Monday, 4 March 2019

'Is this York Free Press?'

York Free Press: IS THIS YFP? – I’ve Come to Register a Complaint! by Christopher Draper

Cover of York Free Press, Issue 31, May 1979. Cartoon of Thatcher and Callaghan as Punch and Judy. Article about National Front standing for election in York.
York Free Press No.31, 1979 (C.Draper)

THAT was my introduction to “York Free Press”, one of the best and most enduring of the “alternative newspapers” that for a decade or two enlivened Britain’s culture and politics.
It was 1976 and I was an idealistic young teacher living and working in York and aggrieved at an article I’d read in a recent issue.  York’s selective school system was about to be “comprehensively” reorganised but the YFP article argued for incorporating six-form colleges which I considered a device for keeping an A-Level elite away from less academic plebs. YFP claimed to be open to everyone and advertised weekly meetings upstairs in the Lowther on King’s Staith so I turned up one evening expecting a row and instead was welcomed in and invited to write a rejoinder.  I was utterly disarmed, it wouldn’t happen at Socialist Worker!  I was already a libertarian socialist but this bunch of scruffy student hippies turned me 100% anarchist and so I’ve remained.

Actually they weren’t all scruffy hippies,  Vaughn Harvey was but Tony Zurbrugg (who now runs Merlin Press) was already a serious-minded libertarian-communist permanently clad in an RAF greatcoat, Danae and Howard Clarke (later of “War Resisters International”) were smart-casual and always smiling, Danny Golding “The Ayatollah” (nowadays Labour loyalist) was too humourless to qualify as a real hippy but there was always a supporting cast of “occasionals” who couldn’t be asked to turn up every week.   That was an attractive feature of YFP, you helped at whatever level you felt comfortable with.  Most political groups demand so much that they retain only fanatics.  YFP enjoyed regular “bring food and drink to share” socials so less active supporters kept in touch and made friends with regular “collectivists”.

Around 1978 we organised a national 'PAPERS EVERYWHERE!' conference-jamboree weekend at York University.  We invited every community paper we could think of and people from about eighty titles turned up.  It was wonderful exchanging papers, experiences, ideas and what little technical expertise we’d acquired. I was especially impressed by a rather posh Sheffield guy who single-handed ran The Totley Independent, which he gave away free and financed by taking ads from small shops and tradesmen.  He stuck out like a sore thumb amongst an array of vaguely alternative-socialists but was content to paddle his own canoe.  It showed the potential of the format.  Some titles such as Islington Gutter Press and Rochdale Alternative Paper (RAP), which I believe sold 8,000 copies per issue, were real big hitters whilst others, like the Totley,were happy to nurture community spirit and less intent on exposing scandal and corruption.  RAP revealed Cyril Smith’s dirty deeds forty years before the commercial press dared touch the story.

I think two things sparked the birth of the alternative press, the “swinging sixties” do-it-yourself politics and certain technical developments in printing.  Lead-typesetting was no longer involved and the new process required less skill and cost.  Like other papers, at YFP we used ordinary typewriters to produce the text and trimmed, then glued the result to a large sheet of cartridge paper.  Other articles were stuck alongside the first to build up a newspaper page with spaces left for photographs which had to be “screened” and treated separately. Headlines were the real pain – LETRASET!

Headlines were produced by a sort of transfer process.  You bought these rather expensive “Letraset” transparent plastic sheets with individual black letters affixed to the undersides.  By scribbling on top of the required letter it detached from the sheet and adhered to the paper placed underneath  You had to build the headline a letter at a time, any misspelling meant you must discard your first effort and start all over again and keeping it all level and evenly spaced was a tedious task.  Sometimes we had lots of tables and space to lay out the paper but often we managed in someone’s cramped bedroom with people coming and going and ideas, jokes and arguments flying back and forth.

