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Tome On The Range

Momentum And Memory: PUSH Magazine - Poetry At The Gates
Kit Caless , December 28th, 2014 14:00

Kit Caless sits down with Joe England, editor of PUSH — a literary magazine with a dedicated, football-based readership — to discuss why the contributions lean toward the brutal, selling at the gates and always thinking forward

I’m standing in the over-lit Orford House Social Club in Walthamstow watching writer Joseph Ridgwell read a poem with his back to the audience, and his mates winding him up for being shy. I’m looking forward to the raffle, the prizes on offer are quite something; a full West Ham Subbuteo set from the 1980s, signed John King books, a record I didn’t know but everyone told me was pretty rare, and all 13 issues of PUSH magazine bundled into a box.

PUSH is a literary magazine run by Joe England. It is sold outside the gates at West Ham football ground, the Victoria pub in Plaistow or online. Ostensibly, the magazine is poetry and short stories with a loose connection to football (but not always). It is rough and ready – in the traditional zine fashion – and features some interesting and compelling writing. I came across PUSH via a recommendation from the writer Darran Anderson as a magazine that is doing things a differently.

What PUSH actually seems to be doing is things how they used to be. It was inspired by Kevin Williamson’s old literary zine Rebel Inc. which first published the likes of John King, Laura Hird and Irvine Welsh and became incorporated to Canongate Books, with Williamson at the helm. I am in Walthamstow because the best of the first ten issues of PUSH have been anthologised by Joe England and published by the East London Press. The anthology, with its claret and blue cover and an introduction by John King himself, is getting the launch treatment, complete with DJ, microphone troubles and pints.

I spoke to Joe the previous day to find out why West Ham fans are reading poetry on the District Line journey home after watching Kevin Nolan’s boys run about on the pitch. We met at the Boleyn Pub on the corner of Green Street and Barking Road, one of many pubs near Upton Park at threat of going under when the Hammers move to the Olympic Stadium, Stratford in 2016.

The distribution model and audience for PUSH is the thing that intrigues me the most. As a long term football fan and semi-regular at the Emirates myself it’s not as if I think football fans don’t read – but I’ve never seen something like PUSH, which is one half poetry the other short fiction, being sold at any football ground. There is a strong history and culture of fanzines and publishing in football (think When Saturday Comes), so I shouldn’t be surprised. I ask Joe if he has ever got any grief for standing at the gates before kick off trying to flog PUSH to unsuspecting Hammers.

“I was selling one time out by the gates and a bloke comes up to me with the attitude of ‘who the fuck are you trying to sell some little magazine here?’

I said to him, ‘I’m going into the game,’
‘I bet you are…’
‘I’ll meet you after then, where do you drink?’
‘Where do you drink?’
‘In the Vic in Plaistow,’
‘You don’t drink in the Vic’.
‘I’ll be there for at least two and a half hours after the game.’

I gave him my name and took his. After the game I went in the Vic. I mentioned his name to Trudy, the landlady, and she said she knew him. He never showed up, of course. But he’d really given me the verbal at the gates, and he was a proper big bloke. That’s the only negative I’ve had over here.”

Joe talks at pace. Like all dedicated football fans, his life timeline is punctuated by matches; “It was during spring that year, we had Chelsea at home.” We laugh about Trevor Brooking’s 1980 FA Cup final goal, even though I was too young to remember it. Each anecdote Joe tells starts with a football ground, two teams and a rough date.

Joe isn’t new to writing in any sense, having written a regular column for famous West Ham fanzine, Over Land and Sea for a number of years. He tells me editing PUSH is all about momentum. There are a limited amount of copies printed (usually between 100-140) and once they are sold, that’s it. There’s no reprints, no reissues and no back copies. Once one issue is sold, Joe moves immediately on to creating and editing the next. It seems to me that his restless character drives this method; he wants to sell out quickly so he doesn’t dwell on what he’s already done, constantly looking forward to the next issue. I think this comes from watching football all his life: We may look back to glory times of yesteryear (I still watch the Invincibles highlight reel with melancholic, misty eyes), but each time we turn up at the ground for a new match, we forget everything that’s gone before and hope for a win. In West Ham’s case, up until this season, this hope has often outweighed logic. Football is a game looking at the future, played in the present. It doesn’t matter what has happened in the past, the only thing that matters is what is going to happen on that grass rectangle in that moment. You can talk about previous seasons with the old boys who have seen it all, but they will still want to talk about the current team just as much.

