A day in the life of Spare Rib

A day in the life of Spare Rib

Editing, proofing, designing, cutting, pasting, arguing – Spare Rib collective member, Ruthie Petrie, describes life behind the scenes in the production offices of Spare Rib.

Here we are again, another end-of-month deadline, the day Spare Rib goes to press. An early start: the first task, hauling the large canvas bags of post up the stairs into our offices in Clerkenwell: a large industrial-size room, freezing in winter and cool in summer.

Susan Hemmings and Roisin Boyd inside the Spare Rib offices

The Spare Rib magazine office

Photograph of Susan Hemmings and Roisin Boyd (left to right) inside the Spare Rib offices.

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Inside the Spare Rib office at Clerkenwell circa 1978

Spare Rib office

Photograph of the Spare Rib offices in Clerkenwell circa 1978.

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Spare Rib magazine issue 064

Spare Rib magazine issue 64 p. 4

Illustration showing the postal address of Spare Rib for readers’ contributions.

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So no time now for either collective or individual anxieties, irritations, rumblings, grumblings. Decisions about this issue's content have long been finalised. Our regular Wednesday editorial meetings were the arena for hatching plans, commissioning new articles, taking up suggestions for cover images, circulating new material – a history feature, health, sexuality, international coverage, a short story or some poems for us all to read. 

Spare Rib magazine issue 064

Spare Rib magazine editorial issue 64

Editorial for issue 64 explaining the collective’s plans for reorganising the news and features pages.

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Also the arena for arguing over our political differences – and our discussions could be heated, for the collective was made up of women with very different views and experiences. A full-on engagement with diverse political, social and cultural differences was so much a part of these radical times for every political grouping with an agenda to transform the world.

Spare Rib magazine issue 064

Spare Rib magazine issue 64 p. 9

Cartoon about the power of sisterhood.

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The usual mix of post was distributed by whoever was on the rota that day: letters for the magazine's letters page from readers who were critical, praising, engaged, cheesed off; news items from around the country and abroad; campaigns and events listings for 'Shortlist', one of the regular ingredients of the mag; books and music albums sent in for possible reviews; subscription renewals; bills from printers and typesetter.  

Gummed label promoting Spare Rib

Spare Rib magazine gummed label

Gummed label with an illustration by Ingrid Emsden and Spare Rib’s contact details.

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There was also an oddly wrapped and addressed small packet which caused us disquiet. We had already had several close encounters with the law; we’d published a lot about Ireland, and the clicking noises on our phones in the office and at our homes seemed to suggest a certain surveillance at work. We'd also stormed one of the tabloids and staged a sit-in over their appalling coverage of lesbian mothers. But now we thought we'd better get the police onside. Two young officers turned up and took the parcel down to the basement of the building for closer inspection. They returned, red-faced and awkward as they handed back the goods – a box of transparencies showing vaginal warts in glorious technicolour for an article we intended to carry. Relief and riotous guffaws from all of us women as the police beat a hasty retreat.

The post had another package: layers of tissue paper wrapped around an exquisite white table runner which had been delicately embroidered with a gorgeous rose and the words 'We Can't Spare Rosie' and our 15 signatures stitched into it. Rosie Parker, longtime collective member and contributor-extraordinaire of a huge range of feature articles, interviews and reviews over the years was leaving the mag. This was her farewell gift, stitched by Beryl Weaver, whose embroideries featured in a number of Spare Rib issues.[1]

Photograph of embroidered table runner ‘We Can’t Spare Rosie’

Rosie Parker embroidered table runner

Table runner sewn by Beryl Weaver as a farewell gift to Rosie Parker, long time Spare Rib Collective member and magazine contributor.

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Photograph of Rosie Parker

Rosie Parker

Photograph of Spare Rib Collective member Rosie Parker taken inside the Spare Rib offices.

