A tribute to Agnes Frimston, 1987-2023

The former deputy editor of The World Today was an innovative journalist who refreshed the magazine and whose kindness endeared her to all, writes Alan Philps.

The World Today
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Agnes Frimston started her career in magazine editing in the time-honoured fashion of journalists – waiting in the street to ask a question in a way that cannot be brushed aside. Her target was Rachel Johnson, editor of The Lady.

Johnson recalls that ‘a pre-Raphaelite beauty with crimson lips and thick woolly tights under shorts’ blocked her path and asked: ‘Would you give me work experience at The Lady?’ The editor couldn’t say no to such a determined approach, and Agnes started the next Monday. From her perch at The Lady, Agnes gained a three-month internship at Chatham House during which she applied for the post of assistant editor of The World Today.

Portrait of Agnes Frimston

Agnes Frimston

The interview panel saw three older, better qualified candidates, but Agnes outclassed them all, and got the job. Within a year, the editor had left, leaving the magazine in the hands of two 22-year-olds, Agnes and a Canadian intern, Catherine Tsalikis, fresh out of the London School of Economics.

For Tsalikis, the responsibility laid on the shoulders of two young women was a life-changing experience. ‘Agnes was sophisticated, warm, curious, poised, quirky, exceptionally plugged in to world affairs and so much fun to be around. When things got stressful, she would write me cheerful notes on banana peels – something she found oddly satisfying. She faced everything life threw at her with grace and the most incredible sense of humour.’

When I joined the magazine as editor to relaunch it in 2011, my first impression of Agnes was of someone coolly competent beyond her years – like one of the plucky gals (she would have hit the roof over the use of those two words) parachuted into Nazi-occupied France to liaise with the Resistance.

Our job was to scrape the barnacles off the magazine and make it more appealing to younger and female readers. My world view had been shaped in the 1980s before Agnes was born, so Agnes’s undercover role was to scrape the barnacles off me. In 2014, she was appointed deputy editor. A typical editorial conference – a grand title since the staff was only us two – would begin with Agnes sitting down and fixing me with a resolute eye.

We miss Agnes’s skill in taking down pomposity with the arch of an eyebrow and her ability to make us all think differently about the world

Jo Maher, deputy publications editor, Chatham House

‘I suppose you don’t ever want to see the word menstruation in The World Today.’

I, never having considered the question, refused to be cast as the fuddy-duddy. ‘Why not – we aren’t editing The World Yesterday.’

So, she produced an article ‘Taboos are bad for girls’ health’, a topic which later became mainstream in discussions of global poverty. The April/May 2015 issue was Agnes’s proudest achievement: all contributors including the cover artist were women. Thanks to her influence, a reader survey established that The World Today was the most popular Chatham House output among young people and women.

Cover of the April/May 2015 issue of The World Today

‘The World Today’, April-May 2015

We worked at opposite ends of a fourth-floor attic and from round the corner I would hear her distinctive laugh as she raised the spirits of the Chatham House communications department. 
Jo Maher, deputy publications editor, recalls: ‘Agnes was fond of saying that her heart was made of stone, but in reality, her colleagues at Chatham House easily recognized that her daily interactions were made up of many small – often private – kindnesses.’

Any discreet gesture or gift was unfailingly right for the moment. ‘We miss Agnes’s fine mind, her curiosity and her creativity, her skill in taking down pomposity with the arch of an eyebrow, and her ability to make us all think differently about the world,’ adds Jo.

In addition to her duties at the magazine, in 2018 she founded the Undercurrents podcast with Ben Horton, that ran for more than 100 episodes. They sought out the issues shaping the world that were squeezed out of the news cycle by Brexit and Trump. Early topics included the vulnerability of nuclear submarines to cyber hacks, the insidious power of the ’Ndrangheta mafia in Calabria, and the illegal detention of patients who could not pay for their treatment in the Kenyan healthcare system.

In an increasingly atomized society, Agnes proved it was still possible to offer solace to a stranger

Horton recalls: ‘Agnes was one of the most generous and supportive colleagues, especially to more junior staff. I owe a huge part of my career so far to the opportunities she found for me.’

Agnes’s extraordinary gift of empathy was confirmed in 2019 when, hearing a woman sobbing in a public lavatory, she read out Kim Addonizio’s poem, To the Woman Crying Uncontrollably in the Next Stall. The woman had just lost her mother. After she tweeted about the experience, Agnes’s act of kindness received coverage on ITV. In an increasingly atomised society, she proved it was still possible to offer solace to a stranger.

She was a person with so much to give to the world, so Agnes’s former colleagues at Chatham House reacted with shock at the news that she had died at home, suddenly and unexpectedly, on June 17 shortly before her 36th birthday. Her death has left a great hole in many lives.