Levenson meets Ben Ramm, a young editor who is literally following in
the footsteps of Byron and Shelley by resurrecting the poets’
periodical, The Liberal
BEN RAMM, editor of bi-monthly magazine The Liberal, is just 22.
“I hope people find this out and respond ‘oh my god, you’re only 22’
rather than ‘oh, you’re 22’,” he says. Aware that few 22-year-olds
would be offered the editorship of a magazine, particularly with no
former journalism experience, Ramm set up his own.
Or rather, he resurrected an old one.
Liberal was first set up in 1822 by poets Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe
Shelley, along with Leigh Hunt, also a poet and a radical journalist,
to combine political debate with poetry in an accessible format.
we want to do, as well as providing a forum for debate within modern
liberalism, is to reinvigorate the literary tradition and to bring
poets back into the public sphere,” says Ramm, who first came across
The Liberal while studying for his English degree at Cambridge
University (he graduated in 2004).
Ramm had the idea to revive
the magazine after reading about it while studying Shelley: “The
copyright had run out. Byron had said he would not want to be
pernickety about such things, but it was very important to me that we
didn’t use the name in an incorrect manner, so we had lawyers on the
Most importantly to me, I sent copies of the first issue to all of the major romantic scholars.
Nicholas Roe, who has just bought out a biography of Leigh Hunt, said
it was very much in the spirit of the original and he thought Shelley
would approve. And we’ve been very careful to word it to say just that
we’re in the spirit of Shelley and Byron.”
One of Ramm’s
favourite quotes is from an address to Harvard students by President
Kennedy: “If more politicians knew poetry, and more poets knew
politics, I am convinced the world would be a little better place in
which to live.”
“The Liberal is founded on the belief that this
is correct,” Ramm says, and this combination of politics and poetry
could be paying off.
He won’t say precisely how many subscribers
the magazine has, but he claims that “it is plausible that if the
fourth issue goes successfully we will overtake the New Statesman in
terms of subscriptions.”
He adds” ” In Cambridge in one month we sold more than The Spectator and New Statesman put together over four weeks.”
newsstand sales they already do better than anticipated and have been
selling at rates of about 60-70 per cent where they are stocked.
four, due out this month, is to be distributed free with 380,000 copies
of the Independent on the first Saturday in April: “I approached
[Independent editor] Simon Kelner. We had been distributed in the
welcome pack at the Liberal Democrat party conference, which the
Independent sponsors. Simon had seen a copy of the first issue and was
enthusiastic to work together.”
Ramm is convinced that the
magazine lasts its readers for two months. “We have huge amounts of
text. The second issue was 56 pages and was nearly all text on every
page. It’s exhausting to read because you’ve also got the poetry there.
People don’t readfive poems in one go. They read one poem and then put
the magazine down, so it really does last for two months. In that sense
it’s very good value.”
However, there are plans to go monthly, in either September, which is the anniversary of its launch, or in the new year.
well as editing the magazine, Ramm is also on the Liberal Democrat’s
list of approved parliamentary candidates, though he claims he doesn’t
want to be selected. “The Liberal comes first and I’m probably too
young”, he says.
He is adamant, however, that The Liberal is not
just for people who identify as Liberal Democrats: “I want it to appeal
to people who would not pick up a Liberal Democrat propaganda leaflet,
and there are many people who wouldn’t do that. This is a more passive
way to speak about liberalism.”
With this in mind, Ramm ensured a
copy got into the Prime Minister’s hands, by giving an issue to Tony
Blair when he unexpectedly met him at a book launch. “As he left I
accosted him and said ‘Tony, would you be interested in this new
He took it and we had a nice word or two and he
laughed at the caricature [of himself] on the front cover. I like to
think it didn’t go straight into the dustbin.”
Although he won’t
name the magazine’s financial backers, he will concede that there are
some prominent Liberal Democrats among them, and a number of
individuals “from poetry and politics and culture”.
Ramm also has
a hand-picked editorial team with offices all over the country,
including Edinburgh, Oxford, Cambridge, and Brighton. “We’re also
setting up an office in Liverpool where we’ve had a lot of support.
Partly because Liverpool is an increasingly liberal area but also, you
know, no one buys The Spectator in Liverpool any more.”
it is Ramm who deals with the printers and distributors. This baptism
of fire has taught him much, above all “don’t trust what printers say
about paper, ever”. But it’s not all hard work; he rushes off after our
interview to a shoot for the magazine with Emily and Sophie Byron,
professional models and descendants of Lord Byron.
involvement in all aspects of the magazine, from print-buying to
photoshoots, seems to have paid off: “We’re going to be at the front of
every WH Smith for a week during April and we’ll be next to The
Spectator, New Statesman and The Economist in stores up and down the
country from April for the foreseeable future.”
And whereas the
original version of The Liberal only lasted four issues before folding
in 1824, with such ambitious plans, he is hopeful that this version is
on track to last a bit longer.