CERG are very excited to announce the soon to be published Southend on Zine project by Graham Burnett. We have written a foreword to this stunning collection of zines throughout the years – You can read our text below. As soon as it’s published, a link will appear on this blog.
Kicking Cultures: How Fanzines Make the Alternative
The impetus for Graham Burnett’s wonderfully comprehensive curation of local fanzine culture apparently began after he attended one of our Club Critical Theory (CCT) events back in 2018. The modest aim of this event, and the others we organised between 2014-18 at the much-missed Railway Hotel, was to generate critical discussion about the usefulness (or otherwise) of theorising the everyday practices we find in local communities. In some ways, we might consider CCT as a kind of hybrid format of fanzine culture. We certainly concentrated on alternative culture, albeit, in our case, the focus was on the application of critical theory to a wider range of cultural and political concerns. CCT was evidently delivered in person rather than in print, nevertheless, like most groups with a vested interest in local culture, we felt our approach deserved a wider audience. For us, criticality is all too often restricted to the rarefied confines, norms and paywalls of the university lecture theatre, as well as the status-seeking antics of a predominately middle-class academic population. CCT was our alternative to this world.
There are other associations to be made between CCT and fanzine culture. All three of the founding members of CCT have participated in the local music scene to some degree at various points in the trajectories of our lives. We have played in bands, DJ’d and significantly contributed to fanzines. Subsequently, from our experiences, we know first-hand that passionate discussions about the ideas and values people care about are always going on in every pub, bar and venue you enter. Another aim of CCT was to provide some structure to these debates. We invited people to speak who had something interesting and relevant to say. One such speaker was the journalist Tim Burrows, an Essex native himself, working for The Guardian at the time. In short, Tim’s writing documents Essex in alternative ways to the norm. His work presents a version of our much-maligned county that reaches out beyond the stereotypes of TOWIE and Essex Boy gangsters that tend to dominate mainstream media accounts. His interest in Essex resonates in many ways with the aims of CCT. Indeed, it was the interaction between Tim and Graham at this particular CCT event (on media demonisation and governmental neglect of coastal towns) that provided the inspiration for the fanzine project. Which is to say, beyond the clichés of seaside culture; beyond the tourist assets of Southend Pier, the amusement arcades and variety show venues, there were seemingly misplaced alternative histories of local culture. Graham’s conclusion at the time was that if these alternative cultures were to be acknowledged by a wider public, then, he needed to document them!
And now, over three years later, in this brilliant publication, Graham’s extensive documentation project has finally been realised. So, as critical theorists, our job in this foreword is to briefly ponder over what Graham’s efforts might tell us about the practices that have made Southend and its surrounding areas such a vibrant space for alternative cultures. One approach to this dynamic might draw on another CCT contributor, the historian Matt Worley, who takes his lead from the notable cultural theorist, Raymond Williams. For Matt, culture can be ‘bottom up’. It can be, as such, what Williams calls ordinary. We might say that the ordinariness of alternative culture emerges because people are impatient to make their voices heard and impart their own take on the world they inhabit.
Another approach needs to consider that all culture is produced. Culture is never a given; it is made. Importantly, then, the creative aspect of alternative culture does not occur in isolation. There needs to be a counter force! As the title of one of the fanzines discussed and archived in this collection makes clear, Southend’s music scene was not only Alive in the 1980s. It was Kicking too! Along these lines, the production of alternative culture needs to be negotiated in opposition to a standardised model of culture; it needs to importantly kick against the norm. But what is the norm that the alternative kicks against? As Matt would readily acknowledge, the production of alternative culture occurs against the backdrop of a relentless reiteration of what we might call official history. Exactly what these official histories amount to is, unsurprisingly, contested in critical theory. On one hand, we might consider them authorised histories, sanctioned by established agencies of the State who have a vested interest in promoting a sanitised version of the world that accords with the values and beliefs that maintain hierarchies of power. In some cases, these are histories of the so-called highbrow cultures one might experience through a ‘good’ education. In others, they are the result of neoliberal economics and crass commercialisation. Culture of this kind is made by local authorities interested in promoting bland tourist economies or local newspapers reporting on culture alongside column space for an advert for double glazing. On the other hand, though, these official histories seem to become further intertwined with the productions of discursive formations of power, which can, sequentially, produce their own stereotypical subjects. For example, dominant media culture can render working class communities, like those living in Southend, as somehow lacking in supposed cultural capital. Condensed in this way, Essex boys and girls become ideal fodder for such things as reality TV, poverty porn and low budget gangster movies.
Nonetheless, wherever we locate the dominant norm, people can become alternatively inspired by what they learn through direct interactions with their local environment. For instance, as an alternative to experiencing culture through the mediation of a local authority press release in The Evening Echo, people can simultaneously negotiate their own experiences in contrast to the normative assumptions they are presented with. Profoundly, then, to be alive; to even exist, alterative cultures need to kick against a norm. As follows, Graham’s documentation of alternative fanzine culture works like an underground press since it only really makes sense if there’s a ‘mainstream’ to kick against. In other words, there is no alterative radical underground culture without a mainstream conservative set of conventions to rally against.
The recollections in this archive are mostly accounts from people producing their own kind of kicking cultures. These are people doing it for themselves, seizing the initiative, and often in less-than-ideal material circumstances. This is because the production of alternative fanzine culture necessitates innovation and street-savvy approaches to resources with near to zero budgets. Certainly, the relation between bottom-up cultural production and cost-cutting exploratory uses of technologies, like early photocopying machines, Letraset transfers and DTP, warrants its own alterative history. This kind of cultural labour requires a highly motivated and skilled worker with an extraordinary degree (not a BA!) of visual creativity. The accounts in this publication of people looking back on what motivated them to produce their fanzines is in itself a fascinating archive of alternative cultural enterprise. In an age when there’s a design app to reproduce every established aesthetic take, it’s remarkable to be reminded of what people with drive, ambition, and a little kick can do on a limited budget. We enjoyed the ride, we’re confident you will too.
Andrew Branch and Tony Sampson
Co-founders, along with Giles Tofield, of the Cultural Engine Research Group, incorporating Club Critical Theory
Essex, summer 2021