We Peaked At Paper

We Peaked At Paper is subtitled ‘An Oral History of British Zines’ so we sent the book to Alistair Fitchett, writer of many paper fanzines in the 1980s and 90s and founding editor of Tangents which was one of Britain’s first ezines, for his thoughts. IT’s questions and comments are in bold.

You’ve had the book for a week or so now. We know you seem to spend an awful lot of time reading old detective fiction, but have you found the time to get to this?

Ha! Actually I’ve been giving the detective fiction a break recently and have been ploughing my way through some hefty political histories of the interwar years, so this one provided some light relief.

We Peaked At Paper isn’t a piece of academic research then?

No it’s not, thank goodness. It’s a quick and breezy read. I mean, there is a bit of a sense of the writers, or interviewers or whatever being interested in some kind of common thread across the different fanzines and their writer’s, ah, motivations or whatever, but mostly it reads like a series of conversations in pubs or cafes or wherever. Which of course it is. And it’s ‘edited’, or not, to reflect that, so there are lots of run on sentences and pauses and on the whole it does all read very much as that sounds.

You’ve probably realised we thought it would be good to mirror that whole format in the review…

Yes, I twigged that. I suppose it feels appropriate, although if I’m honest that was always the thing in fanzines that was pretty much guaranteed to switch me off. I used to hate getting a fanzine through the post and discovering that it was nothing but dreary lists of questions and answers transcribed from a quick five-minute chat in a dingy back room of a grubby pub, everyone so full of their own self-importance, the fanzine writer especially. I mean, it was better when they were obviously questions the writer had posted off to the band or whoever. Better still when they were just completely made up. That was a laugh at least. I only ever did one ‘interview’ in any of my fanzines, a mail one with The Groove Farm who treated the whole thing with the contempt it deserved. They wrote quite rude answers, which was funny. I suppose they were trying really hard to distance themselves from that whole ‘twee’ schtick that seemed to be going around.

That was awful, wasn’t it? All those dreadful shambling groups with hair slides and lollipops.

Well, it was, but that was also to large extent a myth that was used by the mainstream music press to, I don’t know, undermine the validity of the fanzine culture. That sounds wanky, doesn’t it? There’s none of that sort of ‘analysis’ in the book though. Well, Peter Perturbed touches on it. He makes some good points about those records and those bands and starts to open the box on how exactly that whole ‘scene’ came into being. People in disparate parts of the UK all seemingly wearing the same clothes, listening to the same records. How and why did that happen? He makes the point about it seemingly being more about what was being rejected rather than anything else, and that certainly, ah, resonates with me. It was all letters and mix tapes and adolescents making fanzines to make some sort of sense of themselves and desperately looking for connections I suppose, trying to feel less alone or whatever, particularly for anyone not living in London, or cities or big towns generally.

Does that mid to late 1980s period dominate the book?

Not really, although I suppose naturally I was drawn most to those chapters with the writers and fanzines I knew, or read at that time. I remember a lot of the titles actually, particularly from around that mid 1980s and early 90s period. Some of the people interviewed in the book I’d have written letters to, although I’m sure they wouldn’t remember and that’s fair enough. Peter Perturbed’s chapter feels hand down the most enjoyable, but that’s maybe because Pete is just so good at that whole balance between being self-effacing but also supremely talented and effortlessly engaging. Not that I’m in any way jealous.

Siân Pattenden’s chapter is also great fun. It’s funny, both those writers make a point about how they were inspired and influenced by Smash Hits at the time, and that connects with me because really Smash Hits was my music press of choice for a long time. Actually I probably went straight from reading Smash Hits to fanzines in one step. The inky music press didn’t really interest me that much. The first fanzine that me and my friend made was basically just bits cut out of Smash Hits and us taking the piss out of things, as adolescents do. And we only did that because I’d started to go to Glasgow and found fanzines in a corner of the Virgin megastore. So things like Juniper Beri Beri, Communication Blur, The Legend! and Hungry Beat. And then slightly later Are You Scared To Get Happy, KVATCH, Simply Thrilled, all that Sha-La-La stuff that, as I say, Peter mentions as being also influential for him and that was wilfully misunderstood at the time by most of the inkies. Siân Pattenden of course went on to write for Smash Hits, which is a great story.

I also enjoyed the chapter with Karren Ablaze! I remember Ablaze! as being a zine on my periphery to an extent. I wasn’t so into all the noisy American Rock stuff like Sonic Youth and later Pavement or whoever. I was very picky about what I liked and didn’t like, which is the prerogative of being young(ish), isn’t it? I always liked how angry Karren sounded in her writing though. Unapologetic. That’s quite a core quality of fanzine writing, isn’t it? But what also comes across in the interview with Karren is the flip side to that ‘writer’s persona’ where there is a lot of anxiety and fragility to some extent. I mean, I might be projecting here, but I really get that whole sense of constantly vacillating between ‘I don’t give a fuck what you think’ and ‘I really want people to like me’ kind of thing. Maybe fanzine writers are just people who cannot connect to the ‘real’ world and desperately look for those connections in alternative realities. Or something. Ha ha. Like I say, I’m really just projecting.

This isn’t about you…

Ha! But it is, isn’t it? Of course it is. That’s what fanzines are all about. They are primarily about the ego. Actually there was a great zine called EGO, wasn’t there? They should have interviewed Robin EGO.

Oh yes, and there was definitely that thing of the writers being named after their fanzines, wasn’t there? So Robin EGO and as you say, Peter Perturbed and Karren Ablaze! What was your fanzine writer name?

