"He's a white supremacist, she's a leftist he wants to see dead. Will they bond over veggie tapas?" The Guardian's new 'Saturday' magazine is almost beyond parody

After last week's promise of something news, 'Saturday' arrives with Tim Dowling still firmly in place, a tick buried deep in the arse of column-writing.

Previously: So long, farewell, we Hadley knew you: The real function of columns vs. what columnists pretend they're doing...


After last week’s lengthy (and enormously self-congratulatory) farewells from The Guide, Review and Weekend supplements of The Guardian’s Saturday edition, their replacement has risen from the ashes, a phoenix ready to recommend ridiculously spendy mini-breaks, impractical jumpers, and books by people it knows socially.

The marketing copy for the prosaically-named Saturday — no doubt the product of a particularly intense ‘thought shower’ — promises “the very best features, long reads and interviews alongside unrivalled culture and books coverage plus smart and sustainable travel and lifestyle ideas.” while the ad campaign asks, “Have you forgotten how to Saturday?”, joining the trend for irritatingly verbing nouns for no good reason.

I saturdayed yesterday — fuck, they got me — by reading Saturday (along with the rest of The Guardian and the curséd output of The Times and Daily Mail). The new magazine is big (“Why does Saturday, the largest supplement, not simply eat the other supplements?”), eschewing the pocket-sized approach taken by The Guide and the annoying halfway ground of Review, but once you crack the covers you quickly realise this is a cut-and-shut job.

While pretending to have birthed a new creature, The Guardian has taken the various limbs, organs and grisly bits (that’s Tim Dowling’s column) and smashed them together into a centrist chimera.

Saturday’s first cover star, as if chosen by a Spectator columnist in a cheap parody, is Greta Thunberg who’s pictured with ‘oil’ dripping down her face. I’m sure the intended effect was to produce a truly striking image about climate disaster — Thunberg like a bird after an oil spill — but it actually makes it look like a casting announcement for the next Venom film. Bold choice to ditch Tom Hardy in favour of Greta.

If the cover image recalls Marvel supervillains, the accompanying cover line sounds like a knock-off Harry Potter book (“Greta Thunberg and the power of hope”) that you might stumble upon in the discount bin at a motorway service station. The other cover lines are equally in keeping with none more Guardian vibe that Saturday seems to be going for: “Jonathan Franzen v his own big mouth” (Is there any way they can both lose?”, “Has Covid ruined your sex drive?” (No, but reading too much of The Guardian might).

Crack the cover and after running your eye over the contents page, you come to “a tour through your new favourite magazine”, which is as presumptuous as it is perky. The piece, bylined to “The Saturday Team”, reassures readers that they’ll still “find many favourites (it’s OK, we haven’t touched Blind Date, page 81, and Tim Dowling continues his adventures through modern life on page 83)…” in the ‘new’ magazine.

I’m glad they haven’t killed off Blind Date, if only because reading The Guyliner’s1 dead-eyed deconstructions of the feature is truly a good way to saturday — fuck, did it again — but redoing the supplements and keeping Tim Dowling’s column is like renovating a house and refusing to strip out the rotten woodwork.

Readers are also ‘reassured’ that despite her swansong last week Hadley Freeman will still be “a regular voice” in the magazine — that’s editor speak for “we’ve cut down her contract” — and that Zoe Williams “will be a frequent presence” (which makes her sound more like a poltergeist than a feature writer), while Joel Golby’s TV column has been shunted off to the equally lazily-titled What’s On supplement.

Chief among the new features that the creators of Saturday (How do they saturday? I’m sure they’ll tell us soon enough) excitedly preview in their essay is Dining Across The Divide which they describe as…

… [bringing] ordinary people together to break bread, explore their political differences, and find common ground. It’s an antidote to the polarising effect of social media; in week one, Abby and Laura get on famously, despite disagreeing on several talking points from Covid masks to the royal family.

This is the most Guardian of Guardian features every guardianed (see, I can do the nouning a verb thing and it’s still awful): Politics played as a parlour game, with the idea that you might have serious and intractable differences that don’t evaporate when presented with some exquisite baba ghanoush is unthinkable. Or that most people don’t have family members whose views are wildly different from their own.

In the first instalment, white professional woman Abby meets white professional woman Laura for lunch at The Culpeper in Whitechapel (“Come for the crispy whitebait, stay for the polite debate about whether immigration is bad…”). Both women are 45 but Abby voted Conservative, while Laura voted Labour and they disagree on whether you should wear face masks (Abby: “How can wearing what is basically pants on your face do anything?”)

