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James Cartwright, Weapons of Reason
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James Cartwright, Weapons of Reason

The final issue of Weapons of Reason, the magazine launched to examine and explain complex global problems, has been published and a book updating the series of eight issues just released. Editor James Cartwright reflects on those eight issues as he looks ahead at his week.

We last met James when he was print editor at It’s Nice That; he has since been senior editor at Eye on Design and contributed to a host of magazines including Kinfolk, Riposte and Benji Knewman. He lives in Devon with his partner and young son, and as well as editing Weapons of Reason he does communications work for the charity sector.

Describe your desk and what you can see in your office
My desk is a table piled with books wedged into the corner of my spare room. Since lockdown began it’s also been my partner’s desk, so there is a constant war of attrition between our computers and stationery and I often don’t know where my notebook is which has all my to do lists in it.

We’ve both taken to sitting on an inflatable ball instead of a chair to preserve our backs, but I’m not convinced this is making a difference to our posture. I’ve been working like this for six years now, and I used to feel embarrassed about it, but now we all do it, so it’s fine.

I can’t see out of the window from my desk, but the view is excellent. We live in a valley in the middle of Exmoor, so I can see sheep and horses and stuff. It’s bucolic, and it makes escaping work really easy.

Are you feeling optimistic about 2021?
Not really, no. It probably won’t be great. I feel like it’s better to be realistic about this year so I don’t end up disappointed. I made that mistake in 2020.

Which magazine do you first remember?
Hello!, which I spoke about in a previous magCulture interview. But the magazine that got me into doing what I do was actually Creative Review. I used to buy it from Borders in my early teens when it came with DVDs of new advertising and music videos. This was before YouTube had everything.

Weirdly, those DVDs were how I got into music like FourTet — in fact I specifically remember the video to FourTet’s ‘My Angel Rocks Back and Forth’ being on one of those. I was a goth at that point, so I would never have thought to venture into the electronic music section of HMV, but if Patrick Burgoyne (Creative Review editor at the time)  said it was cool then I was up for it.

Sadly I don’t have any of those back issues anymore — I cut them all up and pasted them over my bedroom walls. The copies of Creative Review that I still do have are somewhere in a pile of boxes, so I can’t show them to you. Sorry.

Which magazine matters to you the most this morning?
The New Issue, which is a quarterly magazine from Big Issue North. It has loads of interesting in-depth features, the aesthetics of an indie mag, does subscriptions and gives all its profits to Big Issue vendors who, as you can imagine, have had a tougher year than most. It’s a magazine I’d love to write for, so hopefully someone who works there reads this.

Describe Weapons of Reason in three words.
Clear. Comprehensive. Colourful.

The scope of the magazine was set from the beginning. Do you worry you missed more recent subjects?
No. I’m sure there’s stuff we missed, but it’s not keeping me awake at night. The world is complicated and you can’t squeeze it all into eight issues of 16 articles each.

But I think the framework we started out with was pretty solid (environment, population, health, sustenance, technology, conflict, power, inequality) and while we might not have dedicated whole issues to subjects like populism or social media, we looked in-depth at the rise of right-wing populism across Europe and its spread into the rhetoric of British politicians in our Power issue.

Similarly we explored the role of social media companies in exacerbating ’surveillance capitalism’ and enabling different forms of cyber warfare in our Conflict issue. We could definitely do more issues or update previous issues, but I think those eight issues offer a pretty good primer on the main challenges we’re currently facing on the planet. What we do with Weapons of Reason next will attempt to build on that.

An important part of Weapons of Reason was the rallying of readers to help with the issues you raised. Was that successful?
It’s a tricky one to gauge. As a print mag we don’t have a way to quantify or measure whether people took action on specific issues or not. I’d love to think that they did go out there and join a protest, but not all of the action we were encouraging people to take was traditional activism. Often we were directing people to read about an issue in more depth, or sometimes to sign a petition — things that were a bit more low-key.

For me, the most rewarding bit of feedback that we’ve had from our readers has been from teachers and lecturers who use the magazine in their classrooms. A-level and undergrad geography students in particular have found it really useful apparently, and if it’s shaping the way they see the world then that’s more than we could ever have hoped for really.

You’ve worked on some very different magazines – I’m thinking It’s Nice That, Eye on Design (above) and then Weapons of Reason. As an editor which was more satisfying?
Oof, what a question. I loved working on all those magazines at the time and they all taught me a huge amount. It’s Nice That was really the place where I learned to write (1500 articles in 3.5 years, welp!) and then to edit mags, and then Eye on Design helped me refine those skills and improve my long-form writing. Both jobs were fairly similar because of the focus of the content, although they were very different design titles.

Weapons of Reason has always been a huge challenge though, and for that reason it’s always been the most interesting to edit. When I first took it on I was way, way out of my depth and I felt deeply ignorant about the subject matter. That hasn’t really changed. Every new issue begins with the same feeling of knowing nothing and having to learn about a subject before commissioning articles, but gradually I’ve become more comfortable with that sense of unease.

As for crossover, there are plenty of similarities in terms of how you go about mapping out a magazine, commissioning content, and then editing it into a reading experience that feels like more than the sum of its parts. I think I’d be a crap editor of a design magazine now, though.

What’s going to be the highlight of this coming week for you?
I’ve just started work on a new book with Danny Miller (Weapons of Reason’s publisher) and this week we should have the structure finalised. Doesn’t sound like much, but once that’s done the whole thing will fall into place, so it’s a big milestone.

If the sun comes out and I can get outside that might steal the top spot though. This winter has been LONG.

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