I wouldn't normally roll out two interviews within the space of a week but this is a special occasion. Today's interview is with none other than Joe England - editor, publisher and distributor of PUSH, the literary phenomenon that has been taking the streets of London by storm. Joe kindly gave me a little bit of his time to answer some questions about his magazine and discuss The Best of the First 10 Issues anthology which came out this week on East London Press.
For anyone that has been living under a rock for the past 18 months (or doesn't attend West Ham home games), what is PUSH?
PUSH is a literary fanzine I started last year. It began as a 44 page publication and has grown up to twice in size in the last 4/5 issues. Originally sold for just £1.50, I took 40 copies of Issue One to West Ham/West Brom in March 2013, and with some opportunist luck, help from West Ham legend Julian Dicks (pictured right), plus my own big mouth on the day, I sold the lot. I used to write a regular column for a West Ham fanzine a long time ago, and as a regular most of my life in E13, I know the turf well. I like to think I knew what I was doing right from the start. But that is open for interpretation. But truly only thought back then it would run for 3 issues at best.
What was the catalyst in you creating the mag? How did it come about?
I have always respected Kevin Williamson and what he did in getting new writing and writers into the mainstream and his Rebel Inc Classic series of books changed my life as got me reading important literature. I wasn’t a big reader until I stumbled upon the books he was putting out. Really exciting reissues by the likes of John Fante, Alexander Trocchi and Knut Hamsun. But I never ever saw or read his magazine. But knew all about it. I even had a Rebel Inc Reader book ‘Sampled’ where Kevin explained how Rebel Inc came into being and had samples of some of the books he was now publishing through his Rebel Inc imprint. I loved the honesty in his words. And his battle cry. Fuck The Mainstream. And he did exactly that. Then in January last year when in Amsterdam, of all places, in a late night outdoor book market down an covered alleyway, while looking for old first edition classics – I was becoming a book collector back then – I flicked through the magazine box. There was retro 70s porn in there, UK mags too, Whitehouse and the like, UK porn mags run by a bloke who now runs one half of West Ham, plus various other magazines. Then BANG. Rebel Inc. Issue 4. Think it only cost me 8 Euros. Result. It’s the issue with the Irvine interview with both him and Kevin E’d out of their eyeballs. It also featured a powerful short story ‘Millway Away’ by John King, the first work he ever had published and what went on to become his very successful debut novel, The Football Factory. So I read the mag many times over and loved it but was also frustrated that there seemed to be nothing like Rebel Inc happening today. It was all Kindles and an overwhelming amount of poor online publishing and vanity publishing gone mad. Any idiot could self-publish on a Kindle. You had all these terrible writers thinking they were something, and even bigger idiots providing praise. I read some of them, and truly thought, we are so fucked if this is the way forward. And after a few glasses of red wine one Sunday evening, I mentioned to Joseph Ridgwell, who I had recently got to know, that it was a fucking shame there wasn’t a Rebel Inc still out there and how if there was one, then we would both have had a chance of getting published in it. I had done some writing myself and felt there was never going to ever be a DIY scene again. So I said, ‘Do you know what, I might do one.’ And he replied, ‘Do one then!’ So I did. Three weeks later PUSH Issue One hit the streets.
The mag has been a phenomenal success - were you surprised that the football crowd were so receptive to it?
I went into this eyes blind. Dived in. Best way. Don’t think about the reaction, etc, just do it, get out there and sell the fucking thing. Knew the writing might connect, but you can never be sure how this kind of thing will turn out. Especially doing this at football. These days at football, you have got no end of people shoving marketing leaflets into your face as you head to the ground. It is understandable to be dismissive of a stranger approaching you, when all you want to do is meet your mates for a drink/get in the ground/have the piss you desperately now need since getting off the tube after a session elsewhere. But with that first issue, I had that photo of Julian Dicks holding the mag, that’s another story, but I had Julian and knew I had a chance. And it allowed strangers to trust me. I would talk about my own fanzine writing, that at £1.50 it was a risk worth taking. Many took the risk. In fact many of those early readers that go over West Ham, don’t buy the mag anymore on the day of a game. They order online. Why? Because they are now collecting them and don’t want the cover creased! Straight up. I love that comment. I have also had so many emails from West Ham fans that said, ‘Read cover to cover on way home from game.’ The alternative read on the way home from the game was then born and up and running.
Is there a big gulf in the difference between online sales and on the street sales?
