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Olden Life

Regulars | By Nigel Andrew | October Issue

Ronald Searle’s Molesworth cover, 1956

What was the Elizabethan?

The Elizabethan (originally the Young Elizabethan) was a ‘magazine for teenagers’. It lasted from the 1953 coronation of the Queen – after whom it was named – until 1973, when the Age of Aquarius had decidedly taken over from the New Elizabethan Age.

At the time of its flourishing, I was only aware of the Elizabethan because I knew that some of the great Nigel Molesworth’s musings on life had appeared in its venerable pages (composed by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle, as featured in The Oldie’s August issue).

What a long-lost world this high-toned ‘magazine for teenagers’ opens up – a world of intelligent and highly literate youngsters (it was avowedly aimed at grammar school pupils) with interests that ranged from books (above all, books) to world affairs, history, model-making, astronomy, nature, cycling, photography and ponies. One issue in my collection advertised a Heinz ‘Cowboy’s Breakfast’ colouring competition with three ponies on offer as prizes. If you didn’t want the pony, you could opt for 200 guineas (yes, guineas) in Premium Bonds.

There is not a whiff of celebrity (in the modern sense) or fashion, relationship problems or gossip. And the only concession to pop music is a monthly record round-up by groovemeister Sandy (The Boy Friend) Wilson.

The excellent books page is written by Noel Streatfield, author of Ballet Shoes – the October 1958 issue has a photo spread of up-and-coming ballerinas, all very elegant and ladylike, a far cry from today’s stringier, more athletic dancers.

The same issue contains an interview with the eminent Nigel Calder on the future of space travel; a piece on art auctions by the Daily Mail’s art critic; Nigel Molesworth (hurrah!) on a shopping trip with his imperious grandmother; part three of Mist over Athelney by Geoffrey Trease, a novel set in the time of King Alfred; a piece by Tom Pocock on the life of a foreign correspondent; and an account of the sinking of HMS Birkenhead.

Another of my issues (June 1958) has a fine piece on Venice by James (now Jan) Morris. This, like everything in the Elizabethan, is writing at a high level, with no condescension to the young audience, who clearly needed no talking down to. The writing competitions are pitched at a level not far below the New Statesman or Spectator, but with less humour, and there are picture and (decidedly challenging) crossword competitions every month.

The letters page is framed as ‘Your Questions Answered’ – often ultra-sensible questions about pursuing interests and career possibilities, finding pen friends… One letter asks for Dame Margot Fonteyn’s address; another – from Elizabeth de Vere Stacpoole of Harrow-on-the-Hill – asks how to get information on fencing classes. Yes, this is decidedly a middle-class, educated, self-improving and polite world.

The adverts tell their own story: publishers’ book announcements galore, ads for artists’ materials, model aircraft, bicycles, ski wear, riding kit, Kangol berets, classical LPs, Bovril, a home-weaving loom…

Those far-off days - when teenagers were a curious combination of miniature adults and oversize children - are gone. The only element of continuity is that the same Queen reigns. We are still, amazingly, living in the New Elizabethan Age.

This story was from October Issue issue. Subscribe Now