Ha, I’m not sure I really had one because I changed the name of my fanzine so often. I believe that Bob Stanley referred to me as Alistair Angst at one point because oh my god, a lot of what I was writing then really was filled with cartoonish adolescent angst. So fair play. Hands up on that one. It’s the main reason I’d never want to read anything from my own early zines. That’s actually something that crops up a fair bit in the interviews. There’s quite a lot of, not exactly embarrassment about their fanzines, but definitely a sense that they were of a time and that the writers don’t much want to read anything from that, or their past. I totally get that, and I’m not at all sure I’d want to dig out and read old fanzines anymore, even the ones that were so inspirational. It does feel very much like something that should remain in the past. I mean, most of these writers were adolescents when they made their fanzines, and that was certainly for me a big part of the appeal at the time, as I’ve said, this feeling that there were other folks dotted around the country that seemed to share something in the same kinds of interests, be that music, politics, art, books, whatever.

So yeah, there are lots of people I’d have liked to have seen interviewed. People like The Legend! and Kevin Hungry Beat. Matt ‘Happy’ Haynes and Clare KVATCH. Maybe they were asked and politely declined, or just ignored the invites. And, I mean, it would have been funny to interview Rob Young about his It All Sounded The Same fanzine wouldn’t it? I loved that one at the time, but I’m sure that Rob has disowned all of that past. It’s certainly difficult to square it with the writer of Magic Box or Electric Eden and being the editor of Wired. But that’s also part of the interest maybe. Our pasts might inform us, but they don’t define us, do they? Or needn’t. It’s a very Punk Rock notion that, isn’t it, that we’re free to reinvent ourselves as whatever…

Which brings us back to Sniffin’ Glue

Yeah, that was a neat little link wasn’t it? Ha ha. I really enjoyed reading what Mark Perry had to say about doing Glue. Particularly the thing about how it looked. The, ah, aesthetic of it and all that. He makes the point that he was really trying to make it look as good as possible with limited resources and, I suppose, experience and knowledge of the whole printing process. So the whole idea that it was this kind of intentionally lo-fi amateurish looking thing was all bollocks. I find that interesting because for me it totally highlights just how quickly elements of what we like to call ‘underground’ or ‘counter’ culture get absorbed by the mainstream and, in modern parlance, ‘monetised’. And I like how Mark had a clear idea about when he was going to stop doing Glue and move onto other things.

Is that idea of fanzines being very ephemeral and restricted to the writer’s adolescence a universal thread?

Yes and no. I mean, certainly it is with respect to the fanzines that I read and remember. You know, that kind of ‘three issues and then we split up’ kind of idea. I like that. But there are others in the book where the ‘fanzine’ has been going on for years. Decades, with some of them. The first chapter basically is this long rambling interview about sci-fi zines from the 1930s or whenever, supposedly the first examples of fanzines although I guess it does depend on your definition. You could probably make a case for the first zines being the penny dreadfuls or pamphlets run out on the first presses. Anyway, I don’t much care for Sci-fi so I kind of skimmed that chapter… There are certainly some chapters with folks who’ve done long running zines. People like Selena Laverne Daye, Elias Nebula, Stewart Home. In those cases though it feels like the zine veers further into the realm of, I dunno, Fanzine as Art Statement or something. Again, that sounds too wanky, but something like that anyway. Certainly quite obsessional, which I think is important for artists to be. Then there are a couple of chapters with soccer and sport fanzines, which, okay, I have to say, just left me cold.

I mean, fair play to them and all that, and fair enough for all those people who are interested in those topics. It’s the same to an extent with the chapters about the Smiths Indeed and Pynk Moon zines. I never much cared for those zines that were so rooted in one band, all the minutiae about whatever. I mean, obviously unless it’s something I actually am interested in. But even then, I dunno, I get bored easily. Maybe I’ve got a bit of ADHD about me. Which for a former teacher is quite funny, I suppose.

Speaking of which, didn’t you tell me you once tried to teach about fanzines to your high school students?

Ha ha, yes, I did. Very briefly. Back in maybe 1993 or so when I was young and foolish. None of the kids gave a fuck of course. That’s part of the whole point of fanzines. People make them because they feel they have to make them I suppose. There’s something very primal and, again, adolescent about making a fanzine. In the book there’s a question that’s asked quite often about what makes a fanzine a fanzine, and there are some interesting answers to that, but Pete makes the best point about a fanzine being ‘something that no-one has asked for’. I think that totally nails it. So if your teacher or whoever is ‘asking’ you to make a fanzine, what teenager isn’t going to say ‘fuck you’? Well, I mean, obviously if they actually had said that out loud they’d have been excluded, but whatever…

And what about a book about fanzines?

You mean did anyone ask for a book about fanzines? Probably just the folks who wrote it, so that feels remarkably appropriate, doesn’t it?

But will anyone want to read it?

Yeah, I think so. I mean, there is a lot of that kind of fascination with nostalgia kicking around these days, presumably because Modern Life is so shit, so I think there’ll be people who remember reading, and probably making fanzines in their youth who might be interested to look back and remember stuff, or whatever. It reminds me a bit of that Whatever Happened to the C86 Kids? book where the author tracked down and interviewed members of all the bands who appeared on that NME tape. It’s just a nice piece of diversionary interest, isn’t it? Nothing wrong with that.

And I’m guessing they’ve printed up a hundred copies or so and that they’ll discover a couple of boxes full of unsold copies under the bed in a few years time. I mean, that’s really the essence of fanzine writing isn’t it? No-one asked for it, and no-one wanted it. Or maybe that was just me.

We Peaked At Paper is published by Boatwhistle Books www.boatwhistle.com

Alistair Fitchett

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