Right this is where I put things into context. I do on average a 120 print run each issue. Anything greater and the momentum of putting the mag out regularly would have been lost. 120 copies is the right size print run. It has to sell out, quickly. All about momentum for me. As a rule I take 40 mags to the closest West Ham home game from when it’s back from the printers. I will sell all them 40, but if there is a gap before next game, often I am taking the last half a dozen along to a game to finish off the job. But yeah, there are a lot of online sales too. I have mailed to the whole bleeding world. Ireland, Scotland (loads to Scotland), Sweden, Germany, USA, Australia and all over England; from Penrith to Penzance via London.
You've put out thirteen issues (so far) and the best of the first ten issues anthology just came out. How do you find the time to do it all? Is it a one man operation or do you have any help?
Yeah, I’m a one man band operation when putting it all together. I edit, publish, sell on the street and do all the distribution. However, for the last few issues, I have had young Jamie Hall on the scene doing some selling with me on Green Street and Barking Road and outside East Ham Working Man’s Club. He is a good lad with a bright future. Anyway, for the past few years I haven’t had one full time job. Worked full time all my life and it crushes all the energy and creativity out of you. Recently I have had various part time jobs. Got just 2 right now. One working with young people excluded from mainstream education (which I wish was a full time job) and the other late night in retail. So there are spaces of opportunity for me to read over the submissions, layout of mag, think about cover design, etc. This might sound like I am being cocky, I’m not, but I do find it easy putting each issue together. But then again I have had the strength and knock-out power of the writing sent to me, combined with the passion and support of all the contributors and readers, this has helped keep my propeller spinning and makes the job a stroll.
How did the deal to release the anthology come about?
Got a good mate of mine who moved to the states a few years back. His nickname is Pills Mills. Anyway he was over last Christmas and we were talking about how in March 2014 it would be the one year anniversary of PUSH and how I wanted that issue to be more than a bit special. Which happened. But he said he’d sort out a website to coincide with release of anniversary issue. Which he did. Top man and a very good mate and at same time I got talking to Mark Buckland, another great fella, who had done some fucking amazing wonders with Cargo Publishing in Scotland. He founded it and grew it into a major force. And I began talking to him about an anthology. But Cargo was going through a major face-change. He actually said if we’d gone back 12 months and this was happening, Cargo would have put out the PUSH anthology. But sadly, the timing was wrong. Also many voices were wanting me to reprint out of print issues. Which was something that didn’t sit happy with me. I was told I should even put each issue on Kindle for 99p per copy. But that was never going to happen. I only ever did one reprint, that was PUSH NINE, and that was only because it had the Grant Fleming interview, and Grant is well known over West Ham by many, and many of my mates know of him, so that was the only reason. Think I did another 60 reprints on top of the original 120, and they soon went. That is the biggest print run to date. 180 issues combined. But I was never doing any other reissues. But I also didn’t want all this writing, poetry and interviews to fade away into the shadows. Always in my mind was how I wanted a bigger stage, to do an anthology. Talked to a few publishers who seemed interested but nothing moved forward. And as this year went into end of summer mode, I honestly didn’t think the book was going to happen this year. So I put it on the back burner for next year and anyway, I had another plan on the go. PUSH 14 was going to be completely different than anything that came before. To the point where I got quite specific about the theme and new cover design. I work late night in retail with a very young university graphic designer called Harriet and we got talking one night and she came out with all these ideas, and how I needed to up the game, which was hard to take at first from a 19 year-old! But we talked about PUSH 14 and the way forward, and all seemed good. And that was what was going to happen. Would have been out about now but then East London Press got in touch and said they would publish the anthology and front all costs for the book on the condition that it would be out no later than 01/12/14. So that’s what happened. And from planning the next issue, we had to change the plan and Harriet ended up doing the book cover design.
Was it hard to pick which pieces would be included and which wouldn't?
Done my head in. Seriously. I said I wasn’t being cocky about how putting the mag together was more fun than hard graft, but editing the book soon became a total headfuck. Think there was something like 28 contributors in those first 10 issues plus 8 interviews. I had a lot to consider. Also there was a deadline. No one had set me a deadline before. I set my deadlines. No deadlines. But with each issue of PUSH, I always knew though when I would have the mag sorted, what the West Ham home game it would come out at would be. This was different. Thought at one point I was out of my depth and about to be found out! But got through all that, the book got sorted and I am very happy with the running order. It definitely packs a good punch.
