Why I’m about to spend two weeks in a car in the name of art

I write, you know, it’s sort of the core of loads of stuff I do—writing is a founding block of good social web engagement which is where I get most of my living from. It’s also part of teaching or training in a way, you need to be able to construct narratives and find the right words. Journalism, or at least the writing of words to order for publication, is fun too. But the writing that’s most rewarding is where you get to have an idea, and then run with the bugger until it’s done.

Listening to all six hundred and ninety eight Elvis Presley songs in order in one sitting was one of those, but Dirty Bristow was sort of like that on a grand scale, and not just me writing.

When you look around there seems to be a straight choice for writers: the web and freedom (but no guaranteed audience or context) or whatever publication will have you and whatever rules they apply. Not that rules are bad: it’s not just the subject/audience/word count stuff that’s the problem, it’s the context and the pressure of it. Want to discuss South American literature and pop-culture in the same breath? You’ll be too worried that not everyone will get it, waste the word count explaining things and end up with something without the élan you wanted.

So we invented a magazine with as few rules and pressures as possible, it seems (artistically at least) to work. That sorted what’s the next challenge?


Or to be specific, nostalgia for a lost and fictional time and piers are a good knob to hang this particular type upon.

Danny Smith, with whom I’d managed to hold out against the advice and make the magazine, said there was something in a book visiting all of the pleasure piers in Britain. He didn’t know how many there were, how long that would take, but it sounded good. I said yes, and then basically a lot of people said ‘no’. Or rather they said “don’t do it”, “I’m not coming”, “that’s stupid”, “why?” or most devastatingly of all for Dan “you’re wasting your life” (his mum).

But we’re going to do it anyway. We’ve researched a bit, and know where they are. We’ve press-ganged a driver—I say so my creative stance isn’t diluted, my friend says “so your drinking isn’t interrupted” and she’s possibly half right. But it’s more so I don’t have to worry so much.

I love new places, but find that travel can be a trial, even if arriving is a pleasure.

I get nervous: sit on a train, is it the right train? Is it working? Have I go the right ticket?  What if it doesn’t stop at the right place? What if it breaks down, what if… No, I can’t relax. Not til all decisions have been taken off me—which is sort of why I can cope a lot more easily with the regimented walk/don’t walk watch-the-screens travel by air. I mean, they’re actively trying to make sure you don’t get on the wrong plane—and the consequences of a break-down are a little more final than having to spend the night on Crewe Station.

So if I don’t have to think, and the worst thing that can happen is that I die, I’m good.

I don’t have a point or an allegory for the journey, certainly not one as deeply thought out and involving the A-Team as m’colleague Mr Smith has. Nor am I thinking about group dynamics in a wider sense than I don’t really want to have a row with either of them. I’m not looking for conflict or hardship: the last thing I want is for this tale to turn into one of struggle, of dirty sleeping conditions or danger. We might find some, but I’m more interested in the ghosts of the past.

There’s something we’ve lost culturally, it’s like a love that’s gone and hurts. The empty past leaves you constantly hungry around the heart: it’s true to call it an ache but there are sharp pains too. There’ll be explosions of emptiness, like going over a humpbacked bridge too fast.

Inspirationally, for me the trip is a mirror world version of Drummond and Manning’s Bad Wisdom series. In that two differing writers travel to the unknown, testing themselves and their sanity—we’re hunting the familiar in a county that is changing faster than we can cope with. Except that instead of two independently wealthy ex-pop stars, we’re two people without two pots to rub together; having spent what little spare we had on the magazine itself.

People have been kind, we’ve had offers of support and places to kip as well as a surprisingly quick race to the (low admittedly) Crowdfunding target. Thanks everybody.

If you want to check out something similar, there’s the much smaller scale trip we did around Birmingham’s pubs Concrete and Cocktails that you can download for nowt.

More details of how to help or get involved in this madness are here: http://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/investment/pier-review-a-book-about-a-journey-to-the-outcrops-of-a-dying-culture-311

Twitter – @Pierreview
Facebook – Facebook.com/PierReview

The future of publishing

If there’s one thing that fills the web more than cat pictures it’s ruminations on the state, past or future of newspapers and magazines. The truth is old models are failing and no-one really knows. Rupert Murdoch is trying paywalls, which is a possibility for publications with existing audiences and strong brands, but what can a start-up publication do?

In my own small way I’m experimenting — this week sees the launch of a—yes—paper-based magazine that Danny Smith and I have been working on for the best part of six months. This is what it looks like:

Pile of Dirty Bristow magazines

Things we’ve worked out so far:

  • Print is really expensive at small scale, but it’s still much easier to get people excited to work for and to sell than web content.
  • Brand is all important: we’ve gone for wilfully obtuse and arty—we think that’s a sector we can sell to.
  • A clean break between web and print means that you need to create lots of reasons for, and a fair amount of, ‘related but not similar’ content. Content that reaches the same audience, but isn’t seen as either a free or a second-rate version of what you’re asking payment for in print.
  • A new thing needs its networks—we’ve tried to make sure that everyone that can feel ownership of the magazine finds it easy to talk about and share stuff about it with their networks.
  • If you’ve got a brand, related events can make a fair bit of money—but they’re an additional risk. We’re operating at small scale, but publishers have tried this — Wrox Press when I worked for it’s web design offshoot was trying to maximise return on brand by conferences, it didn’t bring in enough money to save the company. It seems easier, however, to sell a specific happening via the social web than it does an ongoing concept.
  • No-one’s going to pay to get past the paywall on a Twitter account—well only about ten people in my experience.

As well as being exhausting and a great hobby, there’s been a fair few opportunities to try out different promotional web-tricks that I’m going to use again. Issue two shouldn’t take so long.

Dead Trees

As if I didn’t have enough to do I’m working towards launching a magazine. Not just me, my good friend Danny Smith is my partner in this foolhardy enterprise.

We’re both of the opinion that there are a lot of good writers that don’t have the opportunity to stretch themselves — and that commercial magazines don’t afford that chance at all, driven as they are ‘backwards’. ‘Backwards’ in the sense that writing exists to fill gaps of a certain size: 50 words for a joke sidebar, 1,000 for a short article  — and that those gaps are defined by the sensibilities of advertising.

If we’re going to try, we’re going to try to do this the right way round:

  • Find good writers and give them the freedom to write — a piece should be a long or as short as it needs, in whatever style the writer wants.
  • We’ll edit as minimally as possible — if we think it needs much more than that the author will get a chance to re-write.
  • We’ll match each piece with an illustrator and give them equal freedom.
  • The whole package gets made into a magazine as beautiful as is possible.
  • It’ll have as many pages as it needs, and no adverts, filler or regular features to distract from the good writing and drawing.

Given that when handed completely free reign to choose what to do, most writers, and creative people in general, seize up. We’ve decided to theme each issue. The first issue theme, appropriately enough, is ‘Birth’. We’re open to offers of work now.

This is hard, it’s unlikely to make any money — and it’s unlikely that to start with it’ll sell enough copies to make the cover price able to pay for everything. To that end we’re planning on financing printing through a series of events — of which more soon.

What makes it even more interesting is that we’ve decided that it should have only the most minimal internet presence, there’s not going to be online issues, or content available on the web — so how to use the web to promote a thing that only exists in the real world?

Not sure yet.

At the moment it’s called Dirty Bristow, and we’re planning to release end of April. And, yes of course we both get to have an article in every issue.