in Frieze | 01 SEP 96
Featured in
Issue 26

Pulp fact

The British zine scene

in Frieze | 01 SEP 96

It hardly needs repeating, but one of the great lies of our age is that more equals better. The government-stimulated deregulation of the media, which began in the early 80s, was supposed to bring both greater competition and greater choice: except that advertising and sales revenue have not expanded apace to cover all the new venues - whether they be newspaper lifestyle supplements or TV channels. Much more bread, similar amount of jam: the result? A curiously uniform, hermetic culture where everything is spread thin. Reportage and investigation are out; opinion and a PR agenda ubiquitous. As Cynthia Heimel writes in Godhaven: 'We live in a dark and fearful time, a time of polls and ratings and market research. Polls and ratings and market research are an insult to everyone's intelligence, and are directly responsible for nobody wanting to read things or see movies anymore.'

If, as often happens, the print media fails to reflect experience as it is lived outside the inner Metropolis, then there are many who will fill that gap. Although the situation is different, the need for small magazines is as compelling as it was in 1977, when fanzines were in the vanguard of disseminating what was a powerful but, for a while, taboo culture: Punk. In the short term, fanzines influenced music press and music industry writing and graphics; more importantly, they helped to establish the idea of a decentralised, do-it-yourself zine micro-economy which still flourishes today. As D.S. Perado of Junk Mail Backlash writes: 'There's no money to be made and no fame to be had. There's no wages, bosses, advertisers or deadlines, so there's nothing to temper the style or encourage any filler. It's the only truly free press that there is.'

If today's zines retain the utopianism of punk fanzines - an excitable state of mind that parallels the euphoria of seeing your work in print for the first time - then the situation that they address is completely different. To be sure, you will find the quotes from Debord (Ego) and the PTV/Apocalypse Culture matrix (Thee Data Base), but they are merely part of the heretical gene pool: for a generation presumed by a baby boomer media to be apathetic and retro-hamstrung, these zines explicitly grapple with a wide range of current cultural, ecological and social issues. The editorial from Thee Data Base 3 spells it out: 'We cannot cure the world by mouthing off at the TV. Slacking is lazing around in giro hell, waiting for the world to end. It needn't be like that. Unemployed or not, you have the ability to give a damn about what's happening around you, and if you actually give it enough thought, you will see that you can actually do something about it.'

The principal loci of zines remains music and cutting-edge politics: right now, the latter means direct action against the Criminal Justice Bill and the Government's road programme. This may be covered as part of a more general socio-cultural programme of subversion, as in Thee Data Base, or be the main focus: Pod is exemplary in this respect, with clear articles about George Monblot's Land Rights idea, the Claremont Road community and the subcultural divide between Spiky and Fluffy. Months ago, Pod ran a feature on the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, scooping Fleet Street's recent coverage of the Ken Saro-Wiwa affair.

Reflecting the status of the music press as a venue where young writers can learn in public, pop is a major zine staple. Jane editor, Louise, neatly summarises the problems that ensue: 'They have billions of boring tedious band reviews all written by indie boys who fancy being an NME journo - which is a very sad thing to aspire to'. Avoiding this tendency is the ambient/exotica world of On, and Ego, which balances neat collages with sharp discussions of Wannabe Hip London novels, Dub reggae and Tricky - streets ahead of, say, the increasingly confused The Wire.

Despite these gems, it would be wrong to present everything in this world as rosy. As a corrective, try the opinions of Aural Damage about 'Why Fanzines Are Crap', reproduced in zine compendium Xerox Heaven: 'Like people, there's far too many of them...99.9% of the people involved are male...fanzines wallow in mediocrity...and for fuck's sake don't even think about interviewing people.' It's the old excess of access perplex: there are a million stories in the naked city and almost none of them are interesting. The best zines either use the freedom of the form to put together some startling juxtapositions (the montage impulse, again), or concentrate on their chosen subject with the open-mindedness of the truly expert, pursuing an obsession through monomania into something universal.

Zines like Zimmerframepileup and Godhaven ('a casually begun and inexplicably complete trilogy') are the modern equivalent of scrapbooks: material that fascinates the compilers collated into a magazine, with a surprise on every page. Some are very personal; Alterego mixes montages with diary extracts: 'I said to my friend that the Great London Social Life wasn't all it was cracked up to be. That it was something mythological, something perpetuated by magazines with a vested interest in promoting beer, movies, nightclubs and fashion.' Garbles takes off in two great, courageous pieces of self-revelation by editor/writer/cartoonist Ros: 'My College Disaster' and 'My mega-drugs fuck-up' - an account of a disastrous acid trip with suitably tortured drawings.

Both Jane and Junk Mail Backlash make explicit the mockery of media, capitalism and/or official youth culture that lurks in most zines. Although 'a bit distracted by Richard and Judy on This Morning and The Animals of Farthing Wood', Jane constructs fake teen group Boys R Us, initiates a celebrity handbag spot (my favourite belongs to Mark E Smith), and satirises Boy types (The Bit of Rough, The New Man, The Musician). Most useful feature: 'Jane's Top 10 Lovebite Lies', followed by '21 Ways to Liven Up those Shit Days in the Office'. Nothing is sacred, but the humour is warm and inclusive. Junk Mail Backlash is a hysterical detournement of direct mailing: clipping freepost forms from consumer magazines, D.S. Perado and associates have solicited replies from dozens of companies under assumed, toilet-humour names. The best are collected here, in a quite unbelievable spread: did a human actually type a letter to Bradford/Leeds residents Mrs. Damparse, Mr. Haddockabuser, Major Squitters, and Mrs Methsdrinker ('thank you for your request for more information on our incontinence products')? Yes, they did, and I laughed out loud.

Ego, Alterego: £1.50; 80a St Augustines Rd, London NW1 9RP

Garbles: 25p stamp; Ros, 5 New House Close, Canterbury, Kent, CT4 7BQ

Godhaven: 7-9p plus SAE; PO Box HP94, Godhaven LS6 1YJ

Jane: £1.50; PO Box 4693, London SE5 7XZ

Junk Mail Backlash: 11p plus SAE; c/o PO Box HP94, Leeds, LS6 1YJ

On: Free with SAE; 6 Victoria Rd, London N4 3SQ

Pod: SAE to: PO Box 23, London SE4 1SW

Thee Data Base: Free with SAE; PO Box 1236, Glasgow G12 8AB

Xerox Heaven: 80p; 21 Kinswick Drive, Sunninghill, Ascot, Berks SL5 7BQ

Zimmerframepileup: 40p plus SAE; 54 Hillcrest Rd, Walthamstow, E17 4AP