Fire Raisers – part one

About twenty years ago, having respectively produced a fair quantity of solo publications, Alistair Fitchett and I joined forces to co-edit a new magazine that for many and various reasons we stopped short of calling literary or cultural, though in truth it had aspirations to be both.  In the first of four parts which will alternate across this blog and Alistair’s Unpopular, we discuss our motivations and the place in the world of such a magazine back then.  We are making all three issues of Fire Raisers available in PDF format, so that you can make sense of the conversation, and perhaps enjoy the magazines in their own right.

We also have a few paper copies of each issue left; click here to purchase these perfect early Christmas presents for the literary fanzine fetishist in your life.  Or for yourself, of course.

Oh, and if there do happen to be any Fire Raisers contributors or readers lurking out there, feel free to pitch in your comments as we go along.

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Daniel: Was the motivation behind Fire Raisers the same as that which led us to produce our solo fanzines? What do you think we were we aiming to achieve?

Alistair: After so many years it is difficult to recall exactly what motivations might have been driving me personally, yet I suspect they were very much the same as they were when making the solo fanzines in so much as they were about fulfilling a need to communicate and to share enthusiasms. Indeed that motivation is one that has been largely unaltered in what I’ve done myself since, with other solo fanzines, through Tangents and blogs etc. Having said that, I also concede that the motivation for Fire Raisers was probably subtly different, given that it was a shared idea. Perhaps we felt that Fire Raisers was a step up from the solo fanzines, a sense of getting a bit more serious and grown up about things. Certainly looking back at them now there is a sense of that, I think.

That said, I also think in many ways we didn’t raise our sights high enough, didn’t get anywhere serious enough. In retrospect that sense of refusing to compete in the traditional market place and staying resolutely underground held it back, I think. Looking back on the premise of Fire Raisers, I wonder if that had been a pitch for a more mainstream magazine with advertising and so on, it might have worked. Maybe not at the time, but certainly in the later ’90s and early noughties perhaps.

But then, that idea of being a ‘proper’ magazine was not really what we were trying to achieve anyway, so it seems a moot point. And actually it seems telling that we probably defined our aims in terms of what we DIDN’T want as opposed to what we did. And whilst the ‘manifesto’ editorial inserts still seem stirring and passionate, I’m not sure it’s exactly clear where those manifestos intended to lead. In short, I’m not sure we really had the slightest clue about what we intended to achieve! I’m not sure that we particularly cared either…

D: Yes, there was that sense of ‘Oh my god! We’re doing it… we’re fuckin’ doing it’, as the caption we used from a cartoon showing a subverted, rioting version of Tintin had it.  It almost didn’t matter what exactly it was that we were doing.   My hazy recollection is however that we were actually collectively quite sure about we thought the magazine should be,  but I don’t think we were at that point quite able to articulate it with any great subtlety in print, especially when we tried to produce text co-operatively – to my mind it reads as a particularly contrived and diluted Alistair-Dan hybrid.

We were certainly totally clueless about marketing and selling the ‘concept’, as well as antagonistic towards the compromise inherent in giving over time and energy to those practices; it was all about the words and pictures, and putting them together.  Still, each issue shows a marked progression in terms of making the magazine more accessible, at least in a superficial sense – the cover got more inviting with each outing.  That came about partly because of the dressing down I got from the man in Compendium bookshop in Camden, who took it upon himself to critique the cover and contents in forensic detail one day when I dropped in to see how issue one was selling (not very well).  I didn’t fancy that happening again so we took on board his suggestions!

Had we persisted beyond three issues – had desktop publishing been accessible to us then; had I not disappeared off to France – I think the penny might have dropped, and we would have tried to put the magazine on a more professional footing.  The notion that it was a step up from our solo efforts suggests that too.

A: Ah, isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing? Really though it’s impossible to consider those ‘what ifs’ and ‘maybes’ isn’t it? Because the needs that drove you to France, and the impending (or eventual) arrival of affordable publishing technologies were very real and, one could argue, equally undeniable. Our collective fiercely held opinions on commercialisation and almost OCD level obsession with not ‘selling out’ would also have inevitably hampered much forward movement for some time too, I fear. Not that that’s a bad thing necessarily, but nevertheless I think it would have been a very real barrier to making progress in terms of creating a product with much of a potential audience.

Interestingly I met with an old colleague from Art school the other week. We had not seen each other in twenty years, but he told me that he sometimes uses my old fanzine experiences as an analogy in business coaching situations. It all hinges on that sense of micro-conflicts between otherwise apparently similar people, or at least people with similar interests and roles. So that whilst as a fanzine writer I might have been arguing openly and heatedly with another fanzine writer about, say, which Talulah Gosh single is the best, to an observer it appears an illogical source of conflict. To the outsider it seems like, ‘hey, both these people love this group I’ve never heard of! Why don’t they use that shared love to make something great happen?’ So the micro-conflicts are damaging and holding back potential growth or positive development. Of course you can argue that those very micro-conflicts are at the heart of obsessive pop-cultural consumption, and that they are indeed desirable in that media and age context, which means that maybe the analogy doesn’t cross-contextual boundaries. Nevertheless I think it’s very useful, and I think helps to explain why I don’t think Fire Raisers could have grown beyond what it was within the context it found itself.

