WORDS FOUND WRITTEN ON THE STEAMED-UP WINDOWS OF LATE-NIGHT BUSES
"Occasionally we can regret that there are so few authentic Roman parts left standing, or that so much of the medieval city was destroyed in the Great Fire, or so much of the Victorian city in the Blitz, but the counter to this is that London hasn't ended up a museum. The history is there, but it isn't obvious. You have to dig for it, both literally and metaphorically, and I think that's where the 'psychogeography' comes in: past lives are glimpsed only out the corner of your eye, never straight ahead."
Andrew Gallix interviews Matt Haynes and Jude Rogers of Smoke magazine.
COPYRIGHT © 2004, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
3AM: Whose idea was it to launch Smoke: A London Peculiar?
MH: It was Jude's idea... I believe she had a vision one night, and was told to do it by God, who appeared to her in the sky above south Wales wearing a Llanelli strip -- but she'll have to fill you in on the details. We'd been exchanging e-mails ever since she'd bought a CD compilation I'd released on Shinkansen, and she knew I had a love of London as well as experience in writing and selling fanzines, so I suppose I was an obvious person to ask.
JR: Without wanting to sound vainglorious, Smoke was my strange little brainchild. I'd first thought about Smoke, in a primitive form, about a year after I'd first moved to London. I moved here in 1999 to study, and at first hated the place. But slowly and surely, I ventured out from my small flat under the Marylebone Flyover, and soon grew to adore it.
I met Matt when he had his other hat on, as indie music's answer to Pete Waterman/founder of Sarah and Shinkansen records (delete as appropriate) and we kept finding ourselves having conversations about London's peculiarities. In the summer of 2002, in a job I didn't love and desperate to do something with my life, I talked to Matt about my idea. It all went from there.
3AM: Matt, is there a certain continuity between your past endeavours (the Are You Scared To Get Happy? fanzine, Sha-La-La Records and Sarah Records in particular) and Smoke? A certain tweeness, perhaps, at times? (And I don't mean this as a criticism.)
MH: I'm not sure I'd say "tweeness", as I find it hard to take that as a compliment! With Sarah and Sha-la-la (and my fanzines at the time), the idea was to be anti the status quo. And the music-business -- whether it's the bands, the press, or the machinery behind it all -- has always been relentlessly and depressingly male and sexist: the whole "rock'n'roll" myth is essentially one of macho posturing and female adoring. Sure it goes through phases, and you can always find exceptions, but you only have to look at the next bunch of guitar-toting scally mop-tops from Merseyside, or the latest hip-hop video, or the names on the offices beyond the receptionist's desk, to realise that not much has really changed. And by setting ourselves against this leathery old world of testosterone, and championing bands who didn't see the only role for women as being the sexy figurehead, we were perceived by many as being cute and twee and insubstantial... by people who regarded "female" as synonymous with cute and twee and insubstantial.
I'm not sure how this feeds directly into Smoke, other than that I still believe 100% in everything we did and said with Sarah, and hopefully that will always inform everything I do. I suppose there's a certain winsomeness about both. I always liked the idea that even something as simple as a mail-order list could be made entertaining and character-ful and that, if you did this, people would respond in kind.
I like the fact that people feel they "know us", even if all they've ever done is buy a record or magazine from us! And I suppose you could argue that selling a 52-page magazine for £2 is in the same spirit as selling a 7" single for £1.50 while everyone else was releasing 12"s and CDs.
3AM: Sarah Records was based in Bristol: when did you move to London and fall in love with the city?
MH: I'm actually London born and bred: our family has been here since the 16th century, mostly around the East End (my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents are all from Bethnal Green). But I went to Bristol University, and Sarah Records became so emotionally and aesthetically entwined with the city that it was difficult to leave -- we liked the politics of running a successful record label that wasn't based in London! But I always knew I'd come home, and I can't now imagine living anywhere else. I visited every station on the tube map as a 14-year-old, and covered most of East London on my bike. It's in my blood.
3AM: Many people (from Iain Sinclair to Stewart Home through Will Self) seem to be fascinated by the psychogeography of the capital, its abandoned Underground stations, disappearing greasy spoons etc. It's very much a London thing (there is no equivalent in Paris, for instance) and Smoke is the best illustration of this phenomenon: where do you think it comes from? Can you cite any influences?
