Interview with the Editor
by Jim Coulson
From learning the banjo with Ricky Tomlinson to eating sausages with Gary Barlow, it has been an eventful first 100 issues for Northern Life editor Karen Shaw. And she wouldn’t change it for the world…
Giving up a well-paid job with a company car whilst heavily pregnant for what Karen calls ‘winging it’ in the world of independent publishing would not be everyone’s idea of a sound career move, but that is what makes Karen, and Northern Life, stand out from the crowd.
And she didn’t even force me to write that line. Promise. This is what happened when I was tasked with interviewing the boss to celebrate 100 editions of Northern Life:
The Keighley lass recalls the story behind the magazine’s early days: “I trained as a dancer at Trinity Laban down in London, then I moved back up north teaching dance workshops in schools. But I couldn’t get a mortgage because I was freelance, and in them days you were seen as high risk!” she says. In order to get on the property ladder, she decided to look for what she terms ‘a normal, boring job’ with the intention of getting the mortgage and then quickly going back to dancing. But it didn’t quite work out like that.
“I ended up getting a job at the Burnley Express, selling the classified adverts in the agricultural section,” she laughs.
However, she made a success of the role and was poached by the rival newspaper as a sales rep with a company car, but the corporate office world wasn’t for Karen, “I had to wear a navy suit, sensible shoes and a lemon T-shirt!”
Eventually she landed a job at a local publishing company working on a national education magazine and after gathering more of an creative insight started to think more about the other side of the business.
“When I was young, I used to sit there going through my mum’s Kay’s catalogue for hours,” she laughs. I’d cut the models out and re-stick them in the catalogue. “I always fancied being Lynda out of Press Gang [80s kids TV show about young journalists], I also wanted to be Private Benjamin, Juliet Bravo or Annie Sugden (but only when she was making cakes!)”
Karen’s dad took it upon himself to dispense some typically tactful northern father’s advice. “He said, ‘blinkin’ eck, Karen, I’m sick of hearing you moaning about this job. If you’re not happy with it, change it’,” you’re young enough to go back to square one!” she laughs. It was then that a series of events conspired to allow Karen to unleash her inner Lynda. Frustrated in her current position, eager to learn more, but feeling ‘pigeon-holed’ she decided to carve out her own future.
Karen knew what she had to do. She parked up the posh company car outside her previous office and for the first time in ten years took a bus home. Setting up her office from the edge of her bed with just an idea, a laptop, a phone and a baby and three months later in April 2004 Northern Life exploded into the world.
“It’s a platform to showcase the wealth of talent we have in the north. A celebration of our northern culture, past, present and future. Over the last 17 years Northern Life has included thousands of people’s poems, short stories, memories, photographs.
“We have people coming in to the office with their poems and memories on the backs of envelopes, but it’s got that credibility because that person has put that effort in.”
One person who has certainly put the effort in is former national press photographer and buddy Eddy Rawlinson. Since they met at Northern Life HQ over 15 years ago, Eddy’s expert advice and guidance washed down with countless G&Ts have spurred Karen on. “In the early years I made so many mistakes in the magazine and Eddy would just say, ‘Never mind lass, that was yesterday. What about tomorrow?’ And it’s that philosophy that Karen holds dear to this day.
“Nothing is ever going to be perfect, it’d be boring if it was,” says Karen. “Eddy’s taught me not to dwell on the negatives and no matter what, get out and make a difference.”
The magazine was, and remains, a reet real family affair. Right from the start, Karen’s father-in-law, the late artist Alec Pearson, had his own column, ‘Alec’s Sketchbook’, her dad Frank is the distribution manager, mum Jenny is the What’s On Guide editor and husband Chris, now chief designer, left his job as a professional musician working for Jive Bunny 14 years ago and ‘mucked in’.
“I have a degree in dance, my dad is a retired engineer and my mum was a dinner lady and later a doctor’s receptionist. Not one of us are trained in what we actually do!” I don’t have a clue what’s going on, I just pretend I do. We’re all just winging it.”
And it was this family bond that kicked the whole phenomenon off. “We all had to muck in to get the first magazine out,” says Karen, “when it first came out, I thought it was a Bobby Dazzler, all 68 pages of it littered with spelling mistakes throughout.
One of it its loyal army readers and contributors. And there’s one contributor who introduced himself The publication continued to go from strength to strength and, one day, on a trip to Nelson to buy a fireplace, she came back with a new building on Scotland Road instead. The office upstairs was for the magazine staff with the downstairs used as a gallery for local artists, jewellery makers, potters and anyone else who wanted to show off their skills.
It was here in 2009 that Northern Life changed from being free to a paid-for publication, but not for the reasons you might expect.
Karen had spotted a man shuffling into the gallery and helping himself to a handful of magazines on a daily basis, shoving them into his bag and leaving. After a few days she asked him what he was doing and he told her he was taking them around his various clubs for his friends to read.
“I said ‘that’s very kind of you’ and he shuffles back out of the shop,” Karen says. “Anyway, the following Sunday, I went to Clitheroe Auction Mart and there we see this man, proudly strutting around his stall, with my magazines with 50p stickers over the word FREE!
“I thought, fair play to him. He’d almost sold out. If he’s going to do it, I’ll do it!”
As the magazine reaches its 100th edition, Karen can look back with pride. With the flagship magazine, as well as Family magazine, Colne Life, Craven and Valley Life and their new look website in 2022 they’ve plenty to keep themselves occupied.
With over 300 magazines under her belt and three children, Karen also finds the time to volunteer at The Pendle Hippodrome in Colne editing, designing and producing their in-house magazine, Footlight Forum. Next year she will begin choreographing their production of Made in Dagenham in between eating and sleeping.
“I’ve been proposed to by Bill Maynard, played Les Dawson’s piano, played sax with Jimmy Cricket, a brew with Bobby Ball, partied with Alexander O’Neal, ventured on to the dark side with Darth Vadar and fallen in love with Michael Palin!
“I can’t imagine doing anything else now,” says Karen, and my dad is always keen to remind me “Who’d ever want to employ you? You’re unemployable!”