverts. It certainly makes for a refreshing alternative.

Don’t be fooled by its name, which is a play on other magazines named after women (the Marie Claires and Bellas of the world). Here is a magazine bold enough to celebrate everyday life – the small, the personal, the untrendy –as it is, whether sad, funny, messy or mundane. ‘Made out of the ordinary’ is its epigraph.

The latest issue, which features a half-eaten bread roll and takeaway coffee on the cover, arrived on my desk a few months ago like a breath of fresh air. A quick flick through revealed a goose-pimpled bum on the beach, a close-up of a greasy fry-up, and thoughts from the local butcher.

It’s the one-woman project of Karen Lubbock, who runs the magazine from half a rented 19th-century farmhouse in a Wiltshire village. The content is composed entirely from her everyday experiences – extracts of conversations (‘meet me by the poop heap tomorrow’), photos of neighbours, friends and other people she meets, found ephemera, personal statements and observations.

‘I knew it was risky and a bit nuts,’ admits Karen, ‘but I absolutely believed in the content of work.’ We’re drinking tea in the cosy farmhouse living room. Although she describes herself as ‘pretty ordinary really – I have two cats, I like Coronation Street…,' I detect a quirky streak. She has a twinkle in her eye, a star tattoo on her wrist and a cracking sense of humour. She fizzes with energy.

Karen first started to put the magazine together in 2003, a time when ‘celebrity culture was just about to peak in its saturation of all the mainstream media,’ she says. ‘Which is one of my reasons for making my work – as a kind of antidote to this.’ It is also a response to how ‘ordinary life’ is mediated. ‘You know the kind of sensational stories like “Mum killed my boyfriend but we’re okay now!." Everyone knows that’s not what life is like.’ Karen, in contrast presents ‘the smaller voices and little details of life.'

An underground hit

Nothing could illustrate this better than when, mid-sentence, Karen pauses and looks distractedly out of the glass door. It appears a man with a cap is wandering around the garden. ‘Oh, that’s Alan. He’s come to check his mole traps. Can I just go and say hello to him?’

She disappears and I’m left to get a better look at the room. It’s pretty rustic. There’s an old Rayburn stove, which gives the place a faint smoky wood smell. I notice a coal bucket, a TV and some dried corn cobs hanging from the wall. Outside in the garden I spy overgrown vegetable patches, an apple tree brimming with coxes, and molehills galore.

On Karen’s return, the conversation inevitably turns to moles. ‘I wouldn’t normally do moletraps – this is the first year I’ve ever done them, but it looks like we’ve had an ugly rugby match on the lawn.’ Do the traps kill the mole? ‘I’ll have to ask Alan.’ Has Alan, her neighbour from the village, been featured in Karen? ‘No. But the moles will be in the next issue. I don’t know much about catching them but I know a little bit and it’s quite interesting.’

For me, this little mole moment sums up what Karen is about. Yes, the magazine is cleverly conceptual and critically acclaimed. David Shrigley from The Observer newspaper wrote in an article entitled ‘The best-kept art secrets in Britain’ that ‘Karen succeeds in weaving its humble subject matter into something poetic, profound, absurd and joyful. One issue of this magazine is more interesting than every issue of every other lifestyle magazine in the world put together.' The Herald Tribune newspaper called it an ‘antidote to a culture of celebrity.’ The fact that it’s not trying to sell you anything and is a brand-free, corporate-free zone also means it’s an antidote to a culture of consumerism. Yes, it’s all of these things. But it’s mainly about life, as it happens. Moles and all.

Also appearing in the next issue, (‘it’ll be ready when it’s ready’) will be a wedding, the cost of hospital parking, vets, online bingo, maybe sheds (‘I’d like to work in a shed’)….

It’s an eclectic, humdrum lineup, but I can’t help thinking what a little oasis of sanity it represents in a time of global economic doom and gloom. As newspapers run articles on austerity, thrifty living and savvy saving (albeit alongside glossy ads for holidays, cars and mascara), more people are questioning the ‘buy, buy, buy’ mantra of consumerism and starting to ask ‘why?’ Does happiness really reside in a new sofa or a pair of peg-leg trousers? Especially considering that UK personal debt stands at a huge £1.44 trillion?

Against this backdrop, Karen’s focus on the fabric of everyday life, rather than on the must-have of the month is timely and useful. It keeps things real. Her readers agree. Karen shows me an email from a fashion stylist from Canada: ‘Reading it I felt a bit weird… a bit sad, a bit shocked. Maybe because it’s so far away from all the fashion magazines I’m used to reading… I think we need magazines like yours to “break" a bit that fake feeling that “my life is fashion-glamourous, so trendy and forward thinking”. That whatever you do it’s not so extraordinary….'

Another reader commented: ‘I wish we had a magazine like this in Brazil.’ Readers from Canada and Brazil? I’m intrigued. Karen says the readership is not gender-, age-, nationality- or culture-specific. There is something about this little magazine, and its sense of ordinariness, that seems to translate cross-culturally.

