(the post with which Smoke relaunched in May 2012 – it originally appeared under the title Northbound-Southbound)
Once upon a time, there was a magazine called Smoke: A London Peculiar. It was born in a pub in Lamb’s Conduit Street, and came to life in a bedroom just off the Lambeth Walk.
I’d take the 341 down to Waterloo every three months, come rain or shine. A rucksack on my back full of daft ideas, our notes on millions of pieces of paper. Sitting for hours over builders’ tea, biscuits, and pizzas. It was like this for years until, one day, I went away. Then, one day, my heart still longing – it had never stopped longing – I came back.
It was a fanzine, that was the idea, like the old-school music fanzines I’d grown up with, only for a city, not a pop band. But selling a music fanzine was easy: you simply wandered round the Camden Falcon accosting those whose haircuts and badges marked them out as twin souls. Standing in the ticket hall at Lambeth North asking people if they really liked the Bakerloo Line and, if so, whether they fancied reading a short story set in South Kenton, or looking at a funny picture of Harlesden, sounded like a recipe for confusion and, at peak hours, umbrella-based violence. But… maybe there was some clandestine network of dubious characters peddling samizdat literature to the urban cognoscenti that could help us, if only we knew how to make contact?
I went into our first shop on 28th April 2003. We had no idea what we were doing; I had no idea what I was doing. A focus group was something about contact lenses, wasn’t it? A marketing plan was something for Del Boys in Petticoat Lane. But I wandered in anyway, shaking like Johnny Kidd, Issue 1 in my hand. Hello! Do you want one of these? No, oh, okay, that’s fine. One shop, then two. Maybe it was us after all. And then into Foyles in Charing Cross Road. These look great, said Mike Atherton – not that one – I’ll take 20. You’ll take TWENTY? And he did. Two days later, they were gone. Two weeks later, we had articles about us in The Independent, The Guardian and The Word. Two issues later, we were printing 5,000 copies.
“You’re a cheese shop,” I said, when Patricia from La Fromagerie got in touch. “You sell cheese.” And she agreed that they did, but said that they’d also like to sell Smoke, alongside the wax-paper wraps of Hereford Hop, individually boxed olives, and knobbly bread. One year, they put a copy in each of their Christmas hampers.
A cheese shop, a bike shop, a flower shop in Hither Green. Most were sold person to person, to people like Malcolm in Borders on Oxford Street, with his glasses and his old suit, who’d stick Smoke in front of Vogue, before the shop was closed down and its rooms filled with overpriced skinny jeans. (He’d left months before, anyway, because he wouldn’t wear a Borders polo shirt. He was one of a kind. He was our kind of boy.)
Then one day the publishing industry collapsed – you probably read about it online. When Borders hauled down the shutters, 25% of our sales disappeared overnight. And, whilst idly perusing some old spreadsheets over whisky and hot buttered toast one afternoon, I realised that more than half the 90-odd shops that had once stocked Smoke were no longer there.
So we hauled down our shutters too; it got too tough to carry on. But, in the shops that were left, the London books kept coming. Shelves and shelves of the stuff, from London’s Most Banal Unfacts, to London Is A Big City, Isn’t It – Will This Do?, to Coo, London! Er, Yes, Isn’t It? – and we knew we’d done better. We knew we could do better. And our love for this wayward, wonderful city – your love, dear readers – would never, ever end. And there was the internet, winking at us, telling us how it could help us along. So we bit our tongues – ow – held our breath, and jumped in. And now here we are.
Yes, this is it, our new Peculiar, rising wide-eyed from the ashes like a soot-stained budgie left abandoned in a house fire whose cage bars thankfully melted just before the roof collapsed. Or – now I come to think of it – like smoke…