Curb Your Enthusiasm
The Bangor-based magazine celebrates the collective zeal, writes Susan Tomaselli
In The Gotham Handbook, American novelist Paul Auster set artist Sophie Calle life-affirming tasks on ‘How to improve life in New York City,’ including, but not limited to, smiling and talking to random strangers.
Auster wrote: ‘With so many things driving us apart, with so much hatred and discord in the air, it is good to remember the things that bring us together.’ In a culture which is increasingly apathetic, one NI magazine not only echoes Auster's ethos, but embraces Ralph Waldo Emerson's maxim, ‘What is a man good for without enthusiasm?’
The Enthusiast, described as ‘Britain's fastest growing non-literary literary magazine,’ is co-edited from Bangor, Co Down, and Whitstable, Kent.
Founded in 2004, the quarterly magazine - and subsequent almanack - is a miscellany of eccentric writings, pronouncements, spurious advice columns, recipes and quizzes, visually enhanced with old-fashioned scientific illustrations, all dedicated to the notion of enthusiasm.
Though it would be expected for an enthusiast to shout their enthusiasm from the rooftops, the two editors curiously wish to remain anonymous. ‘Even if we said,' thay say, 'You would hardly know who we were. But we shall be good health to you nevertheless.’
The magazine's birth was, apparently, a direct result of outside forces.
‘It was the coming together of major energies in the culture, a response to a widespread call for belligerent optimism. Not that we think there’s a great deal to be optimistic about just at the moment, what with imperial wars, cultural stupefaction and so forth.
'But really, pessimism never got anybody anywhere did it? We wanted to put together a magazine that embraced the sum of human activity, in the midst of which, we are convinced, lies the key to transformation.
'And, we wanted to make something. The Enthusiast is a thing to make and do. We invite contributions from all classes, creeds and genders.’
Scan the rack in any newsagent, and you will see a proliferation of magazines dedicated to all sorts of interests, produced for people from all walks of life.
Equally, there are other literary magazines in a similar vein to The Enthusiast, magazines which eschew a traditional treatment of literature for more playful ministrations; The Believer, The Chap and The Idler.
It is the the good-humoured contributions that define the gently mocking style of The Enthusiast. The result, a cornucopia of amusing and sometimes eccentric writings that give the magazine a vaguely familiar yet unique voice.
For example, ‘Why not be an author?’, endorsed by Dave Binchy and Ken Deighton, offers the public the chance to ‘earn millions of pounds and become a literary colossus in your spare time.’
The personal ads and services recall those of the celebrated London Review of Books (LRB): ‘Retired gent, 68, into Tomb Raider and Doom, seeks Lara Croft look-alike with own bungalow.’ Or, ‘New leaves. £6.50 for 2lb bag. Mulch also available.’
‘We have a resident comic genius by the name of Paul Barker. As far as we know he doesn’t write the LRB personals, but they would no doubt be a good deal funnier if he did.’
Aware of the other literary magazines on the market, the editor remains philosophical about the competition.
‘The Believer we never miss. We can’t get enough of what those people think about books. Really, they’re so smart. We love the way they put their sentences together.
‘As for The Chap and The Idler, we have to admit these slipped off our reading lists some time ago. Not that we want to cause any offence, it's just that idleness is as idleness does.
'Enthusiasm is for action and taking charge of your own reality. Put it this way, the idleness of The Chap and The Idler is one of the problems The Enthusiast came into the world to address.’
Committed to pleasure, optimism and the general raising of spirits, the magazine takes the business of enthusiasm seriously. So seriously, in fact, that it runs an annual Enthusiast of the Year, its long-list probably the only time you will ever hear Gerry Anderson, Melvyn Bragg, Alan Titchmarsh, Johnny Depp, Viktor Yushchenko, Django Reinhardt and Bangor Rugby Club mentioned in the same breath.
‘The relevant credentials will no doubt be obvious,’ the editor cryptically notes.
Bangor features prominently in the pages of the journal, as does Whitstable. Both seaside towns and both, it would appear, hotbeds of enthusiastic activity.
‘Man, you wouldn’t believe it. Every week there’s something, some festival, or gallery opening. In the civic centre you can do Pilates, or Tai Chi on a Friday night. People gather in the town square, and debate the direction of civil policy.
'Architects consult inhabitants on the requirements of new buildings. Not that we should present our towns as models of collective activity, but yes, it’s true, somebody is always up to something. Maybe it’s the sea air. Or maybe it’s the fact that you can’t get Channel 5. Wasn’t Brighton once a centre of international modernism?’
Of course, in today's world there is no shortage of phenomena that wear one's enthusiasm down.
‘Let’s see: the state of modern politics, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, division along religious lines, the weight of bureaucracy in public life, the stupidity of television, the bit between 8.30 and 9.00 on the Today programme.
'The lowest common denominator, the state of modern letters, house prices, mortgages, public sector salaries, built-in obsolescence, Gordon Ramsey, the breakdown of public trust, the cult of individualism, Adorno, Starbucks... not that much.
‘Our movement would be less robustly international were it not for the World Wide Web, though we’d be grateful - as men of a certain age - if people didn’t keep reminding us of our degradation. As for writing in general, yes that has certainly had an impact on The Enthusiast. In fact, writing in general is pretty much exactly what we’re about.’