It’s hardly as Kate (@remainwithkate) tweeted:

Next week: join us as General Augusto Pinochet and Wangari Maathai head to London's Borough Market to sample artisan tapas. She likes a clean plate, he likes a disappeared trade unionist. Can their differences survive London's most buzzing Andalucian?

Both women know they’re being set up to meet someone with whom they’re meant to disagree but that the underlying premise of the feature is that they’ll find common ground across sharing plates. So they contort themselves to avoid an argument with Laura even admitting to it in her interview:

I have friends who say masks don’t work, so we just don’t go there. There’s a load of stuff Abby and I just didn’t talk about.

I edited the front sections of two magazines — Q and Stuff — where there were lots of these highly-formatted short features. They’re tricky because as time goes on it gets increasingly hard to find people to fit into the structure (hence why I once found myself convincing The Dandy Warhols that they wanted to play cricket at Lords only for the editor to spike it).

The first instalment of Dining Across The Divide works because they’ve put two women who are happy enough to accept each other’s existences opposite each other. They can ‘debate’ because there’s nothing existential at stake. We know Laura thinks Abby is an idiot for not wearing a mask and that Abby thinks Laura is a sheep but neither will say that because it would make dessert awkward.

Where Saturday’s facile attempt to flatten politics down to talking points over tapas will instantly fall apart is when one side of the divide believes the person on the other should not exist. The modern Guardian is like a toddler, it cannot stand hearing people argue and thinks everyone should just “get along”. That’s endearing in a child but it’s maddening in a supposedly serious paper.

Politics should be about fundamental differences and there are many people with whom you can’t compromise. I’m not going to sit down with a white supremacist and nod politely just because we both enjoy a steak. Abby makes several statements…

For me, it was about the economy. Immigration was irrelevant. At the time I voted Leave, I had a Polish boyfriend, now I have an Italian one.

… that could and should have been unpacked but she and Laura were picked from Guardian reader central casting to deliver the predetermined conclusion of the feature: “Look! Social media is terrible but if you give people dinner together they basically get along.”

If the encounter had ended in a blazing row, with bruschetta bouncing off the walls, the feature would’ve been shelved.

Flashback — a blatant rip-off of The Sunday Times’ Relative Values feature but with the spin that two people recreate a photo from their past — works well and could last in a way that Dining Across The Divide won’t. The first instalment features Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Janet Ellis and is the kind of cosy read with a few sharp corners that you want from supplements.

Conversations with Coco2 — a Q+A between Coco Khan an expert that purports to “answer a burning question” — is essentially Philomena Cunk’s Moments of Wonder done with a marginally straighter face…

Hi Jacco! Explain your job as though I were five years old.
I study stars, and the space between them. space is relatively empty but not completely.

… and really reflects the low opinion most editors have of their readers’ intelligence.

The rest of the Cuttings section — Weekend rebranded is a mix of short stuff (the Experience slot remains most likely because it usually does very good business on Twitter and Facebook and there’s an easy to fill Q+A page) and the big features (the aforementioned Thunberg interview, a good investigation into historical malfeasance at sperm banks — The Great Sperm Heist3, and a predictably tedious interview with Jonathan Franzen4).

The most interesting and readable piece comes from Bernardine Evaristo, who writes about her childhood and identity. It becomes clear why it’s so good when you get to the end and see that it’s an extract from her forthcoming book Manifesto rather than an original Guardian commission.

The Culture section — The Guide given a new more ‘serious’ paint job — opens with an unintentionally honest headline (“From Bad to Verse”) to introduce an extract from Armando Iannucci’s Covid poem. Yes, Armando Iannucci’s Covid poem. The introduction to the piece only makes it worse:

When Covid stalled his film work, Armando Iannucci took revenge on the virus in the form of an epic poem, exclusively extracted here.

Listen, he’s entitled to take revenge if he wishes, but did we all have to be collateral damage? It’s like Jurassic Park with verse: This satirist was so preoccupied with whether or not he could take revenge on Covid in an ‘epic’ poem, he didn’t stop to think if he should…

It feels slightly unfair to mock since Iannucci’s profits from the book-length version of the poem — Pandemonium: Some Verses on the Current Predicament — are going to Mental Health UK, but could he not just have sent them some money via PayPal instead? It would have saved us from this:

Tell first of one who fought that bat, and tackled truth
As it clawed and ravaged his beating lungs
And near ended life in some ventilated corner
Of a ward. Orbis Rex was he known on high
By all the Gods, “World King” by birth and plan,
Though the Gods, sensing men would stall in fear
Of his breeding, transformed “Orbis” to more earthly “Boris”
Spurring love and laughter from us on hearing
This more mortal name.