I know how good it feels to hold a zine in your hand that you've just put together, it must have been a special moment when you finally got your hands on those paperbacks?
Yeah it was. But I didn’t get sentimental or anything. I basically just marvelled at the claret and blue cover. Obviously attracted to the colours. This is a book you can judge by the cover. I wanted it in essence to have a retro 1980s West Ham fanzine look. The combined efforts of Harriet and Jose definitely achieved that.
Will the anthology be sold in shops or will you be out pedalling it on the street, as per?
I will be taking 20 copies to when West Ham play Leicester at home on the Saturday before Christmas and many independent bookshops are being targeted. But this is really the plan for early next year. But two have already agreed to stock the book. And they are really exciting bookshops. Can’t say more than that right now. Watch this space.
My lit zine PAPER AND INK actually launched in the same month (March 2013) as PUSH, Hand Job lit zine launched a couple of months after that, and new lit zines seem to be popping up all over the place. Is this merely a coincidence or is there a hint of literary revolution in the air?
I think the fact that it has just been announced that there has been the biggest record sales of vinyl in 2014, best since 1996, that tells you a lot about place and time and state of mind right now.
A certain intrepid lit fiend, who wishes to remain nameless, got wind of our interview and asked me to put forward his question to you, so here it is: What would you do if the likes of Joseph Ridgwell, Michael Keenaghan and Ian Cusack stopped submitting to PUSH? - as without their input - PUSH would be fucked.
If you are as prolific as the three writers mentioned – the spine of the team – they can be subbing out all over the shop and still have juice in the can. But if the spine of the team broke ranks, don’t agree PUSH would be fucked without them. In fact, if anything, that question shows a deep lack of respect to all the other contributors. Off the top of my head, Carlton Burns, Steve Finbow, Bobby Dean Ward, Ford Dagenham, Andrew Taylor, Simon Dent, Raymond Gorman, Melissa Mann, Anette Roller, know I’m missing many out here, but the list goes on etc, are all very talented writers. And PUSH is always open to new writers being in each issue. In fact in issues to come, new articulate/raw young blood will appear (what I actually want/know will happen) that may have the three of them mentioned in the question having to look over their shoulders, worrying about how this would be the cruellest time to get a long term injury. No, I’ve got no worries at all there. Know for a fact got young new writers knocking on the door. But will always look to keep the spine of the team. But I do want young London writers with no voice or place to put that voice into a place, to make themselves known to me, get in the mag. It is all part of the continued road forwards. The current spine of the team has been the spine of the team for all the right reasons. But Issue 14 will feature the youngest of any voices to date, a couple of teenagers, one of them is only 16, which to me, well, that’ll be a massive advance. So yeah, anything but fucked. Next question.
So, what does the future hold for PUSH? Will we be talking about the best of issues 11-20 anthology in a year's time or are you just playing it by ear?
Said to someone recently, that where we are right now is just the beginning and I stand by that. But after PUSH 6 – the football special, I thought I’d taken the mag as far as I could. Six issues in six months, all sold out, but where to next? I was out of energy. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the ride but thought that PUSH 7 to me would be the same old thing, magic gone, as inspiring as hearing about a new Bay City Rollers album. Then got a message from Ian Cusack. ‘David Peace just said he’d be happy to do an interview for the next issue. What do you reckon?’ Rest is history etc. Yeah got plans for further anthologies and aim now is for PUSH to get to 99 issues and then fold. Maybe not be in my lifetime. But that is the new game-plan. Was gonna fold it after 6 issues, but now it’s like, fuck it, we’re going to do 99. Always been about extremes with me.
Some may say that you've given the literary establishment the kick up the arse that it needed, what would you say about that?
I don’t do this as any kind of a movement or statement or a glory spite against them lot. But this has all been about a positive. I’ve enjoyed the spirit of PUSH. From the legions of brilliant contributors to feedback from the mags readership. All has been good. It just happened and still continues to happen, as a natural flow, nothing contrived. I have no connection to the literary establishment only in the rejection slips eventually received that all working class writers I know always expect to pop through the letterbox. Good books are rejected daily. Certain voices never given a chance to shine. The same old books published to make money not turn heads. John King says this in the introduction to the anthology: ‘Truth is, many people are not interested in contemporary fiction, because there is nothing that remotely relates to their lives.’ And he’s right.
I couldn't have put it any better myself. Long live PUSH and long live literary fanzines! Thank you for answering these questions, Joe.