International Herald Tribune, October 16th, 2006

An antidote for the culture of celebrity
By Mary Blume

LONDON Newsstands here feature glossy magazines like Star, First, Happy and Nuts: fodder for a generation that likes to watch itself. Then there are smaller independent 'zines, as they are called, which are the subject of the annual Emap awards celebrating such publications as Lap, Beard, Satan's FishTank and Quench.

Emap's winner in last year's lifestyle fanzine category was a new publication called Karen, after its creator Karen Lubbock. "A cult bestseller. A simple idea, executed brilliantly," said the judges. "I am gob- smacked," exclaimed Karen.

Her magazine is so untrendy that it is automatically trendier than trendy, so real that it is surreal. It features quotes from Lubbock's neighbors in Wiltshire ("Do you remember Christmas Eve about 15 years ago? It was windy") and is expertly laid out with color photos of villagers in unfashionable knitwear and of favorite foodstuffs such as tinned fruit salad, congealed gravy and cheesy mash.

"Made out of the ordinary," is its epigraph, and although it sells for £8, or about $15, to those who contact, the cover proclaims it is priceless, which is accurate if you agree that the quotidian cannot be pricetagged. "I just like taking notice of the details of life, just moments, just here and gone," Karen says. "What fascinates me, my inspiration, I suppose, are people that come into my life." Despite its name, the magazine is about them, not her.

The second issue, which came out last summer with a print run of 3,000 (the first issue, in 2004, consisted of 500 copies and is a collectors' item) has been hailed as a celebration of the banal. Karen herself calls it "a white-knuckle ride through the mundane."

Last month, The Observer newspaper ran a feature called "The Best-kept Arts Secrets in Britain" and, among such choices as Mantegna's "The Triumphs of Caesar at Hampton Court" and the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford, was Karen magazine, praised for "weaving its humble subject matter into something poetic, profound, absurd and joyful." It is, many say in praise, the ideal anti- celebrity 'zine.

Karen says she began thinking about the magazine in 2002 when she was completing a degree in graphic design and did a thesis on David Beckham and how celebrity is fashioned and the distance it deliberately creates. What interests her are people who are not heard being heard.

She is in a very English lyric tradition of exalting the unconsidered, from Gray's "Elegy" and Wordsworth's daffodils to Alan Bennett's "Talking Heads" and the early photographs of Martin Parr. "Yes, it's that, it's a sort of empathy with people," she says. Her layout is handsome, the photographs she takes with a point-and-shoot digital camera are straightforwardly eloquent.

Among her subjects are an elderly couple fond of mince pies, Karen's list of 94 objects picked up in a 1.5- mile walk around her village of about 100 souls, and quotes from Neil, a neighbor who tends to speak backwards ("I'm from down north," "I can't remember everything I haven't said yet"). In each copy of the magazine's second issue Karen tucked a leaf that she dried between the pages of a book "just as my gran did."

One might expect Karen to be dressed in dimity, with plump apple cheeks. She is tall and rangy, with unsettled blonde hair, the rough accent of Grimsby, the northern town where she was born, and a star tattooed on her wrist. Before becoming a graphic designer doing mostly corporate work, she spent 10 years in London as a social worker with the mentally ill in residential homes. She is a listener, both by training and by nature: "I've always listened more than I've spoken."

If people want to call her publication a lifestyle fanzine, that's okay with her, although she doesn't think it's quite that. What interests her is the contact she has with her subjects. As one reader says, Karen magazine is "slighty dotty minutiae, but with faith in little people who have confidence that they won't be cheated."

"I'm involved in a conversation and I might say do you mind if I use that, and that's how it starts really," she says. Issue three will come out when it is ready. "I've got it cooking, I kind of let things come to me rather than go after them. That's one of the things that people seem to enjoy about the magazine."

From the start, Karen magazine was picked up by such high-toned outlets as the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) and both Tates, Britain and Modern. It is now distributed as far as Australia and Karen has had press coverage in Portugal and in the Norwegian Financial Times. She is featured in an ICA video about the current arts scene.

Since Karen has no marketing department - the thought makes her laugh - she has no idea who her readers are and agrees that her one-woman operation is a bit difficult to describe.

"I'm not telling people what to do or what to think. I'm inviting people to put their own meaning to it. In traditional magazines you know where you are with them - you're in the fashion section or in gizmos, and I try not to let them know what's going to happen to a certain degree, which is what I feel life's like."

Since there is nothing quite like Karen magazine, people are already trying to copy it, and a literary agent has invited Karen to do a book including photos and recipes. She could be well on her way to becoming a celeb in the shrieking pages of Hello!, Star and Reveal. But she is happier in the world of trust, respect, cheesy mash and mushy peas: What Thomas Gray in his "Elegy" called "homely joys and Destiny obscure."

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