There are fans of PUSH who no longer risk buying a copy at Upton Park in case they get there late, preferring to order online before the weekend. With such a seemingly unique method of distribution, Joe had to learn quickly if he wanted to keep his commitment to momentum.

“When I first started PUSH and began selling it at the ground, it was March, when everyone’s got coats on. I sold all the copies of each issue pretty easily, right up to the end of the season. Then when the new season began we had Cardiff at home, it was a hot August day and everyone was in shorts and t-shirts so no one was interested in it outside the gates. I did sell most of them afterwards at the Vic though but it was a surprise. The next game I targeted people with bags!”

Back at the Orford House Social Club, Joe is on the microphone describing the raffle prizes again, promising he’ll come round with the tickets in a bit. I’m excited by the raffle, I won’t lie. I want that Subbuteo set even though I don’t own anything else Subbuteo related. Something about pre-digital ownership, something about the old West Ham kit, something about vague memories of playing this game as a tiny child before Mario and Duck Hunt arrived in friends’ living rooms. There was also a bottle of Hennessey as a prize, from Joe’s own liquor cabinet, apparently. As a compere, Joe isn’t up there with the best I’ve seen, and the ribbing he gets from the crowd is akin to grief you give a footballer, like Carlton Cole, who hasn’t quite ever convinced you, but you can’t help liking. Some of the lads in the room are dressed in that Fred Perry, cardigan, winkle pickers look – a smart uniform from the terraces. Others are full mod, with Lego haircuts and straight sideburns. The atmosphere is like that of a local sports club house after all the amateur matches have been played at the ground nearby. Michael Keenaghan takes to the microphone to read one of his stories from PUSH. I’m envious of his olive green trench coat, turned up at the collar. He reads a neo-noir detective story set in the East end. It’s long, but the audience listen intently.

At the Boleyn pub, with Beyoncé blaring in the background, I ask Joe how he selects and edits PUSH.

“I’ve always been in bands and I consider a PUSH to be like an album – get the track listing wrong and you can kill it. So I go with the more hard hitting stuff at the beginning. I’m trying to interest a football crowd, after all. If they’re going to read poetry they’ve going to want to read poetry that relates to something they can identify with. Like some of the stuff Joseph Ridgwell writes – ‘Gone to the Dogs’ for example was really well received. Most of the stuff that goes in the magazine and now in the book is just what hits me right in the eyes. Sometimes it’s clear what’ll go down well with the football crowd, other times it’s just my taste. Most of the time when I’m editing, I’m trying to sell it to myself – being a book and football man.”

The PUSH anthology is an interesting, rewarding read. I don’t like all of it, but it’s very rare to find an anthology that satisfies with every piece. Some of the pieces, like Ridgwell’s aforementioned ‘Gone to the Dogs’ plus work by Adelle Stripe, Ford Dagenham (possibly the best name in literature) and Ian Cusack are a genuine breath of fresh air for anyone who reads say, Granta, or any other magazine from that kind of establishment. Joe is careful not to talk about ‘working class’ literature, but this is, for the most part, what it is. For me, PUSH is a real find. An organic publication that exists for itself and its readers, without looking up or down at anyone else. It doesn’t need approval from anywhere, and its strength lies in that. Even if I don’t like all the pieces, the mere act of reading published work that has little connection to the bourgeois London literary scene, is exciting enough.

Joe says, “There are many styles in PUSH, it’s not like everywhere there’s character’s walking around say, ‘alright geezer, fucking hell he’s pulled out a shooter’. But because I sell it at the football there has to be a more brutal edge to the writing, as that’s just what works.”

