How did The Fence and your involvement with it come about?
I started contributing when Charlie Baker, the editor, enjoyed some of my writing online and discovered we had a few friends in common from our respective times in Dublin. I started out on Issue 1, writing a column in the voice of Flann O’Brien, along with some other essays, and then came on as features editor two years ago.
Where does The Fence see itself within the current media landscape? What void does it feel it’s filling?
The usual slogan is somewhere between the old Spy magazines of New York in the ‘80s/‘90s, Viz and Private Eye. Somewhere in that Venn diagram is the essence of what we’re aiming at. The void we saw was for a print mag that was aimed at (and 90% written by) youngish people in London, one that allowed itself to be punchy, silly and smart within any single issue.
We like huge, serious in-depth investigations into government malfeasance and corporate corruption, but we also like stuff that’s stupid and funny, or just plain interesting.
The content is thrillingly eclectic from iguana hunting, the cost of international arms, equine semen and a choose your own adventure game in recent issues – how does the commissioning process work?
It’s pretty laborious because we accept maybe 5% of the pitches we get, probably less, but we try to respond to every single one we receive. I’d say the golden rule is we have no interest in doing a story that everyone else is doing. First, it’s boring, and second, someone else with a huge newsroom on a six figure salary has probably done it better. Thirdly, a lot of writers – myself included – live or die on staying current when they’re freelancing, remaining stapled to trends and discourses that are en vogue from week to week. At the time of writing, if you search “Chris Pine, Harry Styles” you’ll find dozens of pieces in newspapers and magazines, written in the past 24 hours by columnists, reporters and freelancers all saying basically the same thing.
It’s easy for us to reject those kinds of pitches because we are not a topical mag. In the most literal sense; we publish every quarter so attempting to do bleeding-edge recency reportage would be suicidal. This has its drawbacks, of course, but it’s immensely freeing since one benefit of not fitting in is you don’t have to compete. In the few weeks between now and when you are reading this answer, the events of the Venice Film Festival will be completely memory-holed, whereas 95% of our articles have an infinite shelf life because they’re not usually connected to current events, or things everyone else has picked over to death.
The flipside of that is that once we do a story on something, we ourselves become the people who’ve done it before and the topic is, basically, dead to us. So, without doubt, the least successful pitch you can make to us is on something *we* have covered before. “I read your piece about iguana hunting, and I’ve just done it myself…” is the quickest ‘no’ you’ll ever get.
The range and calibre of contributors indicates the esteem in which you are held, does it feel like you are a place where they can bring stories, ideas, insider insights and investigations without the politics of the mainstream?
A lot of those writers we greatly admire just contacted us, out of the blue, to say they liked the mag, without offering to write us anything. We almost always say something like “pitch us the thing you can’t pitch anywhere else”. Invariably they’re delighted to do so, but it’s almost as if they have to be told. It’s not a freedom that writers anywhere, and the UK particularly, generally have. We’re a small mag that doesn’t carry ads, and we pay every single writer, contributor and artist promptly, but we can’t match the fees of bigger organs, so we find that people who pitch do us do so either because they’re passionate about something they could never pitch elsewhere, or because they’re invested in the mag and its contents to begin with.
That’s a huge bonus to have in a crowded marketplace of places people can pitch to, and means we’ve been extremely lucky to host so many great writers in our pages simply because they have a story they need to find a home for, or because they themselves like the project and want to be part of it, or both.
Illustration takes the po-faced look off words throughout the magazine. Was this decided upon from the outset as opposed to using other mediums such as photography?
The original decision to go against photography was entirely practical. Good photography is expensive to commission, buy and print, whereas illustration takes a bit more time but is cheaper to procure, and easier to print at high quality on our reduced budget. These practical considerations have, however, had innumerable stylistic benefits, since we were able to create a magazine that doesn’t look like anything else on the shelves. Sometimes we get a great pitch that even we admit needs photos to really work. In those rare cases, we apologise and try to direct the writer to somewhere that might be a better fit.
Much, much more commonly, however, it’s a massive plus, since you can create incredibly striking imagery for pieces to which photography would add nothing. Illustrations can capture the spirit of a piece in a way that stock imagery simply can’t, and every choice has to be thought through with intention. You end up with a magazine in which every visual element is in direct and deliberate conversation with the text, which creates, we hope, a much more satisfying read.
Crowd-sourcing from friends and followers is something you undertake quite frequently – can you share one or two favourites?
We begin each issue with Fencepost, a collation of answers to a specific question. The one we did on terrible school trips was a real standout, and showed that British and Irish school kids have been massively traumatised by visits to sewage works, since we got dozens of entries in that arena.
Issue 9 was “worst lies your parents ever told you” and it generated hundreds of responses. My favourite was from Alex Christian, who said his parents “produced a forged birth certificate to try and convince me my real name was, in fact, Hollabazoo”.
Does syndication of your work in the mainstream press serve as a badge of pride? Which feature has had the biggest uptake?
We’re always pleased when one of our pieces gets syndicated by a bigger outlet, not least since it’s a nice pat on the back for our writers, who often haven’t been featured in places like The Guardian, Times or Harper’s before. It’s also a sign that we’re doing good work because we’re punching well above our own weight class as a small, independent mag. Because of the range of things we publish, we find it hard to predict which pieces will do well or not. Our investigation into dodgy goings-on at Brampton Manor, an over-achieving school in London, gained huge press and had us receiving dozens of messages from former teachers and students corroborating the conduct alleged. And then, on the more frivolous side of things, we did a piece called Why Are You Asking Me This? in which we asked incredibly stupid questions of famous people, and that comes back around every few months with a lot of attention. One of the real benefits of being non-topical is that most of our pieces take on an eternal life
How excited is The Fence by the premiership of Liz Truss?
She’s the bold, fresh leader the UK needs to continue its decade-long ascent to ever higher levels of competence, morality and taste.
An annual subscription is £25 for four issues + £25 for postage & packaging so basically €53.17 when we did it though sterling may have taken a leap/dump by the time you read this.