MH: I think London is unique in having such a long unbroken history as a major settlement -- essentially 2,000 years, from Roman times until now, but without a single period in which it stagnated as a backwater. Most other major cities are either more recent developments, or had a single "Golden Age", or are otherwise frozen at a particular point in history. Only London seems to have that sense of continuous reinvention, and relayering, and over such a wide area. Occasionally we can regret that there are so few authentic Roman parts left standing, or that so much of the medieval city was destroyed in the Great Fire, or so much of the Victorian city in the Blitz, but the counter to this is that London hasn't ended up a museum. The history is there, but it isn't obvious. You have to dig for it, both literally and metaphorically, and I think that's where the "psychogeography" comes in: past lives are glimpsed only out the corner of your eye, never straight ahead.
We're also lucky, of course, that London was the first major city of the industrial revolution, so our railways and other urban constructions have been round much longer than anyone else's, giving time for stories to accumulate around them, be buried, and be dug up again.
It also helps that London doesn't have just one centre: it has the twin hubs of The City and Westminster, and swallowed lots of neighbouring villages as it grew, so it's not just a central core doughnutted by endless suburbs.
Having said all that, we try to keep most "psychogeography" at a healthy distance: some things just simply are coincidences and, if not, there's usually some rational explanation -- and the rational explanation is usually a lot more interesting than the mumbo jumbo.
JR: London is a very unusual city in that its coming together has involved so many different civilisations, cultures, historical movements, people… and this continues to be the case. I think there's a lot to be said about the physical layout of London contributing to its peculiar effect on people. London's streets follow no discernible pattern -- their arrangement's haphazard, anarchic even. I think other cities seem to capture particular times or periods in their construction, like the grid systems of New York and LA. In London, there's always the sense that there's much to be found down a winding lane or round an awkward corner. That's why people fear parts of London will be lost -- we're often scared we haven't found them yet!
Psychogeography itself is a strange beast, and people often intellectualise London in manners that are so serious as to be silly. Saying that, I've read and enjoyed the usual suspects you've mentioned as well as other people like (Smoke contributor and Guardian cartoonist) Tim Bradford and Tim Moore -- but I'd say Will Self's early novels capture London at its best and worst! My influences are more to do with things that I see in everyday life -- the Void Behind Door sign in Waterloo station (the northbound platform of the Bakerloo line if you're curious) being the thing that spurred the Smoke beast in the beginning!
3AM: How would you describe Smoke's very "peculiar" take on London? Is it easy to find submissions which fit in with this philosophy?
MH: I suppose the idea is essentially to respond to London imaginatively, whether it's in words or pictures. The best articles are those which approach something with which we're all familiar from a completely unexpected direction, or use it as a starting point from which to spiral off into all sorts of imaginative flights. In our last issue, the idea of people-spotting from a pub window was developed by Seb Brennan into a point-scoring game, complete with its own rules, history, famous players and classic "pitches". He then illustrated this with drawings of a game in progress, and completed score-cards. By the end, you really had to remind yourself that the whole thing was a complete invention. That, to me, would be almost the definitive Smoke article. But we'd never met him: he just bought Smoke in a shop one day, and decided he had an idea for an article. And plenty of others have done likewise, so... people are obviously getting the hang of it!
Like most literary magazines, though, we also get sent stuff by people who clearly haven't grasped what we're doing, usually because they've not even bothered looking at a copy of the magazine, they're just working through a list of possible outlets for their work. The reassuring thing is, what they send is mostly rubbish. There's a moral there somewhere.
JR: Smoke's take on London is a sideways, arch-eyebrowed, cheeky-grinned, somewhat geekish one. It loves, and craves to find, peculiar places and desires to expose secrets or hidden stories of the city that haven't been told on a grand scale. It's not a gravely serious, intellectual take, but a romantic, enthusiastic and often humorous one. We find that plenty of people are as odd as we are.
3AM: Have you had any international feedback? Have you ever considered devoting an issue to another big city, maybe a foreign one?
MH: Obviously Smoke is very London-centric, and I'd imagine a lot of it is fairly incomprehensible to anyone whose first language isn't English. But it would be daft to take out the London slang or obscure references to bus-passes just to make it more international, as that's where its character comes from, so I guess we're resigned to not being huge in Athens. And I'd hope that non-Londoners, and people outside the UK, would actually enjoy its "foreignness", in the same way that we'd enjoy a book set in New York or Paris -- we wouldn't expect to understand all the slang, or get all the references, but we'd get a strong flavour of what it was like to live in those cities.
The only two places we're on sale outside of London are Stockholm and Malmo. But that's Sweden for you: they all speak better English than we do! As for other cities... I think that would be for someone else to do...
