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The greatest editor who never was

Remembering Ann Barr, a mentor with a diamond-sharp eye for detail

Anthony Gardner | May 6th 2015

I’d been trying to get into journalism for two years, and was close to despair, when Ann Barr—who died on Monday aged 85—gave me my first break. I couldn’t have asked for a better apprenticeship. As features editor of Harpers & Queen in the 1970s and early 1980s, Ann helped to create the quintessential magazine of that era, proudly bearing the spineline, “The world’s most intelligent glossy”. Her diamond-sharp eye for trends and detail made “The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook”, which she edited with Peter York, into an unexpected million-seller.

This acuity was masked by a nervous, chaotic exterior. She was sometimes mistaken for a bag lady as she travelled to and from the office weighed down by typescripts and newspaper cuttings (though at parties she could look resplendent in her favourite Thea Porter jacket, embroidered with lobsters and other sea creatures.) “I don’t know, I don’t know,” she said when she interviewed me in the lobby of H&Q’s Soho offices. Her eyes raced across the editing test I’d been set. “You’ve done this bit well, but you’ve missed that. I don’t know.” At that moment a rumpled figure in jeans and gym shoes passed us on his way to the lift: Loyd Grossman, the magazine’s design editor and restaurant critic, whom Ann perceived to be an enemy. “Perhaps we’ve got too many men on the magazine already,” she said. “Oh dear.”

Realising that any decision made then and there was likely to go against me, I suggested that I leave her to think about it. A few days later I was offered the job of trainee sub-editor.

H&Q’s fossilised social pages, Jennifer’s Diary, were often mistaken for the core of the magazine, but Ann’s features explored quite different worlds. The first issue I worked on in 1982 included an article on herpes and a gay plague in New York: one of the earliest mentions in the British media of what would later become known as AIDS.

Ann’s pride and joy was Barometer, the much-imitated page of short news items which she gathered from a far-flung network of contacts and polished like haiku. Tim de Lisle—another of her protégés, now editor of Intelligent Life—believes that “she more or less invented crowd-sourcing, while Barometer anticipated Twitter by about 30 years.” Barometer’s greatest moment came in the mid-Seventies, when it correctly predicted Harold Wilson’s resignation as prime minister in favour of Jim Callaghan, scooping all the political commentators. I once attended a party for Ann’s “Barometeers” on the roof of her flat in Notting Hill. My first impression was of the most desperate gathering of misfits, bores, wastrels and social butterflies I had ever seen. Few would have lasted two seconds on Fleet Street, but Ann had a genius for discerning qualities invisible to others, and to her eye each contributor was a rich seam of information and wisdom. Her zest for talent-spotting had already given rise to the 1978 teenage issue, whose adolescent contributors included the future novelist Rose Boyt, the painter Emma Sergeant and the fashion entrepreneur Johnnie Boden.

The Barometeers were the backbone of “The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook”, supplying a wealth of snippets which Ann wittily and painstakingly interwove with Peter York’s social analysis (usually delivered as a page of handwritten notes at the 11th hour). It was her misfortune to be less confident and photogenic than Peter, who consequently became the face of the “Handbook”—something Ann increasingly resented. Two years later, in 1984, came “The Official Foodie Handbook”, which she co-edited with Paul Levy, anticipating the whole celebrity-chef, restaurant-culture revolution.

She seldom talked about her private life, though I gathered that she’d grown up in Canada and been in love with a poet. Her favourite sounding-board was her sister, who was never seen in the office but was apparently the archetypal Sloane, affectionately referred to as “Mrs Average”. Ann was loyal and generous to her staff and contributors, and to a large extent they became her family, augmented by a parrot called Turkey.

Ann and Willie Landels, H&Q’s editor, were once described as “the most stylish team in London”. Willie, however, was also the art director, and for Ann the battle for space between words and pictures became a personal one. In 1984 she joined the Observer as women’s editor; but she was always a glossy-magazine person at heart, and ten years later she returned to edit Barometer and write minutely researched, beautifully crafted features. It was terrible to see her wonderful mind eventually overtaken by Alzheimer’s.

Ann was an exacting boss, but because she had been a sub-editor herself, she always made us feel a valued part of the magazine, unlike the galley-slaves in some other offices. (We were even given the coveted perk of reviewing restaurants, under the pseudonym of Evelyn Grubb—rhyming slang for sub.) For our part, we valued every word of praise, knowing that anything we could do, she could do better. “Ann was the greatest magazine editor who never was,” says de Lisle. “She showed her protégés how to treat copy with loving care, and pioneered many of the staple ingredients of today's features pages, from sidebars to graphics showing how people were connected to each other. It was appropriate that she ended up with a pet parrot: dozens of editors, whether they knew her or not, found themselves echoing Ann.”

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