Isis magazine

Isis magazine

"Isis" is the longest-running independent student magazine in England, established in 1892 at the University of Oxford. Traditionally a rival to the Cherwell student newspaper, Isis was acquired in the late 1990s by Cherwell's parent company, OSPL. Throughout its 114 years of history it has seen much literary flair and its list of alumni, including Hilaire Belloc, Evelyn Waugh, Harold Acton, Graham Greene, John Betjeman, Michael Foot, Sylvia Plath, Dennis Potter, Richard Ingrams, David Dimbleby, Terry Jones, George Osborne and Nigella Lawson to name but a few, is impressive. Recent editors include Ben Goldacre,] Tom Pursey, Christopher Schuller, Georgia Warren, Alec Garton Ash, Ruth Lewy, Solvej Krause, Pippa Lamb, Adam White, Lindsey Ford and Martyn Evans. The magazine's ISSN is 1741-5829.

Oskar Cox Jensen is the current (Michaelmas Term 2008) editor of Isis.


The Isis was founded by Mostyn Turtle Piggott, the first of the student editors, in April 1892. His first editorial contained a declaration of independence and sense of humour:

:“We have no politics and fewer principles, and should we last until the General Election we shall use our influence for neither side. We shall endeavour to be humorous without being ill-humoured, critical without being captious, militant without being malevolent, independent without being impertinent, and funny (as Mr Albert Chevalier says) without being vulgar.”

In its early days, The Isis was owned and published by Holywell Press. Students were given complete independence, as long as the paper they produced was profitable and within good taste. Oxford welcomed the addition to its scene wholeheartedly and was more than prepared to pay the weekly sixpence. The Isis was an accurate recorder of the proceedings in the Oxford Union – enough of a function to maintain sales.

One of the features of the magazine that survives today is the ‘ Icons' section (then known as ‘Idols'). Back in the 1890s, the ‘Idol' page was a peculiarly Oxford self-promoting feature; presidency of OUDS (the Oxford University Dramatic Society) seemed to guarantee an appearance in print, or the latter guaranteed a quick way to the former. Some of the Idols featured pre-1939 were Lord David Cecil and T. E. Lawrence; it wasn't until 1935 that the editors judged a woman worthy of idolship – Lady Katherine Cairns was the first one featured.

With the rise of the Great War, The Isis ceased its operations for four years, until it was resurrected by Beverley Nichols in 1919, who produced the opening issue entirely by himself.

:“…the great fact remains that Oxford is still here, a little dazed and unsteady perhaps, but Oxford all the same, and it is to sing of Oxford that The Isis appears once more, to reflect its every tendency, to echo its laughter and – well, to do the other thing.” (Beverley Nichols in his opening editorial, 1919)

In the 1920s, The Isis was every Oxford socialite's indispensable accessory. Brideshead Revisited's Sebastian Flyte dismisses Isis scornfully, even though Evelyn Waugh himself contributed to the magazine regularly. Waugh was also the first to participate in the rivalry between The Isis and the freshly-established Cherwell (now more of a brother than an arch enemy), by writing for both.

The 1930s were a time of much political turmoil in Europe, yet strangely serene in Isis, but then, so were they in the rest of England's press. A couple of articles more flippant than political in tone got Isis banned from Germany in 1935. Only a year later, the magazine had again to suspend its operations until 1945, to reemerge with new strength and with no rivals on sale.

The late Fifties were a very lively period for Isis. Participating in the lively debate on the H-Bomb in 1958, the magazine published a piece by William Miller and Paul Thompson, both ex-national service undergraduates, revealing British Intelligence operations in Russia. After the revelations were swooped by the national press, the pair found themselves prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act. The new editor, Dennis Potter, continued with this affair, which eventually led to Isis getting into quite a bit of trouble. As result, the proprietors at Holywell Press saw the need to step in, with the objection that the staff was now "definitely left-wing and will almost inevitably remain so." The proprietors' attempt to appoint an external editor had failed, leading to a staff walk-out. The battle of wills continued for over two years, in which the magazine sharpened its political edge and, eventually, in 1963, the firm concluded that they could no longer bear the responsibility for the magazine.

The first of the many miracle rescues came in the shape of a millionaire socialist, Robert Maxwell and his Pergamon Press in Oxford. In a risky business move, Isis National begun distribution in 1964. The new enterprise lacked solid editorial direction and left Cambridge and London unimpressed; the national was quickly withdrawn.

Throughout this time, the magazine began to be crammed with interviews with pop stars and chit-chat. A 1965 editor, Andrew Lawson, decided to 'sod the general reader' and decided that Isis should be:

:"... a soap box on which committed people can stand up and YELL. Only when its articles are inspired by passion can this magazine begin to be of interest to its readers. To reverse this priority in an attempt to court the whole undergraduate population would involve us in a futile struggle with Oxford's extremes of cynicism and apathy."

1970 marked the departure of the magazine's second owner, making Isis an entirely independent and student-run company. The 'University' tag was scrapped and Isis was distributed to the Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes University) as well. Soon enough, the lack of a financial backer lead to cutting the frequency by half, and Isis began to appear once a fortnight. The following decades were laced with financial crises, the worst of which was a thousand-pound printing bill in 1972 and no cash to cover it with. Again, a rescue squad appeared from the most unlikely source in form of this telegram:

:"Read of your financial troubles in The Times STOP One thousand pounds will be en route as soon as you cable us name and address of printers at the Granotel Rome - Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton"

The upshot of the independence was the need to re-think the design the magazine in order to incorporate advertising and an involvement of a business team (these issues were before worried about by the proprietors).

In 1998, after a series of growing financial crises, Isis Publications Ltd were absorbed by Oxford Student Publications Ltd (OSPL), the publishers of Cherwell. In 2002 a generous grant from a former editor Nigella Lawson helped the magazine in its financial difficulties; at this point a sustainable business model incorporating advertising was already being formulated. Today, Isis is a bi-termly magazine which maintains itself through the support of OSPL and advertising revenue.


*Pierre d'Alancaisez at [ Isis Online]
*Billen, Andrew and Skipworth, Mark. "Oxford Type". Robson Books, 1984.


External links

* [ Isis Online]
* [ Oxford Student Publications Ltd]

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