The rest of Culture progresses as you’d expect: The Cultural Prescription offers up selections from theatre, art, books, film, and music on a theme, there’s an interview section, a podcasts page, a double-page spread of things to do ‘in’ and things to go ‘out’ for, the Honest Playlist featurette tries to get an unwilling William Shatner to talk about music (“I don’t stream. I don’t buy music, not at all.”) and there’s a predictable essay on whether James Bond has “had its day”.

Books — what’s with the pedestrian names for these sections? — is The Review deprived of its own space and bolted onto the other supplements. It opens with an excellent image of Wole Soyinka which accompanies an equally engaging interview with the Nobel laureate about his first novel in almost 50 years.

The book reviews are exactly what you’d expect from Guardian book reviews. Hadley Freeman — it’s been one week and… she’s back — reviews Miriam Margoyles’ memoir and is surprised to find that much of it survived the lawyers’ red pens. And, because no edition of The Guardian is complete without a figure from the Blair era being given a bit of work, Jonathan Powell reviews Michel Barnier’s My Secret Brexit Diary, with the cheery concluding line: “Everyone is a loser and we have still not felt the full cost.”

Overpromising and under-delivering, The Big Idea features Philip Ball wondering, “Should scientists run the country?”5 A clear case of Betteridge’s Law6 in action and arguably a complete waste of a page. Essays like this usually are because the real answer tends to be an unsatisfying mixture of “it depends” and “it’s very complicated”.

The Lifestyle section — more of Weekend but hacked off and sutured to the arse end of the mag — features a splash page with a man’s junk stuffed into an N95 mask worn as a jockstrap to trail Zoe William’s feature Has Covid Killed Sex? Another Betteridge example in the wild, it seems to have been an excuse to commission Covid mask-themed black and white soft porn shots that look like Madonna remade her Sex book for medical fetishists.

As promised, Blind Date remains and Tom (30, assistant talent agent) breaks the fourth wall by saying he was hoping “to get rinsed by the Guyliner”. His wish was Justin’s command. Read how The Guyliner responded to “the bat signal” here.

The Guyliner in his Clark Kent guise as Justin Myers popped up over the page from the Blind Date feature in a piece of paid content from Tena. Had I been writing the intro copy I would probably have avoided saying that the two writers featured — Myers and Fatima Truscott — were going to “spill their secrets”.

And since we’re on the subject of taking the piss, it was appropriate that Time Dowling’s On modern life column was flat-planned opposite the Tena ad. While the magazine has changed, Dowling’s output has stayed the same, he remains the Samuel Beckett of inconsequential bullshit. This week’s instalment featured him writing about his father and a one-legged goose.

There followed a double-page spread of advice, pairing a fairly standard Agony Aunt column from Annalisa Barbieri with You Be The Judge, a new feature where people present their domestic disputes and are then judged by a jury of Guardian readers (including you! if you scan one of the QR codes that Saturday has scattered through its pages). This week’s earth-shaking quandary: “Is it ever okay to put eggshells back in the box?”

The only acceptable answer is, of course: “Obviously not. Stop it.” But that wouldn’t fill a spread so we got 300 words from The Prosecution and The Defence in turn followed by a selection of comments from readers.

The section also includes the usual property porn (“One couple stumble upon a derelict building and turned it into a stylish family home.”), patronising fashion coverage (“That beloved holey top? It could be the key to your new sustainable wardrobe”), trends and beauty coverage, a page on plants, and a spread of spendy holiday options.

I will confess to liking the new How far to the pub? feature which will feature walks ending in drinks (this week, the Green Dragon in the Yorkshire Dales).

On the back page, Sirin Kale — one of the best feature writers working in British journalism today — gets a slot called Guardian Angel in which she arranges something nice for someone who deserves it. It’s a nice feature about nice things happening to nice people and even I’m not going to object to that.

Overall Saturday is The Guardian at its most Guardian-like. It’s far too obsessed with London, presents its saturdaying — dammnit — as the preserve of a certain sliver of the middle class, and treat politics as a board game. Certain parts of it, floating free online, are really good — several of the big features are excellent — but there’s nothing surprising. Every angle is exactly the one you know The Guardian will take, presented with smug certainty.

Still, maybe I’d change my mind if I ate a mezze platter with Merope Mills7

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1

Aka author Justin Myers.

2

The name clashes with an existing podcast which may be a problem.

3

The illustration featuring a balaclava made of sperm is the stuff of nightmares though.

4

The Franzen interview is billed as a “global exclusive” in the magazine’s introductory essay, one of those things that journalists are very proud to get but that which mean absolutely nothing to readers. If there were a global shortage of Jonathan Franzen interviews, I don’t think desperate people would be queuing up to get their hands on a few quotes.

5

The Guardian did a Long Read in 2018 on why it’s a bad idea.

6

"Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.”

7

Saturday’s editor.