Offset opposition, the rise and fall of Britain’s alternative press

Review, by Tim Dawson

The reappearance of Nigel Fountain’s ‘Underground, The Alternative Press 1966 – 1974’ as an eBook provides a timely moment to reflect on the clutch of magazines that he describes, and to ask whether they have any contemporary parallels?

His focus is the wave of publishing that grew up in the wake of Alan Ginsberg’s celebrated appearance at the Albert Hall in 1965.  Oz, International Times, Friendz and Black Dwarf and most of the other titles he describes did not survive much beyond the initial wave of enthusiasm that first spun them into orbit, but they did encapsulate the giddy moment of rebellion, self-expression and freedom that overtook at least one milieu in swinging London.

Fountain does not consider whether these titles and their staff can really be considered as linked phenomena.  His account of individuals swapping from magazine to magazine, learning in one place and applying the lessons elsewhere make this case for him, however.  Neither does the role of technology play an important part in his argument, although in his pithy phrase, ‘The IBM Golf Ball typewriter was the Kalashnikov of the guerrilla journalist’, he is on to a truth.  Offset litho printing and increasingly sophisticated typewriters were key to allowing the 1968 generation to find its voice in print.

As a piece of writing, it is a head-long rush, describing the events that shaped the scene as much as the publications itself.  As a giddy fast forward through the years in question, at least for the ‘turned on’ generation who emerged from the rapidly expanding university sector, it is a vivid picture that Fountain paints.  He is also good on the social changes that underpinned the scene – the arrival in London of baby boomers from the US and Australia and a cohort of grammar-school boys who were happy to side step the professions.

Writing in the mid-1980s, it is perhaps not surprising that the representation of, and work environment experienced by, women in the alternative print was at the front of Fountain’s mind.  Two decades on, the sexual revolution that It appeared to embody, in which women were expected to drop their prudish resistance to male demands, is an embarrassment brilliantly unpicked in this book.

At the time of his writing, Fountain could not have known that the City Limits on which he worked, as well as nearly everything recognisable as the alternative press of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s would have disappeared.  The 100 regular ‘alternative’ newspapers and magazines that mushroomed in the provinces disappeared in much the same moment – just as the internet was about to solve the problems of reproduction and distribution – if not income.

Tony Harcup, a long-time veteran of Leeds Other Paper and now a lecturer in Journalism at the University of Sheffield has had quarter of century longer to consider the question.  In Alternative Journalism, Alternative Voices (Routledge 2013, £24.99, also available as an eBook) he detects a number of factors behind the abrupt demise of the alternative scene – exhaustion after the left’s political and industrial defeats of the 1980s, a shifting journalistic focus from news to arts and music, and the departure of the individuals whose fuse had been lit during the 60s and 70s.

Harcup puts a good deal of leg work into finding a new generation of angry young pen slingers focusing on the underdog.  He unearths a couple of contenders, Indymedia, Manchester Mule, a news website with a familiar alternative beat, and Knee Deep in Shit, a Bradford-based publication that is currently in abeyance.  All share DNA with the litho-produced titles of decades ago, although it is hard to locate in them the scope, range and élan of their forebears.

Perhaps the truth is that new technology has brought with it a paradigm shift.  The alternative press was a DIY phenomenon inspired by a desire to reflect the world in a way that was quite different to the traditional media.  Today, the internet makes getting your message out there simple and cheap; the challenge now is to attract sufficient attention to legitimise your endeavors and to generate a sustaining income.  Perhaps given the infancy of online publishing, by comparison with its inky predecessor, it is not surprising that these are questions to which we are still awaiting answers.

 

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