Media Headliner: Aesthete Aslet keeps revamp true to Country Life's heritage

The urbane editor wants to offer beautiful things in his magazine.

You tend to forget that Country Life has a lot less mud on its boots than the title suggests. And it is a tremendously evocative title - Country Life, you always feel, has to be the real business. Life in the raw, warts and all. An unvarnished Ambridge packaged for the newsstand - everything from low-rent farming to field sports.

So it's always something of a disappointment to be reacquainted with the facts of the matter. Because Country Life feels like an estate agent's gazette or the sort of glossy you'd get in a doctor's waiting room. A better class of doctor, obviously. Clearly, the Archers character most likely to subscribe would be Linda Snell.

Thus it's also slightly disappointing to discover that its editor, Clive Aslet, though perfectly posh, isn't all that tweedy and is not a keen follower of field sports. He is, in fact, a bit of an aesthete - an art historian who has spent his life writing about traditional architecture.

He doesn't really live in the country either - though he has a cottage in Northamptonshire. His main residence is in Pimlico.

However, his slightly dubious country credentials are thoroughly understandable when you think about it. Because Country Life would be telling no lies if it were to be relaunched as Country Houses, especially as this aspect of the magazine seems to have come even more to the fore following its revamp at the start of September.

Was that the aim? Aslet would not quite put it that way. "Life moves on," he explains, "and every magazine needs to be refreshed now and then.

We live in a much more visually sophisticated world these days and we felt it was right to revisit (the magazine's design) in that context."

The magazine has, in short, become even more glossy - thus underlining its status as the weekly that looks most like a monthly at the seriously sumptuous end of the market.

"We are pulled in two directions," he states. "As a weekly, we have a newsy side - and indeed in the past there has been a tendency to go too far in that direction.

"In the other direction we are about beautiful things. Although our readers are interested in all sorts of issues, they luxuriate in the beautiful. In that respect, we wanted to be truer to our tradition of great photography."

It is certainly true that Country Life now fuels the fantasies of an ever-growing section of the middle classes. Perhaps paradoxically, though, the shires are more troubled now by ugly political realities than they have been for generations.

A ban on hunting with hounds is in the offing once again and plans for demonstrations in Parliament Square are back on the agenda. Is Aslet the sort who's first to man the barricades? Yes, he is, he insists - and he is overcome with genuine passion as he condemns the "undemocratic" tendencies of the current Government.

It's hard to imagine him in militant mode, though. He's unashamedly academic in outlook and it's no surprise to discover that his books on country houses are published by the likes of Yale University Press. He is frequently used as a pundit by the highbrow broadcast media (Newsnight, the Today programme, The Moral Maze), and is a major mover in the conservation group The Thirties Society.

Studiousness is a trait that he seems to have successfully handed down to the next generation. He has three children (aged three, seven and nine) and the eldest is already a history nut, with a particular interest in Nelson. Aslet admits that his offspring have become his main out-of-work passion. "Spending time with the children is important," he says.

He is clearly pleased with the magazine's revamp - a tasteful work of restoration, he implies, that remains true to the title's heritage. Aslet has worked on it man and boy (he is now 50), having joined straight from Cambridge. He was, he claims, headhunted. "They came for me at college, very much like the way MI6 recruits spies," he recalls, still amused at the memory.

And he is particularly heartened by the fact that his mailbag is neither larger nor smaller since the redesign. He explains: "Carrying a copy of Country Life says a lot about you. It's really quite like a club, and people pretty much trust Country Life to do the right thing. Our readers are generally busy getting on with things and living their lives and they are not prone to writing letters - but they will be the first to let you know when they disapprove of something."

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