Charles Baker, The Fence
London magazine The Fence is a rare example of an indie launch into the current affairs sector, and has been quietly developing a keen audience for its mix of satire, exposé and fiction.
Presented in graphic black and red, courtesy of art director Mathias Clottu, the magazine has a confident, classic look that reinforces the strength of its writing, while sometimes providing a false sense of calm that belies the nature of the stories being shared. It’s also notable for its rich, hand-drawn illustrations. We hear from editor Charles Baker as the team get down to work on issue nine.
What are you up to this Monday morning?
The builders next door start work at 8am, if they are working with pneumatic drills, then I go and work in a cafe, but today the drills are put to one side so I can work from home, which is cheaper for me.
I work at the kitchen table, and we live in a basement flat, so it is hard to tell what the weather is like outside, which puts you in a nice, neutral frame of mind. but it is also irritating, as there is no phone reception, so I spend a lot of time going outside to make calls.
I am the only person working at the magazine full-time, my colleagues Séamas O'Reilly and Fergus Butler-Gallie work one or two days a week, so we spend a lot of time on the editorial WhatsApp group, which is where we discuss commissions and plot up the schedule.
Today, Fergus and Séamas are both working with me, which makes everything much more fun. John Phipps, who has just left the team for a staff job at 1843, is still in the WhatsApp group and sends us some funny selfies from Italy, where he is on holiday. We write nearly all the comic material in the magazine, and today we spend some time divvying up tasks for issue nine. We have the idea of a new format 'Desert Island Shits', where you ask someone in the public eye who the eight worst people they've ever met are, and we then debate which celebrity would be best to ask, and how best to approach them.
After that, there is a commission for our ‘facts’ section which has come through, it's a really good piece, but we all have a bit of back and forth about how to make it just right for our readers. We also work out a piece we can do on Peter Hitchens, who is something of a muse for us.
Séamas works out a piece that we can do on P Hitch, and then gets to grips with that. Fergus is writing a feature on the worst bar in London, as voted by TripAdvisor, and so he goes out to do another recce of the establishment.
I then speak to Alex Christian, who is my colleague in charge of distribution and internal design tasks. He has all the magazines stored in a business park, so we go through the orders and make sure people have entered their address correctly and all the rest of it.
I then spend a couple of hours doing all the admin with the emails that come in, which I genuinely enjoy doing, as it gives me a sense of the business’ expansion. We do all the distribution in-house, which takes up a lot of time, but it means that I interact with all customers, which is lovely, really, as you get a feeling that people are really enjoying the product we're making. It's very thrilling watching the sales come through, especially when they come from writers whose books I had on my shelf when I was a teenager. I try and respond to all pitches that we don’t take, too, and delete all the emails we get from Chinese fence companies who think that we literally sell fences.
The magazine is expanding into more reportage and long-reads, and I have spent a lot of this summer looking for London-based stories, before offering them up to feature writers. We are doing a big story in the next issue which needs to be legalled, so I spend thirty minutes on a Zoom call with the lawyer, and the writer, Michael Gillard, who is to my mind the best investigative journalist in the country, but is also very funny, too. He keeps making me crack up during the meeting, but the lawyer obviously keeps a straight face.
Fiction is a key part of what we do: there are loads of exciting young writers around and we want to champion them, to have their work presented in a unique, beautiful format, which some other literary-minded publications don't do. We commissioned original work from Rebecca Watson and Sophie Mackintosh in previous issues, and for Issue 9, we are having a story from Cathy Thomas. I spend a couple of hours adding comments to the piece. I try not to be too intense as an editor, and I have been lucky enough to work with some older writers I really admire, and I always ask them what they think editors shouldn't do, and then try not to do that.
I then go for a walk around the neighbourhood to speak to a source for the newsletter. John Phipps had the great idea of setting it up, and because it is so popular, we have now moved it weekly. I write most of the content, and Séamas always does the links, which are very popular. It's every Friday, and it's fun to write something to deadline and under pressure, especially when it's a quarterly magazine. I then go shopping for supper, and go back and clean all the coffee mugs and papers away before my girlfriend gets back, and then discuss everything we've done via WhatsApp, including all the pitches that have come through over the afternoon, and also to discuss what we're going to look at for the next day.
Are you feeling optimistic about the future?
It is my job to be optimistic about the future! COVID wasn't part of anyone's business strategy, and I am very grateful that because we are a small, nimble operation, that we were able to weather the storm. I also think we couldn't do this print magazine anytime but now: social media and newsletters are extremely helpful for quarterly print magazines.
What magazines matters to you most this morning?
Spy magazine is our number one influence, and I have shamelessly looted their archive for ideas: the restaurant critic-critic series and this article are two examples. Also, as (Spy co-founder) Kurt Andersen said in your 2013 post, attacking people the whole time has a soul-sucking quality, so we try and keep things positive, and not try to upset people for the sake of it.
What would you not cover?
We try to stay out of the culture wars, so anything falling under that umbrella is something we are unlikely to commission. We are trying to make a magazine that people look forward to reading, and that writers are proud to work for, and I don't think we have any grand aims apart from that. The name was inspired by a few things, a ‘fence’ as a criminal conduit, a fence quite literally as a fence, it’s a pun on The Face, which was a big inspiration, and was dormant when we came up with the name, but has now been revived brilliantly by Matthew Whitehouse and his team.
It’s also inspired by Zadie Smith’s ‘Fences’ essay which she wrote a few years back, about how communities, groups and individuals in London sort of live fenced-off lives from each other, which struck me as being both very true and not a good thing.
How do you find insiders?
I worked for a couple of months in factual TV when I graduated, where I spend a lot of time either a) giving my ideas away for free or b) approaching academics and writers and trying to extract their work for free, which I found dispiriting, but I also realised that if you are trustworthy and give your time to people, then people will speak to you. This piece about the SAS which we published last summer came from someone who I knew from my TV days, who my bosses were not particularly polite to, and we stayed in touch over the years, and then I asked them to write for me, now that I had a platform and could pay them.
I have good contacts in TV and finance, and my girlfriend works in fashion, so I always have good stories from those industries. I If you develop relationships with people, which generally means 'don't hassle them', then the scoops start to follow.
How do you and the team work with art director Mathias Clottu?
I send all the texts to Mathias with a flatplan, and then we spend about an hour a day on the phone for a month having chats about what to do, and then I will go to his studio twice before we go to print. Mathias is brilliant, and has taught me how magazines work. With some of the illustrators, they have carte blanche to do whatever they like along with the texts, and then with others we send more detailed suggestions about what to draw.
What comes next for The Fence?
We are moving into an office in Soho, which is going to make everything much easier. Now that COVID has receded we're developing events, and also a merchandise line, which I can tell you is not a tote bag series. But we are growing at a sensible rate, the magazine is giving lots of readers some crumbs of joy, and giving 5-6 people a small monthly stipend, and those are the two things that are always foremost in my mind.
The Keir Starmer comic is a perfect illustration (!) of how we work, whereby Fergus came up with the title pun, and then we spent some time discussing how to write it without being too offensive, and then Séamas came up with the sequencing and words. John Broadley then added some details there which hugely enriched the piece, the last panel is from Saatchi and Saatchi's campaign from 1978: ‘Labour isn't Working.’
What will be the highlight of your coming week?
Sending the newsletter on Friday afternoon, after a day of being flustered about it, and then going to buy a takeaway iced margarita from the pub next to my house. They are absolutely delicious and more pubs should serve them: that's my tip to the food and beverage industry.