FOOTBALL PINK contributor IAN CUSACK recently launched THE POPULAR SIDE; currently the only printed fanzine primarily dedicated to Newcastle United. I caught up with Ian to discuss the magazine and theprecarious state of affairs at St. James’ Park.
I’ve read both of the first two issues of The Popular Side and despite not being a Newcastle fan. I’ve got to say that it’s got some superb content. Issue 2 in particular is top quality. How hard was it to get it started?
Surprisingly, it wasn’t that difficult at all to make the idea a reality. I’ve been involved with Newcastle United fanzines since 1989 when I first wrote for The Mag, as well as many other long-defunct publications, such as Dave Jameson’s marvelous Half Mag, Half Biscuit. In 2004, I moved on to write for Steve Wraith’s players inc, which became Toon Talk and latterly Number 9. For the 2013/2014 season, I was involved with a few other writers from The Popular Side in the final 3 on-line, free-to-download editions of that latter publication, which didn’t work out how we hoped, sadly. That experience, which taught us we were writers and not designers, plus The Mag ceasing publication after 288 issues and 26 years, left NUFC fans without a fanzine. A conversation in the pub one Friday night during the World Cup with the co-founders Steve Hastie and Bill Corcoran, led us to the decision that Newcastle could probably do with an A5 old school, no frills inky fanzine and the belief that between us we had enough mates and contacts to get a launch issue together. A dozen texts later and we had a name for this venture, a cover design and an enthusiastic squad of writers, many of whom have written for a whole range of fan publications, both NUFC related and more general, such as Kriss Knights (aka Billy Furious), Neil Mitchell, Paul McIntosh and Chris Tait, former deputy editor of The Mag, who made the salient point that if you’re an electrician and the company you work for goes out of business, you don’t stop being an electrician; you look for another job.
Hence, we were able to find some of the very best Newcastle United supporting writers and give them a platform for their thoughts. Additionally, the magic of Twitter (we’re @PopularSideZine) has enabled us to subsequently form links with many other NUFC fans, who fight shy of the media stereotype of the thick Geordie by being erudite, articulate and perceptive, seeking in nuanced terms to tell the complicated truth about our club instead of mouthing simple lies. Some of these new writers, like Matt Charlton or Michael Atkinson, are geniuses, plain and simple. Thus, in that sense, the first issue wrote itself, once we’d decided on a publication date of August 17th at the Manchester City home game. We had 28 pages and 17 writers. For issue 2, we encouraged a few others to put their thoughts on paper and were contacted by others keen to express opinions, meaning that in the end we had 40 pages and 21 writers, including 6 newly published ones. That’s pretty good value for a quid, we feel. The problem, of course, is keeping the momentum going; the “difficult third album” scenario is upon us and it is up to us to source quality writers who can provide sensitive insights into the club. We’re frankly not interested in rambling, badly-spelled tirades about the merits of Paul Dummett; stuff like that can stay on-line. Consequently, a week before the supposed deadline, we’ve only got 8 pages of content and may be forced to stall publication until the Liverpool game on November 1st, rather than the intended date of Leicester City on October 18th.
You’re a long time Newcastle fan but ‘gave up’ watching them regularly a few years back; why start a fanzine about them if your heart lies elsewhere these days?
While saying that my heart will always be with Newcastle United, I think I’ve partly answered that above; to me and many others it seems the absence of a print fanzine devoted to NUFC was not just a crying shame, but a wrong that needed righting. To paraphrase Bobby Sands; everyone, active supporter or otherwise, has their own particular part to play. While I’m not equating being involved in a fanzine with the struggle for self-determination in the north of Ireland, the point I’m making is that because I’ve been involved in writing for independent publications since the late 1970s and football specifically since the late 1980s, I know how to construct articles. Also, as I edit the programme at Newcastle Benfield in the Northern League, I know how to put a magazine together, even if it’s just a word document saved in PDF format. Consequently, I wanted to use my expertise to help give NUFC fans a voice. It isn’t an ego trip for me at all, as frankly I’m happy to take a back seat, proofing and subbing the pieces our writers submit; 26 years as an English lecturer makes you attuned to grammatical errors. Consequently, in issue 1 all I wrote was the editorial and in issue 2, I only contributed an article to enable us to get up to the magic total of 40 pages (PDFs have to be in multiples of 4 pages to print properly you see); otherwise I’d have had to pull someone’s contribution, which I’m firmly against. Not that we’d print any old tripe mind! To summarise, I think my commitment to The Popular Side shows that I adhere to the statement made by Tony Benn when he stood down as an MP, saying he was leaving Westminster to devote more time to politics.
How do you see The Popular Side developing in the next few editions? You’re a no frills, low budget production that concentrates on writing quality. Any plans to develop it in other ways?
We set ourselves up as an old-school, A5, not for profit fanzine, with no website, no adverts and no merchandise as we’re not interested in having fellow fans fund our leisure choices. Issue 1 cost us £180 for 200 copies; we gave 20 away to contributors and sold out the rest, as well as shifting quite a few PDFs to turn a slight surplus. For issue 2, the printer kept it at 80p a copy, despite the extra pages and we had 300 done. It seems that was ambitious as we were left with 50 copies, as many on-line purchasers via Twitter, our one concession to the modern era, opted for the PDF. Consequently, our modest initial profit has offset a loss on issue 2, leaving us at our intended, ethical break-even point. I think we’ll split the difference and go for a 250 print run next time.