An advertising revolution

At £6.50, Karen is admittedly a bit pricey, but it’s not the kind of magazine you throw away. It is beautifully produced, which makes it more akin to an arty book. As a ‘break from fake’, a good dose of it could help treat bouts of affluenza (placing high value on money, possessions, appearances and fame when you already have enough income to meet your fundamental psychological needs).

It comes as no surprise to discover that Karen has ‘never been in debt’. ‘Growing up, the family philosophy was that if you’ve worked for it and can afford it then you could consider buying it. But still no impulse buying. And then things had to be taken care of because you couldn’t go and chuck it out and buy a new one.’

Karen funds the magazine from her own ‘little purse,’ which is made possible by her day job – running a small graphic design business with her partner. Would she consider advertising in Karen? ‘That’s how magazines keep going. Through advertising and sponsors. I just wanted a space that was a break from it because there’s enough of that everywhere.’ In the first issue, very quietly, she advertised ‘people that I liked’. There were small classifieds in the back for bantom eggs, encylopaedias and so on.

Will it ever be a mass-market magazine? ‘I’m never going to be printing 100,000 copies – I can’t afford to do that – but each issue circulation has gone up. The first was a test. I did a vox pop in the local library and in the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) foyer,and thought, “this could be a goer...”’ The second one went further. She’d had some press by then and a distribution company took it. This one, the third, has gone more international. In 2005 it won the Emap Publishing Award for Best Lifestyle Fanzine, with judges declaring it ‘an utterly original publication’. Karen has also been chosen to represent the UK at the Colophon 2009 in Luxembourg, an international symposium for indepedent magazines.

Not bad for someone who, aged nine, was told by a teacher at junior school in Grimsby, ‘you’re not creative – you’ve got no imagination,’ and who never set out to have a career in magazines. She used to live in London’s Elephant and Castle. ‘In that life I was a social worker – for 13, 14 years.’ On moving to Wiltshire she pulled pints in local pubs and picked potatoes on a nearby farm ‘for weeks on end.’ At this stage she’d never been near a computer. Then her partner, a graphic designer, told her she had ‘an eye for colour’. Informal computer lessons ensued and then she decided to train properly. It was during her graphic design degree that she began to make things that featured ‘people who were in my life and bits of conversation. The magazine grew out of the work – my passion for it, my intent and my education. It is not a vanity project or a whimsy hobby.'

She does other work in the style of Karen, too. At a Nottingham cinema she spent a day there talking to people and taking pictures. The resulting show was then projected on to the walls of the cinema café bar.

Local news for local people

Does she read women’s magazines? ‘I don’t buy them but I might have a flick through in the hairdresser’s.’ This isn’t down to ‘pious isolation’ but more a case that ‘there really isn’t a magazine for me – and I don’t think I’m unusual in that.' She is more inspired by the parish gazette. ‘I love it because you get up to date with little bits of news.’

In fact, while studying, she produced a local magazine ‘not about the village but for the village,' which ran for a year. Every Sunday after two o’clock she walked around the village for an hour or so taking photographs. There was a cow issue – just pictures of cows – and a fields issue. She invited people to contribute or comment. ‘It was very low-tech: A4 laminated paper with a plastic envelope for people’s comments.’ At first it was attached to a telegraph post, then Alan made a notice board out of old scraps of wood next to the post office. People did make comments – some wanted to sell something; others were simply: ‘Really like this. Good idea.' One lady, Sue, wrote nature notes based on observations made while out walking her dog.

An unusual trait of the magazine is that Karen lets people speak for themselves. ‘I don’t have to angle it or comment. It just is. I’m a filter for it.’ The extracts of conversation mostly have no contextual information. It’s just boom! – straight in there. She juxtaposes an image that might be related to the words – or might not. ‘Like life. There is no linear process through the day. All sorts of things happen, many of which you can’t predict – what you talk about, hear, who you meet, what you think. I want to embrace that.’

The result is that on every page is a surprise. There are little gems in there – the coalman, for instance, says: ‘manual workers wear out their bodies, office workers wear out their hearts.' Some words are blown up to headline size – ‘My neighbour Ben’s got a cold, he’s had it all week’ – perhaps a cheeky poke at how magazines spin a celebrity doing or saying a pretty ordinary thing into a sensational story. There’s a page that states robotically three times ‘Go to position 5 please’, followed by a blank page, and the small, sad words: ‘John died today’. Yes, this is the stuff of life, both the minute and the monumental, as it is lived. As one reader comments on the website: ‘It’s about direct language that people really use, not “media speak” aimed to make some big sell.'

Another reader notes Karen has been picked up by a US trend website (apparently ‘ordinary thinking’ will be big in 2009). Ultimately, Karen is part of a wider movement. ‘There is a slow-moving trend towards personalisation of things in your life, towards the smaller stuff – the fabric of the everyday: people, conversations, relationships,’ says Karen. ‘We’re starting to see more of this in the mainstream press, too.’ With the looming threat of recession, the focus is shifting from fantasies towards what is authentic, real and tangible. Simple, ordinary pleasures seem more important. ‘I’ve been saying this since 2003. Now it’s becoming “in vogue".’

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Laura Sevier is the Ecologist’s Daily Life Editor


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