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The day's deadline advanced. Laura, our designer, was, as usual, getting this month's issue off to press. It's almost impossible now, more than 30 years on, to recall how labour-intensive the processes were in making up the finished pages (no computers/emails/mobile phones/fax or even photocopying machines). The 48 pages of the mag had already been plotted out on the layout plan, and all were at different stages of production. The feature articles, written by contributors we’d commissioned or by a collective member, had done the rounds in the preceding weeks of being edited, read, commented on, then reworked again. Designs for each article were agreed, images chosen, and then the copy sent to our typesetters in Camden Town. Usually by this date in our monthly cycle most of the mag's regular pages had gone through the same processes: the reviews section, the letters page, Shortlist, Tooth and Nail, long news stories, and classified ads.

Spare Rib magazine issue 069

Spare Rib magazine issue 69 p. 40

News page showing an excellent example of graffiti over a sexist advertisement.

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The layout wall above the long paste-up area was festooned with long rolls of typeset copy, giving off that familiar inky smell. The rolls had already been proof-read and corrected, or were waiting for that work to be done – blue pencil only (blue never shows through in printed material).  Each line and word of change or correction had to be taken back to Camden Town, reset, then brought again to Clerkenwell. We were our own messengers, back and forth and back and forth by bus, bike, on foot and occasionally by my Morris Minor. Trips not just to the typesetters, but to photographers and the photo agencies to pick up pics; to the colour reproduction house where every visual had to be transformed by colour separation. At that time, the cover of the mag and 12 pages were produced using two colours; the rest were in black and white. We couldn't afford the expense of full-colour.

Photograph taken outside the Spare Rib collective’s offices in Clerkenwell Close

Outside Spare Rib magazine's offices

Photograph of Spare Rib Collective members outside the Spare Rib offices after a delivery of magazines has been received. Women from left to right: unknown; Lorie Karlin; Louise Williamson; Jan Parker; unknown; Roisin Boyd; Ruthi e Petrie.

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In the office, typewriters clattered; phones were constantly busy with late-breaking stories being taken down by hand, pages were taking shape, with each area being overseen by the collective member responsible. And the absolutely crucial volunteers joined in every aspect of work: proofing, designing, paste up, as we progressed from task to task. Sheets of type were cut with scalpels to fit columns or around images, then pasted down with cow gum on to the boards – gridded, thick cardboard pages. We could almost do it in our sleep. 

Often there'd come a lull as we waited for late proofs to come back from Camden Town, or cartoons to arrive, or a late review to be delivered - the perfect time for a sortie to our nearest cafe, unbelievably named The Quality Working Man's Cafe (serviced by women, of course!), where the waitress was curt, the benches uncomfortable, but they did do a mean all-day breakfast.

Back at the office, more checking, more boards, more last-minute corrections. As night came on, the office grew quieter, fewer of us still on hand. But the final checks of all the pages usually kept us there until 1 or 2, or even 3 in the morning. When, at last, the boards were wrapped up in brown paper, we'd head to Euston station to deliver to the parcels office for the train to the printers in the north. 

The final circuit home meant dropping-off sleepy women in Stoke Newington, then south of the river to Clapham and finally to Fulham. William, my cat, had protested at my late return: he had peed on the bed...

Postscript: The day had ended, but a little more than a week later we'd lug hundreds of packages of the new issue up the stairs into the office and stand around excitedly commenting on how it all looked. After that the laborious task of wrapping thousands of subscription copies for sending out from the office.  And so the schedule would begin again - 239 times over 21 years.

Photograph of Spare Rib collective members by Martin Ward

Spare Rib office

Photograph of Spare Rib collective members at work in 1974.

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Footnotes

[1] Rosie wrote about Beryl Weaver’s embroidery work in her groundbreaking The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine (Women’s Press, 1984; reissued by IB Tauris, 2010)
  • Ruthie Petrie
  • Ruthie Petrie came to London from Canada in 1968, with the intention of staying for three weeks or so. She was a member of the Spare Rib collective from 1977 to 1982. Before that she had worked in book publishing at William Collins and Penguin, but happily gave up the comforts of a regular salary for SR’s £15 per week wage. In 1982, she joined Virago, where she worked for twelve years, becoming one of its Editorial Directors.  Since 1994 she has been the Managing Editor at Serpent’s Tail. Her enthusiasms are walking, swimming, gardening, reading, and seeing friends.

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