YFP was a monthly with a price of 2p and 1,000 print run, sold door to door with a network of local shops selling on the basis of sale or return. It was a struggle to keep it going but the paper survived long after I left York.  I was always a bit of a populist, keen to present the politics in an attractive wrapping and my favourite all-time article was, “The Great York Fish and Chip Survey!”   Every Thursday for three months we’d sample 3 or 4 different local chip shops, weigh the portion of chips and the fish and then assess the price, quality etc.  Finally we tabulated the results and published a league table to great reader acclaim! Is that petit bourgeois politics or anarchy in action? Every article was subject to the deepest of political analysis – “Is it ideologically sound?” – was the inevitable dilemma.

The balance of collective responsibility and initial initiative at YFP remained problematic.  When a character calling himself “Euston Arch” joined us he immediately began arranging music events in the name of YFP and only afterwards seeking collective approval.  When he signed us up to a potentially disastrous gig featuring “Wayne County and the Electric Chairs” at the Mecca Ballroom we accepted responsibility and survived but immediately expelled him from the collective.  After we printed a story by a guy who told us he was literally kicked out of his York bedsit by the landlord as a uniformed policeman stood idly by (illustrated by a cartoon of a cop shielding his eyes) I received a threat to sue from The Police Federation (my address, 1 Newton Terrace, was the published editorial address).  We agonised whether to apologise and “correct” the story or stand firm and take the consequences.  Fortunately, within days the local straight press published an account of the same landlord doing the same thing to someone else so we lived to fight another day.

Anarchism rather than socialism characterised the alternative papers movement.  Although lots of Marxists were individually supportive they tended to regard papers like YFP as trivial compared to their party newspapers whilst Tories and Labour Party types regarded us as scurrilous troublemakers. Although I wanted the paper to become a sort of local Private Eye, both funny and muck-raking, whilst at YFP I established an abiding interest in researching radical history. I interviewed a founder member of York Communist Party who claimed workers were more interested in politics in the old days and all he had to do in the twenties was ride his bike along a road, ring a hand-bell and people would come out of their houses and he’d start an impromptu discussion on socialism. He described how difficult it was to keep up with the ever-changing political line emanating from Moscow and how he’d finally been expelled from the CP when “I zigged when I should have zagged”!

In 1979 I researched and YFP published a series of articles on “Fascism in York in the 1930’s” which revealed a continuity of not only Blackshirtideas with current National Front candidates but the same local families were still organising attacks on socialist opponents. There were so many good stories and so many great times and in 1980 I was sorry to leave but keen to start another scurrilous rag elsewhere, but that’s a story for another day…


John Walker said...

Interesting - though brief and partial.

I'd always thought there was a PhD somewhere in plotting the alternative press of the era - but not a priority in a post modern era, no doubt.

Chris Draper said...

John Walker, himself a former editor of RAP (Rochdale's Alternative Paper) writes: 'Interesting - though brief and partial'.

Why is it 'partial'?

John Walker said...

Dear all,

Some confusion here, methinks.

Attached is the correspondence that provoked the comment that Brian put up, in my name, in NV, under Chris' article.

My comment wasn't meant for publication - not that I am, in principle, generally bothered about being held to account for my utterances!

The comment, however, related to the radical press website Brian offered the hyperlink to, below - and not Chris' article in particular; which I must admit I hadn't read at the time of writing to Brian.

I hadn't read the whole blog and series of contributions, but focused on the Kes Aleknavicius' piece on RAP, for which I, of course, have a particular interest in. I found it - as I said - brief and partial!

Make what you will of all of that.

One less confusing, and slightly more positive, point to come out of this, is that I wrote to the university hosting the blog (they were asking for contributions etc to it) and they responded by saying that they are trying to put a symposium together on the 70s/80s alternative press in Bristol on either 3 or 17 May this year. I said I'd go along.

They said they were sending out invitations to others this week. So, I might catch up with some or all of you then - and we can trade stories about our zimmer frames then!