D: I was party back then to more micro-conflicts than I care to think about!  Politics is of course also largely about micro-conflicts, with the same resulting positives and negatives.

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D: Who or what were our inspirations, and our enemies?

A: I’m struggling to think of inspirations. Didn’t we think we were very much out on a limb, doing something different? I like to think so. And I like to think that we were fairly true to that. Certainly there were lots of dire small press fanzines that were doing fiction and other such things, but were they mixing it up like we intended? I’m not sure. Certainly I suspect things like Debris were a reference point, and to some extent people like i-D and The Face perhaps, at least in terms of those publications’ original ethos. Though by the time of Fire Raisers i-D and The Face were probably seen as much as enemies as anything else. I think perhaps the idea of the ’60s underground press was a reference point. IT and such like. Also, I would guess the more politically minded situationist publications were in your mind Daniel?

But yes, there was a lot of importance put on the idea of enemies in those days, wasn’t there? I am not sure if that was a reflection of the age, or of ours. I am not sure if people of that age now feel the same sense of having to take sides, of being for this and against that. I suspect in reality things are not much different and that the percentage of any given generation that really cares about such things at a given age remains roughly the same. But as for who our enemies were? Is ‘everyone else’ too flippant an answer? Perhaps so, and yet it feels honest and indicative of our glorious naiveté.

D: Oh yes, I don’t think it was until a while after the ashes of Fire Raisers had cooled that I finally got myself out of that situationist straitjacket.  It was an unfortunate part of the baggage that stopped us from trying to sell or market the magazine.  Situationism’s critique of capitalism was so devastating, and its political aspirations so remote, that for a long time I felt bleakly trapped by it.  That came out in what I wrote for Fire Raisers.  Having Guy Debord and Mark Eitzel as chief inspirations is not a great combination if you’re after producing happy text, or for that matter, a happy bunny writing it.

The fact that we felt unable to name more than a couple of even vaguely like-minded enterprises in the first issue – both in any case the projects of people who contributed or went on to contribute to the magazine – suggests that what you say is right.  We did feel out on a limb.  Debris was great, but it was more properly journalistic in its approach than we ever envisaged being.  I never really bought into The Face and i-D thing, though later, when I lived in Bristol and started going to clubs , I bought them out of curiosity (and a lack of anything else to go for) in terms of that culture.

I think I was hoping to elicit from you particular individuals who inspired us as well as publications, whether that was personally or in a literary sense.  As well as Debord and Eitzel, I was big on Georges Perec at the time; an excellent stylistic corrective to all the Kerouac I’d read.  And personally Ross Reid (Cornish fanzine writer and sports journalist) was also a huge inspiration for me – in fact (now it can be told) he was the subject of ‘Spike’, the opening article in issue one.  In February 1990 – in a classic example of micro-conflict! – he sent out a circular called ‘Anger the angels’ to certain friends and two of the Esurient groups with one of the classic photos from the May ’68  riots on the front, telling us all to ‘wake up!’ and issuing me with an injunction about getting on with Fire Raisers: ‘don’t fiddle with matchsticks while you can/could blowtorch the fucking lot.’  He demanded – alongside what I now see is an isolated and ever-so-slightly paranoid plea for contact – that we think big.  We tried.

And of course we should direct a nod of appreciation in Max Frisch’s direction, for it was his play’s title that we appropriated for the magazine.  Likewise a nod to Fiona of our Devonian contingent of friends (and contributors), who originally passed it our way.  I haven’t reread the play since, but what I recall is a blend of Brecht, anarchism and something more conservative, the end result being not dissimilar to the recent German film The Edukators.

Anyone else you would add to the list?

A: Well, as you were perhaps moving on from the Kerouac obsession, perhaps I was moving into it. Hence the large photo of the man himself accompanying my new Orleans missive. I think there was something of the stream of consciousness prose in the Big Flame extracts too, although that was tempered with some conscious stylistic editing too. I suspect my Sylvia Plath obsession came slightly later…

Like you, I had never particularly bought into the i-D magazine culture, although as an Art student perhaps I was more inclined to dabble. Certainly I had loved The Face since the early ‘80s, and Blitz (which was run partly by Paul Morley, yes?) was a regular on my desk, although by the time of around ’86 into ’87 I’d had my head turned by things that would shortly coagulate into the dreaded ‘indie’ style, and this was very much seen to be in opposition to the glossy ‘style’ magazines.

I always thought it was funny that several of the images that were in my first (handwritten!) fanzine Delight In The New Wonderland were from fashion spreads in The Face. And I liked that the image we used to accompany the ‘Helsinki’ piece in Fire Raisers 3 about clubs came from i-D.

D: Was there a place in the world at the time for the kind of magazine we were aiming to produce?  Is there one now?

A: This is something I’ve thought about often over the years, not specifically in reference to Fire Raisers, but in general. And I must admit that it is with something of a resigned sigh when I conclude that no, there isn’t and no, there wasn’t. Not if one wanted to make a living out of it at least.

