Jason Goodwin: ‘They had to turn up at the office every day and plunge with gritted teeth into articles about sensual transport’

Jason Goodwin tells the tale of partwork magazines, from the A-Z of British silver, the First World War and, perhaps ill-conceived, the permutations of love.

My aunt Miranda is a woman of many talents. A writer, humourist, gardener and serial fixer-upper, she has made her home in a riad (called Maisie) in deepest Marrakech, a Spanish finca and an Umbrian vinegar factory, all of which have provided her with material for a succession of funny books. She is currently settled in Hastings, the Upper East Side of the south coast. There, as an accomplished yogi, she can stand on her head for hours on end, wiggling her toes in the sun.

Close to the outset of a busy career, Miranda got a job with a company producing partwork magazines. Heavily advertised on TV and radio, the first few numbers in a series were sold at the newsagent, enticing you to become a subscriber, whereupon you were fed a new magazine every week, adding up to an A to Z of English silver, say, or the history of the First World War or gardening. You were frequently reminded to buy a special binder to keep them all in and everyone was happy.

‘It would build week by week into a tasteful catalogue of transmissible diseases and sexual positions, from Anchovies on Toast to Zapata’s Moustache’

It was the same principle that got Dickens writing his novels for Household Words. Like Basildon Bond, telephone directories, faxes, getting lost, record shops and pocket calculators, partworks were eventually mostly killed off by the internet, but, while they lasted, they were a profitable way of selling encyclopaedias, bit by bit.

You might assume that all 98 weekly parts were already written and compiled – even copied out of real encyclopaedias – before the publishers turned on the tap and released them to the public, but, apparently, that wasn’t the case.

The first few issues tested the market, so an unpopular series could be abandoned for something more profitable and greater attention given to a series everyone liked, but, once the die was cast, there could be no turning back.

Collection of vintage British 'Sounds' weekly music newspapers from 1983.

Come hell or high water, alphabetically ordered articles on European birds or Old Masters would have to be commissioned and illustrated for 98 weeks on the trot.

All was well until the company decided to launch a partwork magazine modelled on The Joy of Sex, promising to detail all the permutations of love from A to Z. There would be advice on health and relationships and it would build week by week into a tasteful catalogue of transmissible diseases and sexual positions, from Anchovies on Toast to Zapata’s Moustache.

The first editorial meetings were predictably hilarious. The office rang with merry banter as everyone boned up on the subject at hand and the picture researchers found themselves unexpectedly popular.

The partworks came out, covering A, B–C, C–D and D, and many subscriptions were secured. Before long, work settled down naturally to the usual routine. Salacious it might be but, at bottom, it was a job that had to be done: entries for E and F coming up and already some suggestions for G.

However, it turned out that there was something curiously sapping about the subject matter. As the weeks turned to months, the joke wore thin. As months became years, the joke was on the very people who compiled the articles. They had to turn up at the office every day, in the rain, worrying about the mortgage, having just been dumped by a lover, and plunge with gritted teeth into articles about sensual transport.

They faked it, of course. In the office, they faked enthusiasm for everything they weren’t getting at home. At home, they faked enthusiasm for what bored them stiff in the office. They all became bitter and depressed, except Miranda, who worked instead on the gardening A–Z and bought the riad in Marrakech with her lover.