Basically, we have no intention of changing our format; if we make any profit in the future, we may go for a glossy or colour cover, as much to highlight the superb work of our resident artist Michael Atkinson. The main thing we would like is to encourage new and different writers to contribute to subsequent editions. Ideologically, we are a loose collective of writers of equal parity of esteem, bound by an interest in Newcastle United; there’s no rigid, inflexible, dogmatic ideology set down by self-elected, supposedly charismatic autodidacts for “followers” to adhere to. If there were, I wouldn’t be involved. There are no bosses at this publication and there’s no list of philosophical commandments to follow, other than our obvious refusal to countenance the publication of anything discriminatory in any way.
As we don’t know what the shelf life is for The Popular Side will be, we’re just enjoying the journey. Having established our credentials among Newcastle United fans with the first 2 issues, by demonstrating our honourable intentions and the quality of our magazine, we would fondly hope to diversify our content to include work from a whole range of different contributors. We are acutely aware of having not published any female writers, or those from the Geordie diaspora, or supporters of other clubs with something to say, though we’re working on it. Frankly, anyone is welcome to contribute, providing they can write and adhere to deadlines. That latter point is the perennial moan of fanzine editors the world over; that and a lack of willing bodies to flog the thing on a match day. We’re no different in that respect, but the only thing that would get us to pack in would be a lack of volunteers prepared to do more than just submit their 1,000 words and wait for the contributor copy to hit the doormat, which takes us back to the Bobby Sands quotation I guess…
What are your thoughts on the current turmoil on and off the pitch at St. James’ Park?
As stated above, The Popular Side has no party line, so this is a personal take. If I wanted it to, I could allow this answer to take up my every waking moment until the team next plays which would then probably require something of a rewrite in the light of subsequent events, so I’ll try to be concise. Basically, I’m not surprised. In my opinion, Pardew used all his privileges up at the end of the January 2013 transfer window when he was presented with a batch of potentially excellent signings that he has conspicuously failed to utilise in any meaningful way. As a result, Debuchy came and went; Yanga Mbiwa is in the departure lounge, Haidara is scandalously out of the team while Sissoko and Gouffran labour and toil, being played out of position. Similarly, summer 2014 saw the highly encouraging signings of Janmaat, Colback, Cabella, Riviere and the injured De Jong. These are good players who are woefully underachieving and the reason for that is simply because, being blunt, Pardew is an absolute clown; a vain, narcissistic, gauche, populist clown. However, he is only the symptom; Ashley’s toxic reign is the actual disease. Replacing Pardew with another malleable, useful idiot is as pointless an exercise as I could imagine. He may lose his job, or he may not; second guessing Ashley’s motives and strategy is a fruitless activity.
What would you like to see happen at the club (realistically)?
My personal mantra is this; whoever manages or plays for Newcastle United and wherever they finish in the table remains an utter irrelevance while Mike Ashley has possession of the club. We don’t need some mythical, benevolent Geordie billionaire to turn up and shower his largesse on the club, what we need is Ashley OUT and 100% Fan Ownership IN, though I’m prepared to accept 51% Fan Ownership as a transitional demand. Is this a dream? Yes. Is this attainable? Possibly. Is this realistic? I would like to think so. Politically, I am a supporter of the Socialist Party of Great Britain (and other companion parties of the World Socialist Movement). It has been the SPGB’s position since 1904, that the Labour Party are no different to all other capitalist parties and eventually people are coming round to our way of thinking, which is instructive when considering events up Barrack Road. It means NUFC fans need to think long term; the club was formed in 1892, but Ashley has only been around since 2007. Before his disastrous ownership, there was Shepherd, Hall, McKeag, Westwood et al; none of that lot displayed loyalty to anything other than their own love of profits and dividends. As supporters, we cannot trust capitalists with the stewardship of our club. In an ideal world, through guilt or fan pressure, Ashley would give the club away, to the fans and the city, to be run as a non-profit institution for the whole region, with democratically elected structures and accountable executives subject to immediate recall. This may not happen in my lifetime, same as Socialism, but I believe it will one day, for the greater good of all humanity. The actual details of how it will occur show that the future is, as yet, unwritten. That realistic enough for you? I was going to say I’d like us to win a cup in my lifetime, but that’s a total impossibility.
Any plans to be a regular at St. James’ Park again? What would it take?
Define regular… After packing in my season tickets a few years ago after my dad’s death, my son’s decision to play rugby (league not union!) on a Saturday and my own involvement with Percy Main Amateurs in the Northern Alliance and then Newcastle Benfield in the Northern League, not to mention still playing for Wallsend Winstons in the North East Over 40s League, I’ve got more than enough to do on a Saturday as it is without trooping up to SJP.