JR: Back when Issue 1 came out -- when we thought that no bugger on earth would want to read it apart from us and a few other anoraks -- we had orders from Singapore, Spain, Mars... London is a special place for people in all corners of the globe (if the globe was cube-shaped). We're also on big in Stockholm, Tokyo and are on sale in a shop in Paris called, impressively, Bimbo Tower.
We would never devote an issue to another city -- London IS Smoke, and nothing else is -- but it would be wonderful if other cities succumbed to the Smoke effect in due course. Swansea, Aberdeen, Tallahassee… I can see the empire building now!
3AM: How important are the beautiful pictures and the very imaginative layout?
MH: Well, thank you for the compliment! And the answer is "very". Most literary magazines have no real design at all, they're just pages of text, and we always wanted every page to be treated as whole -- words+image -- so that the whole magazine looks good when you pick it up and flick through. That said, the first couple of issues were rather text-heavy, probably because both myself and Jude are essentially writers, not artists, so when we started we thought of the magazine very much in terms of the writing. Also, at that stage we had no idea what the quality of the printing would be, and nothing looks worse than lots of drab, poorly-printed photos. But we found an excellent printer, and there are just as many aspiring photographers out there as aspiring writers, so we definitely want to include more image-based content.
We're also learning as we go along: the first few issues have been pretty basic, really, because neither of us had much experience of design or layout programs when we started.
JR: Pictures are paramount. We want Smoke to showcase writing and photography of the highest quality. We also try, from issue to issue, to make the pages look as interesting as possible, as we don't want to bore our readers to tears. This (the layout, not the boring to tears) is done in our hi-tech art production lab (also known as Matt's bedroom).
3AM: Music doesn't feature very prominently (apart from an article about Squeeze in the third issue) which is a little surprising given where you both come from. Any reason for that?
MH: To be honest, it hadn't actually occurred to me that it should have music in it -- it's a magazine about London! I also hate the way that every magazine these days seems to have a page of CD reviews, even when it's notionally about cars or interior decorating or banking. Everyone thinks they can review albums, and it's an easy space-filler.
JR: Smoke is about London, not music. There is music in London, of course, but it's just one of many things about the city. We've featured London Pop Girls and Squeeze, as you mention, in previous issues, and there's a spread on calypso music in Issue 4.
3AM: Why did you choose to start a magazine and not just a webzine which would be much cheaper? How is Smoke financed and distributed? How many copies do you sell?
MH: We're printing 5,000 of the new issue... but distribution is literally just the two of us taking them round shops by hand, so if we start selling more, we might have to look for help. We now have about 80 shops across London stocking us, so it's a long job, especially given neither of us drive -- it's public transport and pushbike. The money comes entirely from sales. We don't want to take advertising, as it would spoil the appearance, and we don't have any outside funding. The trick is to gamble on printing the right number straight off, rather than keep doing reprints... we haven't quite mastered that yet.
The web is great for certain sorts of magazine, ones which need to be continuously updated, or which just need to provide information. But I like the fact that each issue of Smoke is complete and frozen in time. And it keeps the standard high: you have to make sure every article is as perfect as it can be because, once it's gone to the printers, that's it, you can't go back and re-edit a clunky paragraph. It's a real object, one you can hold in your hands and flick through; and there's no better feeling that seeing someone actually reading a copy on a bus or train -- you're not going to get that with a website!
JR: There's something special about a magazine you can hold in your hands, use as a guide, take with you on the bus or tube: we want Smoke to be read as folks go about their daily business, not in front of a computer. Smoke 1 was financed by ourselves, and takings have kept it ticking along. Smoke 3 has sold just under 5,000 copies.
3AM: Does the magazine fit in with the likes of The Idler, The Chap and other cult periodicals?
MH: I'm not sure we do, to be honest... other than having certain basic things in common, like being made of paper and having staples down one edge, I think each of these magazines is unique, and so it should be.
Just returning to the music, I know every band on Sarah used to hate being described as "a Sarah band", because it implied the medium was more important than the message: for them, the music was the only essential thing. And, similarly with Smoke, the vital thing is the ideas, the words and pictures printed on the pages, not the fact that the pages were printed by the same person who printed the pages in The Chap (which they are), or that Smoke and The Chap sit side-by-side on the counter in Gosh (which they do).
JR: I'm not sure -- that's one for our readers to answer! The Idler and The Chap were set up in the same way as Smoke, and I think we share with them the same commitment to the subtle charms of independent publishing. We got out there and did it, and so did they. And so can you, space cadets.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Andrew Gallix is 3AM's Chief Editor, a writer, a teacher, and a hell of a great guy.