An email pings into my inbox from The Oldie magazine’s publisher James Pembroke. “Would you be interested in resurrecting The Erotic Review?”
It’s been thirteen years since I commissioned lubricious writing and I feel like I’ve evolved. Lads’ mags have been and mostly gone, Tinder has arrived, and a new generation – the Millennials – are patrolling the frontiers of sexual exploration. There’s less tolerance for casual sexism, but a more open-minded take on gender fluidity and polyamory. Half the young women I meet describe themselves as bisexual, or non-binary – meaning, “Don’t you dare hem me in with your dreary woman-loves-man heterosexuality”.
And yet, the great mass of online pornography is not only distasteful, it’s boring and involves no imagination or emotion. To heighten the gloom, people feel depressed by global politics. It could be a relief to seek distraction in human intimacy.
So, maybe the time is right for an erotic revolution – especially for middle-aged romantics who are looking for something that delves into the wider realms of love and passion and is as philosophical as it is fun.
I email James and we arrange lunch.
Friday 21st October
Blanchette on Soho’s D’arblay street is a suitably intimate restaurant for two people plotting an erotic magazine. I’ve known James since 1993 when he first joined the Oldie. By the time we’re munching on frogs legs, we appear to have half-formed a company. We just need a name for our magazine - a friend suggests Between the Sheets, which strikes the right level of sauciness and literary intent
Sunday 27th November
We’re keen that our magazine is a flirting aid, something which couples can read to one another in bed. Now we have to register the name and persuade newsagents to stock us. Disaster. James discovers the name Between The Sheets is already trademarked by a bed linen company. We spend the rest of the day enlisting friends to help us come up with an alternative title, which mustn’t sound too ludicrous on Radio Four. People have to imagine Jenni Murray saying it.
Susanna Forrest, my former assistant editor on The Erotic Review, messages me to suggest a title: The Amorist. A quick Google reveals the following definition: a devotee of love, especially erotic love – also one who likes writing about love. The Amorist it is.
My first day in the Amorist office. Although it’s really the Oldie magazine’s office, which we are sharing. On one side there are wire-lesses and Latin grammar, on the other camiknickers and the lexicon of love. The editor of the Oldie, Alexander Chancellor, wanders in grinning like a naughty schoolboy. I’m thrilled to be sharing an office with one of journalism’s great figures – but he’s not feeling well and dashes off for an appointment on Harley St.
James and I are driving to WH Smith’s HQ in Swindon to persuade them that there’s a place for an intelligent magazine about sex. We won’t succeed unless we’re placed on the middle shelf, alongside the Spectator, the Oldie and the Literary Review. I explain I’m a mother of two sons with a spouse to mollify, so there’s no way the Amorist can scare the horses. “It’s a general interest magazine for people who are generally interested in love and passion” I explain. When we are told there is no major objection to Smiths stocking us, I almost burst into tears of joy.
James Pembroke emails staffers the terrible news of Alexander Chancellor’s death. It’s almost impossible to take in. Alexander was so vibrant and alive on Wednesday and was phoning the Oldie on a daily basis from his hospital bed. We’re all devastated.
A stray email piques my interest. The writer attends Japanese bondage workshops and has submitted spellbinding reportage and a portfolio of sketches and watercolours from the events. She’s a petite, elegant, well-spoken woman in her fifties and tells me about tying and suspending models without cutting off circulation. I sign her up as a contributor.
Harry Mount is to be the new editor of The Oldie. While nothing can compensate for Alexander’s loss, this is reassuring news. Harry’s a thoroughly lovely man, but at 47, he’s even younger than me. I wonder how he and the Oldies will fare sharing an office with my dream team - three middle-aged women with six sons between us and the menopause staring down the gun barrel.
I’m chairing a 2pm discussion panel at Sotheby’s on erotic art. The star guest is Pamela Anderson – in her role as Coco de Mer’s brand ambassador. I later find out half a million people watched the Facebook Live recording and wish I’d had my hair blow-dried.
When I catch up with the Baywatch star later, she tells me she’s co-authoring a book with Rabbi Schmuley Boteach titled The Sensual Revolution to counter the worst vulgarities of porn. I ask if she’d consider being interviewed for the launch issue of the Amorist. To my amazement, Pammy says yes. The writer Cosmo Landesman is also on my hit list. He’s notoriously candid, just the person to review sex-toys designed for men. There’s far more serious, well-designed, occasionally eye-boggling, gadgets around than there were 13 years ago. Hot Octopuss’s Pulse III has multiple speeds and a Turbo Function. I wish I could say the same.
We’re taking sneaky delight in staging all our meetings with sex-toy manufacturers at the swanky Riding House Cafe near Broadcasting House. There’s nothing like looking at a violent-hued dildo while BBC bigwigs and famous actors are sitting behind you. When we met the couple behind the online erotic emporium, Jo Divine, Romola Garai was at the next table. Kyrsty and Louise from Ann Summers come to tell us about a 24-carat gold-plated Lelo vibrator – a snip at £10,000. I wonder how the average hen party will react to Harrods’ prices.
James and I are the Bonnie and Clyde of Eroticists and headed to Waitrose HQ in Bracknell. The chap who greets us is younger than I was expecting and spots a Stephen Appleby cartoon entitled “a rather nice orgasm”. He says it might shock some customers, but my local Waitrose in Cambridge, is anything to go by, packed with smart school run types – I’d say it would perk ‘em up.
We’ve signed up some extraordinary talent. A fortnight ago I bumped into Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson, strolling arm-in-arm with his wife Jenny De Jong. I waylaid him and asked him if he’d write about the erotic rewards of fidelity. The final article is so wise, moving and true that it makes me weep a little. From the sublime to the hilarious: we send Cosmo Landesman his first batch of sex-toys to review He phones later and says he’ll test the top-of-the-range toy from the online sex emporium Bondara, which retails at £289. If Jeremy Clarkson can test-drive a Lamborghini, why shouldn’t Cosmo take the Bentley of male vibrators out for a spin.
I infuriate my staff by deciding we must have a letters page. I fire off 80 emails in the hope ten or so busy people will respond with amusing missives. Jeremy Paxman does and is as splendidly grumpy, as I hoped. “‘Oh, just what we need. Yet another magazine about sex.’
The Amorist is going to press. We’ve exceeded our own expectations. Pamela Anderson mentions hot flushes and historian Francesca Beauman has revealed the first lonely hearts ad to be placed in NYC: a “gentleman” advertising for a woman, “under forty, not deformed”. At 9.30pm we send our final pages to the printer, pop the champagne and toast our cover girl – a classic 1940s’ pin-up, “Neat Trick”, by the artist Edward Runci.
Theresa May’s calls a General Election on Thursday 8th June. We all groan. With due deference to Jeremy Paxman, I think another sex magazine is exactly what the world needs.