In 1983 I was unemployed, after several obsessional years as a nature photographer. I freelanced by selling articles with photographs to publications like The Countryman, Wildlife and the house magazines of the RSPCA, as well as ‘how to’ articles on topics like macrophotography of insects for the photographic press. A caravan dweller in the Ayrshire countryside, I was broke. I had reached a limit on how far I could develop my photography without substantial borrowing. Writing was a cheaper art to practice. I found my interest shifting.
Leafing through The Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook I discovered Reader’s Digest as a possible outlet. They paid a whopping £1,000 an article. Too ignorant to realise the odds stacked against me, I discounted the gloomy prognostications of the tutor on my postal writing course that the Digest was ‘becoming a very difficult market […] taking almost nothing from new freelancers’; I decided to write for them.
One takeaway bit of advice from my correspondence course was ‘study the market’. I analysed Reader’s Digest articles. I found the name of an editor there to write to. Speculatively, I wrote my first piece. Hedgehogs seemed a cheerful and innocuous-enough subject, so I laboriously typed that initial attempt on my Smith Corona manual typewriter, titled it ‘Meet the Humble Hedgehog’, and sent it off.
Two weeks later I received a typed reply from George Pollock, the assistant editor. ‘Dear Mr Cambridge,’ it went, ‘thank you for sending in your entertaining and interesting article. Unfortunately we covered this subject [x] years ago, and are not yet ready to return to it.’
I scrutinised this response. To my youthful eye, it was encouraging. I sat down and wrote another article, ‘Ancient Dragons of the Modern World’, about dragonflies, conducting all my research, as before, in the Dick Institute reference library in Kilmarnock.
This produced the same response, as did a third article. But when he replied to the latter, George Pollock included a photocopy of new research about bats, and added: ‘[…] but might you be interested in writing a piece for us about bats? We last covered this subject [x] years ago, and are now ready to return to it.’
I fell on this assignment with all the fervour of a young man to whom £1,000 was a fortune. I scrutinised recondite textbooks. I tracked down bat experts and interviewed them from the public call box at Cunninghamhead Crossroads, highly embarrassed at the ‘pips’ when the phone needed more money. The stress gave me a dull pain down my left arm, but three weeks later I sent my piece, and waited.
Back came a typed letter from a different editor, asking over thirty questions about my article. To answer them – I worried that if even one couldn’t be answered my article would be rejected – involved several more library visits and another two phone calls with a bat expert. (Reader’s Digest liked authoritative quotations from experts.)
To my astonishment, the editors approved my article, with the proviso that it had to be ‘passed’ by the US headquarters in Chappaqua, NY, before they could make an offer of publication. Two weeks later, a letter from George Pollock arrived. Success!
I immediately proposed another article, on kestrels. The ‘hook’ was that this small falcon, the commonest in Britain, could be seen as a success story. Mr Pollock noted that they had not yet covered this subject so, without being officially commissioned, I wrote my piece, sent it off, and had it duly accepted in the summer of 1983.
When I suggested yet another, this time on tawny owls – the UK’s commonest owl and therefore one that could also be portrayed as flourishing – George Pollock invited me to the magazine’s London offices. He asked me to phone him. I did, nervily, from a friend’s telephone. (I worried Mr Pollock would find me rankly amateur if I phoned from a call box.) They offered to fly me down but, chary of the expense, I said a train ticket would be fine. When I finished the call, I told my friend, the writer Samuel Gilliland. ‘What?’ he said. ‘They can well afford to fly you down, Gerry. Phone them back.’ I did so and a plane ticket, for returning the same day, was posted to me.
So it was, one hot August morning in 1983, aged 24, I visited London for the first time. Reader’s Digest’s offices were then in Berkeley Square. I was met in the office lobby by an assistant. We ascended, symbolically, numerous floors in the lift to my audience with publishing power.
I was an obsessive young naturalist sweating and stuffed into a too-small jacket. George Pollock was a civil middle-aged gentleman two years younger than I am now. It could all have gone horribly wrong. Conversation was awkward, no less so when I was introduced to the decidedly posh Editor-in-Chief, Michael Randolph, though it eased when my enthusiasm for a painting by the bird artist Raymond Harris-Ching – who had illustrated my ornithological bible, the AA Book of British Birds – in Mr Randolph’s office made me forget my self-consciousness.
They took me out for lunch at what was doubtless an exclusive restaurant. I realised I seemed to have something valuable to them: enough experience of the natural world to write about it, with feeling and some authority, in a suitable style. I left the meeting with further potential assignments, a ‘kill fee’ of £200 for any unused article, and an expense limit of £200 per piece. By 11pm that hot August evening I was back in the oven-warmth of my country caravan, bewildered by my big-city day.
And so began my love-hate relationship with this small-format, mass-market magazine. Its predominant underpinning of self-improvement, light humour and basic optimism pitched at ‘the common reader’ had proved winning since its US founding in 1922. The UK edition, begun in 1938, by the mid-1980s had a monthly circulation of 1.5 million copies — a fact displayed on the cover of each issue.
Between 1983 and 1988 I wrote thirteen articles for them, often on nature themes — weasels, jackdaws, pine martens, spiders, swifts, eagles, puffins. Discovering that earthworms had potential to regenerate old mine workings was a hook into a whole feature about these lowly creatures. I recall conversations – by this time I had had a telephone installed – with scientists cagey about their research on earthworms as recyclers: considerable money, it appeared, was involved. My article about yew trees meant investigating the extraordinary history of the yew longbow and visiting what may be Britain’s most-venerable tree: the Fortingall Yew in Perthshire, possibly 2,000–3,000 years old. Fascinated by stars and planets, in 2005, the year before Halley’s Comet, I proposed an article on amateur astronomy, and bought a small astronomical telescope out of my research expenses. The travelogue I wrote for the magazine about Orkney meant visiting numerous islands in this fascinating Atlantic archipelago.
Halfway through those years the magazine increased the fee for an article to £1,500. In two mornings’ research and a morning’s writing in late 1985 I penned ‘Dear Diary’ for them, on keeping a journal — perhaps the easiest money I ever made from writing.
I believe I was one of their youngest-ever regular freelancers. Any other Digest writers I encountered on my London visits were in their fifties and sixties. I was young enough to cringe when one editorial assistant said, ‘I shouldn’t tell you this, but [X, an editor] says you’re the closest thing to a born Reader’s Digest writer she’s ever seen.’
I quickly began to find the rigid, formulaic style required oppressive. But I also took a craftsmanlike satisfaction in writing these pieces. Typically, the editors wanted 3,000 words — which they would edit to 1,500. Each piece was rigorously fact-checked, and had to be backed up with reliable sources. It was a useful training in the basics of journalism.
By 1988 though, I could no longer write in the style they needed. A disastrous attempted phone interview with a caustically suspicious expert on weasels was the final coup de grâce to my Digest career. I began to explore poetry as a free space of expression for ‘the truth’. I spent the next decade in literary poverty.
30 years on, in the UK at least, this former institution is almost invisible. In 2010 a Daily Telegraph article reported that the recession-hit magazine could ‘fold’ within weeks. In 2014 the UK edition was sold for £1 to a venture capitalist. An average of 17,000 copies per month sold in the first half of 2017. And George Pollock? He died in 2007, aged 81, a decade after Michael Randolph, his former boss.
As for me, I can never step onto the platform at Euston station without a strange, small, lifting of the heart — a bittersweet nostalgia for a young man, bird-gawky, flushed, in a too-tight jacket one hot August day thirty-five years ago, standing gazing up at those illustrious offices among the plane trees of a city square where, so the old song had it, a nightingale once sang.