In October 1995, when Prospect magazine was launched by David Goodhart and his band of ambitious, high-minded friends, new hope stirred in those of us in Britain who were conscious of our lack of a serious, general-purpose periodical in which we could discuss important issues freely and in depth, something at which the Americans and others seemed to excel.

So, a few months later, I gave a copy to David Owen, the former Labour foreign secretary, perhaps to inspire him to write for it. After reading it, he was ready with his verdict. "It's good," he said, "but I think not as good as Encounter was." I was disappointed a little, but also wished that I had read Encounter before it had vanished four years earlier. The monthly had obviously been quite something if a rising star of Parliament such as Owen had relied on it for intellectual nourishment.

Neil Berry
224 pp

Above all, I envied the former minister for his ability to place Prospect in its historical context. He knew whence it came and which had been its antecedents.

In the intervening years, I have not been disappointed in my hopes for Prospect. As a marketplace of ideas, it has remained honest and, therefore, unpredictable, and it has even had the courage to break a number of taboos which had hitherto afflicted polite society with triviality and decay. As a result, serious thinkers write for it and its circulation has soared. As I write, its February issue has provoked a sharp attack on it by a writer in the equally enlightened Observer, the reason being that Goodhart has dared to publish a detailed examination of immigration with the blasphemous title 'In Defence of Fortress Europe'.

To novices like me, then, Neil Berry rendered valuable service the moment he decided to write a book on the history of serious periodicals in Britain, but the subject is vast and where do you start? The answer was apparently easy to come by. If you addressed the book to the general reader, it could only be an introduction and you could only choose a few examples to provide a glimpse of the panorama. Hence the book starts with the Edinburgh Review which a small group of young Scottish graduates founded in 1802.

Francis Jeffrey and his friends aimed at the literati of the Scottish capital alone. But their decision to cover the political affairs of the whole of Britain and to criticise politicians and artists harshly soon made their journal essential reading in London, Dublin and elsewhere. With influential circles still haunted by the memory of recent events in revolutionary France, the Edinburgh's promotion of urgent social reform fell upon receptive ground. The policy did alienate some of its conservative contributors such as Sir Walter Scott, but the wind was in the sail of the Whigs, not the Tories, and circulation topped 13,000. Jeffrey became a leading member of Parliament in London and the Lord Advocate of Scotland. His success made him arrogant and lofty and Berry is generous to him with the claim that with the Edinburgh was born "the higher journalism", "arguably a British invention".

Berry next transfers his gaze to John Morley, the rationalist devotee of John Stuart Mill, who edited Fortnightly Review from 1867 until 1882. By the time Morley took over the journal, the Edinburgh had grown "stiff and official, an ossified organ of the British governing classes". So Morley took on the cause of Home Rule in Ireland and joined the Liberals, in whose hierarchy he rose to be secretary of state for Ireland and India and generally made "raising the tone of public discussion the chief object of his existence".

The book's subsequent chapters become rather controversial. W. T. Stead, the founder of Review of Reviews — "the Sixpenny Monthly" — was no intellectual at all; James Knowles, the editor of Nineteenth Century, is the only, perhaps token, conservative figure to be studied in depth; Kingsley Martin, who edited New Statesman from 1931 to 1960, is given too much attention despite his undoubted influence, and he comes off rather unscathed from years of apologising for Stalin.

The book's penultimate chapter is preoccupied by Encounter's secret funding by the CIA, rather than by its contents, while the last and seemingly longest chapter is a personal appreciation of a living journalist, Karl Miller, who edited The Listener for the BBC and founded the left-wing London Review of Books.

Inevitably in such a broad brush, there are failings and, specially, omissions. I would have liked, for example, to read about the TLS, our international journal of ideas and literary criticism for the past 100 years, and about the Spectator, which has been going since 1828 and is not always trivial.

Nevertheless, Berry has given us an enjoyable introduction to the subject and a taste for more research on our own parts. Inspired by him, for example, I found that possibly the oldest magazine to follow the invention of printing was one Erbauliche Monaths-Unterredungen, or "Edifying Monthly Discussions" in Germany in 1663, that England's oldest, The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, was swift on the heels of the German only three years later, that the English journal with the nicest name ever was the Weekly Memorials For the Ingenious (1682), and that Dr Johnson founded his own magazine, The Rambler, in 1750.

I recommend Articles of Faith to readers of New Humanist — surely among the best informed in the world who will see any gaps for themselves immediately — most warmly.

Articles of Faith is available from Amazon UK.