Frankly, I simply cannot conceive of a series of events that would stop me watching non-league football every weekend between now and the end of my days. So, the answer is probably no and nothing. That said, I’ve been to plenty of games since I packed in my season ticket; probably about half a dozen a season, generally when they’re on a Sunday. I’ve enjoyed most of them as well, other than the tedious whining of those around me who don’t appreciate the finer points of the game; if you’re used to watching the Northern League, then the Premier League at close quarters is a massive leap in standard, which means sometimes you’re obliged to just appreciate the quality of opposition play, rather than seeking to blame Williamson, Tiote or whoever for every opposition goal. When I know I can make a particular game, what I try to do is to buy tickets from fellow fans who are unable to go for whatever reason, as I’d rather they weren’t out of pocket, rather than give my money to the club.
This season, I’ve not seen the team at all, even on the telly as I don’t have Sky. I was disappointed when Hull got knocked out the Europa League because I would have gone to that one if it had been put back 24 hours. I’m planning on Everton on December 28th and Burnley on 1st January as my next two visits to SJP. Although, as I’m now 50, I have to admit that the older I get the more intimate I like my pubs, gigs and football matches. Also, if pushed, I would have to admit that I find the politics of Newcastle United much more fascinating than actually watching the team play, whereas with the non-league game it is the exact opposite.
Do you think the fanzine scene, like vinyl, is making a comeback and is now viewed as ‘cool’?
I’m not sure if “cool” is the correct word, but there certainly appears to have been a significant renaissance in what will always be a niche area. As someone who loves obscure indie, post punk, folk and folk rock, I’m used to spending a lot of time in second hand shops and at markets leafing through stock, spending the last decade replacing vinyl I’d got rid over during the two decades previous. There is something ineffably magnificent and tactile about a record, a book or a fanzine that the digital equivalent can never hope to emulate. Of course, the quality has to be there; superb publications such as A Fine Lung (FC United of Manchester), Duck (Stoke City), Mudhutter (Wigan), West Stand Bogs (Barnsley), Stand (general) and your own magazine, have done their bit to ensure, often via social media, that there is a sustainable and loyal market, with the potential for growth, for well written publications. I’m not just saying that as all the fanzines mentioned have used my work either. In addition, it should be noted that fanzines aren’t just about football; my mate Joe England, the West Ham fan who was in issue 2, edits PUSH, a sold on the street literary fanzine, full of poems and short stories. He sells PUSH outside the Boleyn Ground to home and away fans; I think that’s an amazing development and something I personally would be very keen to develop, perhaps outside of the confines of The Popular Side.
As well as having sold out your first issue, what other feedback have you had on the fanzine?
Obviously we’re tiny; 200 copies of issue 1, then 250 copies of issue 2, including PDFs, made it into the public domain, so any feedback has tended, by definition, to be personally tailored. We’ve only had 1 negative comment; this fella Shaun, who’s a Whitley Bay fan from Jarrow with a residual support for Sunderland said of issue 1,“it’s crap; all about Newcastle.” Personally I think that says more about him than us, but no matter.
Seriously, the only constructively critical comment we had was that, despite saying we would have no adverts in issue 1, the article by Billy Furious was a glorified press release for his new book. That’s something I agree with in retrospect. Everyone else has been highly complementary, though we don’t exactly have a high profile among the on-line community as yet.
What was the first fanzine you ever read?
As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m as much as music obsessive as I am football fan, which meant I was a voracious reader of late 70s publications such as Sniffin’ Glue and Temporary Hoarding that chronicled a post punk scene of gigs, squats and Peel sessions somewhat removed from my own teenage experiences growing up in Felling. As far as football fanzines are concerned, I was too young to be aware of Foul, which first came out when I was 8 in 1972, but I did find myself in the right place at the right time while living in West London in 1986/1987, getting a very early copy of When Saturday Comes from Rough Trade in Notting Hill and falling in love with the concept. Back then I worked with two fellas Ed (a Wealdstone fan) and Steve (a QPR supporter); we’d take turns to watch their teams at home, or Newcastle if they were in the capital and I remember buying early editions of The Elmslie Ender and In the Loft. Before moving back to Newcastle, I had a year in Leeds, though I watched Bradford when I couldn’t see Newcastle and developed my enduring passion for City Gent. Consequently, moving back to Newcastle, I realized what The Mag would be about and so started my football writing career; 25 years later I still find the urge to write almost every day.
If Newcastle fans (or any other club’s supporters) wish to get hold of a copy, how do they go about it (we thoroughly recommend it – Ed)?
Basically, through PayPal to firstname.lastname@example.org PDFs of issue 1 and 2 are available for £1 each, while paper copies of issue 2 cost £2 for UK to include P&P. We’d rather not send physical copies abroad because of the prohibitive cost for postage. If you include an extra £1 with an order for a paper copy, I’ll send you my book Village Voice about Percy Main Amateurs as well. If you want to buy a copy at a Newcastle home game, try the Number 9 on Stowell Street, Tyneside Irish Centre on Gallowgate, before and after the match, or The Bodega on Westgate Road, after the game, are your best bets. You can keep in touch with us on Twitter via @PopularSideZine where we’ll announce whether issue 3 comes out for Leicester city on 18th October or Liverpool on 1st November.