I think if you drew a Venn diagram of potential markets for the things that ‘we’ like(d), then you are left with a tiny area that, globally, may never amount to any more than a few thousand people. Which in real terms is less than negligible. Our disinterest in pretty much anything remotely approaching ‘mainstream’ (or that our interest in anything remotely mainstream is placed in unfamiliar contexts) also precludes the potential marketplace for anything we might produce.

That’s not a criticism though, and nor is it a reason for not doing something. It’s just an observation and an acknowledgement.

D: I suppose it depends upon how much ground we might have conceded to the mainstream, or, to put it less grudgingly, how hard we might have worked to bring what we liked in a cultural sense to a readership that might be less familiar with it.  Certainly we were never going to make a living from the magazine itself, but it might have led more directly to the chance of making a living from freelancing.  But we were actively engaged in the enrichment of our own cultural lives, if no-one else’s.  A salary, food and a roof were never going to be enough, with all due admission that we were and are lucky enough to be living in a time and place when we can say that.

If the cultural blend had been suitably varied – and I think it was well on the way to becoming so – we might have generated interest in and – to use your analogy – shaded a fair number of those intersections at the centre of that Venn diagram.  If the way the internet has evolved proves anything, it’s that there are an almost infinite number of overlapping or interlinked musical and cultural localities; in our own small way, with our contributors’ collection of varied interests, we anticipated this – and contributed to that evolution itself when it began to happen.

A: There’s a symbiotic relationship, isn’t there, between our understanding of those cultural connections and the media through which we exploit the links. So without the possibilities offered by the Internet, for example, would our sense of connectedness be lessened? Or increased? Does the physical size of those distributed networks impact on that? So for example, is there any less a sense of belonging to a group when the membership is measured in the millions as opposed to the hundreds? And how ‘real’ is the sense of belonging? And how do you measure or judge the ‘reality’ anyway?

Sorry, that’s a lot of questions and thoughts starting to get up their own arses, but I do think it’s interesting. And I don’t think that Fire Raisers could have increased its audience without changing its fundamental form. Which ties in to what we were saying about contexts.

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7 responses

  1. Great ‘zine. One of the few I’ve kept from those days.

  2. Cheers Robin. And as we mention in one of the upcoming parts, it was how we made contact with you all those years ago.

    Dan

  3. Hi Dan,

    Talking of micro-conflicts, you probably remember I was involved in the early plans for Fire Raisers but then dropped out in a way that still makes me cringe twenty years on.

    As I recall, I wrote you a letter which I handed to you after we’d been to a gig together (Happy Mondays at the Astoria I believe) having given you absolutely no indication of my intentions during the evening!

    I think the thrust of my argument – which you touch upon here – was that I wanted Fire Raisers to be more “ambitious” – even though I wasn’t any better than you at being able to articulate what I had in mind, or had a clue how to achieve this. I think I said something along the lines of “I can’t possibly do a magazine with you as you don’t like the Sex Pistols”. Perhaps I imagined a sort of literary equivalent of the Manic Street Preachers or something.

    Looking back I think it was a good time for me to drop out though. Like you, I’d written fanzines as a teenager out in the sticks but up in London I’d become very aware of how minor and marginalised what we were doing was. For the same reasons I was never as enthusiastic about Kevin’s Esurient nights as you and Alistair. Looking back I suppose we were both right – taken out of the specificity of their time, both The Claim and Fire Raisers are great. But neither really made any impact on the wider culture.

    I guess we did drift apart somewhat after the letter episode. I even recall later submitting a very half-hearted, poorly-written article about James Kelman which you quite rightly rejected. I’m very glad you did and that I don’t have to re-read it in PDF format now!

    As you know I have reservations about raking over the past, but I am enjoying your blog immensely.

  4. As is often the case when something continues to make you cringe, the other party in all likelihood has completely forgotten about it – despite all the reflecting on Fire Raisers that Alistair and I have done over the last few weeks, I hadn’t remembered that letter until you mentioned it. The bad news for you is that I still have it! (You can take the boy out of the library, but you can’t take the librarian out of the boy.) It’s actually a fantastically snotty piece of writing that we should have had the guts to publish in the first issue – as an incitement to ourselves and our readers, or a corrective. You and I exchanged a fair amount of vitriol back then by the looks of it, some of the kind that would put 21st century flamers to shame. But I think you quickly came to conclusions about our cultural milieu that we only came to much more slowly. And I suspect your early willingness to be involved in the project and subsequent withdrawal helped shape the magazine more than you might imagine.

    I remember rejecting other pieces, but again, I’d forgotten doing so with yours on James Kelman, and again, I still have it; it’s a perfectly decent article, so I have to accuse myself of a little tit-for-tat reprisal in saying thank you, but no.

    Raking over the past: although bringing Fire Raisers back into the light has been much more enjoyable than doing the same with my own fanzines, I’ll nevertheless be glad to be spending a little more time in the 21st century once we’re done.

  5. […] Raisers, in which we get our teeth stuck into taking risks, stylistic tics, and graphic design.  Part one is here, and part three will appear on this blog next week.  All three issues are available as PDFs or […]

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