Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 30 September 2014

The Fortnight’s reading that lasted 40 years

Fortnight magazine served as a cultural oasis for four decades. Former editor Malachi O’Doherty mourns its passing

The imminent closure of Fortnight magazine signals the shrinking of the space for political and cultural debate in Northern Ireland. But it was a long time coming.

Coinciding with the demise of the Bookshop at Queen’s, which brought down the shutters in August, it is an occasion for nostalgia and sadness.

Both were centres for discussion and meeting between many people of diverse interests who, for tiresome decades, had few other points of contact.

That they are both gone might suggest that neither is as vital to the cultural health of Northern Ireland as it once was.

But the actual reason for their fall is simpler: money.

Fortnight was started in 1970 by the academic lawyer, Tom Hadden. The mission at the time was to provide an alternative to a polarised newspaper Press.

Hadden and his allies were right to argue that the media we had then were inadequate to the challenge of exploring and explaining the sectarian mess.

Newspapers were either unionist or nationalist and much of the discussion on television served the appetite of the medium itself for contention.

It was a good show if a debate ended with Ian Paisley tearing off his microphone and storming out of the studio, but it didn't advance understanding very much.

Fortnight has lasted 40 years, changing form several times. Its name became a joke for it became a monthly magazine and then one of varying frequency.

I was editor for three years from 2003. Other editors down the years included Rudie Goldsmith, Andy Pollok, Robin Wilson, Leslie Van Slyke and John O'Farrell.

Given that it struggled to survive and had to be underwritten by its directors, chiefly Tom Hadden, the support for Fortnight must stand as a distinctive act of cultural philanthropy.

As effective owner, Hadden gave editors a completely free hand in shaping the magazine.

Other funding support came from the Arts Council and, at times, the Community Relations Council, each of which tried to persuade the magazine to become self-sufficient. That was never really going to happen.

Yet, decade after decade, Fortnight was published for its small coterie of dedicated followers, which included many of the big names in politics and culture here.

When I took over as editor, I devised a campaign to attract advertisers. They couldn't hope to reach a mass audience, but they could get the eye of important people.

The line was: “You want a minute with the minister? Then advertise in Fortnight; the minister reads Fortnight.”

It didn't work. Nothing seemed to work, other than Tom Hadden's dedication and chequebook.

Part of the problem was the decline of interest in magazines generally.

Once I brought the latest issue to the English Society at Queen’s, to a poetry reading by the amazing Sinead Morrissey.

We had an interview with her inside. I left a free copy at every seat in the lecture theatre.

Nearly every single copy was still there when everyone had left. I couldn't even get students to accept a free magazine.

And the media culture had changed. The big newspapers are not as rigidly tribal, or party-poltiical, as they were.

What seemed radical in Fortnight in 1980 — having nationalist and unionist columnists in the one outlet — is normal now. Yet Fortnight sold more copies here than similar political and cultural journals that it was modelled on — the News Statesman and the Spectator.

And while it wasn't having a massive impact on a wide audience, it was serving an important group who needed it and will miss it. It could devote more space to the arts than they get elsewhere. We have, for instance, a thriving poetry culture here, but there are few other places where local poetry is reviewed and published.

It served the fluid and ever-changing community of writers and other contributors as much as its subscribers.

Fortnight brought new people into journalism who now write for the mainstream media.

It worked with academics to help shape some of them into more accessible writers, while it provided a platform for some of the outstanding political thinkers in our universities who don't write newspaper articles, though perhaps they should.

Once, in support of an application to the Arts Council, I listed more than 90 people who had contributed to the magazine in a three-month period: writers, cartoonists, photographers, critics and poets.

That was a sizeable contribution to culture here.

As with the closing of the Bookshop at Queens, the end of Fortnight will probably be recorded as an unfortunate consequence of economic hard times, combined with the changing culture in which fewer people are reading.

And, on top of that, the specialist areas of Northern contention in politics and culture are not so hypnotically charged as they were when agreement was out of reach and people were dying.

There is truth in all of that and those of us who had stewardship of Fortnight may wish we had done better.

Still, for all that, they deserve a salute for the work they did.

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