PUSH is, principally, read by the communities who produce the writers who write for it. Joe and I talk about how football is a unique lubricant in London society. For me, football is a universal connecting device. Football is one of the few reasons, in London, other than transport or the weather that gives you a legitimate reason to turn around and talk to a stranger. At the grounds, in the pubs, on trains, bus stops and at parties, without even having to introduce myself, I can go straight into a conversation. Most recently, I was in Westfield Stratford trying to buy presents, travelling up the escalator in an Arsenal t-shirt. The guy in front of me saw it and said, ‘What did you think of the game?’ (lost away to Stoke 3-2). We started talking and ended up stood at the top for ten minutes discussing the merits and demerits of Per Mertesacker. Then we went our separate ways with a smile.

“You’ve always been able to do that with football,” Joe agrees. “Even if you’re a nobody you can talk to a big face, a big hooligan and they would talk to you about the game. PUSH has probably been a success because I know this world, I know what I’m doing. I’ve had people buy it who I don’t know personally, but I know about them or their face, and some of them have come back to me at the next home game and said, ‘that piece by so-and-so, that was really good.’ I know they’re never going praise me too much, but even a compliment is hard to get out of a lot of these blokes!

I wonder if people are reading it as a favour to Joe, or just because it’s West Ham related.

“No, they’re definitely reading it. I’ve had so many people say to me, ‘I’ve always wanted to be reading but I’ve never known what to read.’ Others have said, ‘I’ve saved five copies of PUSH for my holiday.’ A lot of people don’t sit down and read, they have their associated time to read, like on holiday. I’ve read books at a particular points in my life and they’ve helped me – I’ve connected with the writing and it’s a shared experience. Literature is often connected to the emotional state you are in. But it does seem in the modern day there’s been a squeezing of taste – and people like me are aware of that.”

In Orford Road I’m on my fourth Guinness and I’m running late for a friend’s birthday party back in Hackney. The room is getting rowdier and I’ve only just noticed the old man in the corner who has been trying to ignore everything and get on with his crossword has given up and started watching the event. There are still two more readings before the raffle starts. Someone heckles Joe, pushing to bring the raffle forward. A few other voices chant for the raffle. Everyone loves a good raffle. If he’s not careful there will be mutiny. I want that Subutteo set before I leave. Raymond Gorman, a London-based writer from Derry is introduced and reads 'The Ballad of Gerry McGowan', a moving piece about football and the troubles.

After leaving the Boleyn pub, I head back to Liverpool Street. Joe is coming the same way so we get the Tube together. Each building on Green Street has a memory for Joe – fans throwing bricks at police here, pre cup tie incidents there. Going into the Upton Park station I wonder if much has changed. Joe insists that the aesthetics of the station haven’t changed in the decades he’s been coming up the steps to the match, if forever. I ask Joe if he’s thinks that this magazine is a direct confrontation to the London literary scene. He claims ignorance on that side, I think to avoid controversy, but perhaps he genuinely doesn’t know. He reads a lot but tells me he has more unfinished books at his house than those he has read all the way through. ‘I know what I like, though, and when I find what I like I will read and re-read it.’

Joe says finding Rebel Inc, was a revelation; it felt revolutionary. So does he consider PUSH to be in the same vein? “You want to connect with people when you’re reading or writing. Literature can be aloof. So it’s all about engagement isn’t it? It’s not like anyone in PUSH has an agenda or they’ve got to write a certain way, it’s that this is just what they do and people like me can relate to it.”

The last reader, Dickson Telfer, who has travelled down from Scotland for the evening, takes the floor and reads energetically from the PUSH anthology. I’m checking my watch throughout, knowing there’s only a few trains left back from the far ends of E17. I can’t risk staying any longer and shuffle out quietly after the reading but before the raffle starts. I give my tickets to someone else. Walking back to the station I think about how different the PUSH launch was to many of the book launches I’ve been to in London, including ones I’ve organised myself. It didn’t feel like the usual London book launch; no one was looking over their shoulders to see if someone more interesting, or more important was coming through the door. It just felt like normal people doing normal things on a Saturday night. But maybe I’m drunk by this point and romanticising it.

Before I got off the Tube at Mile End, I asked Joe if he ever had a plan with PUSH.

He said, “It’s not contrived, it just happened.”

That pretty much sums the whole thing up.

The PUSH anthology is out now, published by and available from the East London Press