The Lives And Times Of SQUALL
To mark the launch of this website, JOHN HODGE tracked down one of SQUALL’s founding editors, JIM CAREY, and grilled him about how SQUALL Magazine got born, thrived, punctured.... and then re-inflated.
John Hodge: Let’s start by rewinding back to the early days of SQUALL. Looking at the first issues, they appear to be mostly focused on squatting and housing. The scope ended up much wider...
Jim Carey (SQUALL): When SQUALL first began we put “A Magazine For Squatters” under the title. Then we moved on to “A Magazine for Squatters, Travellers and Assorted Itinerants” for a while before dropping the description altogether…
JH: Not before it had gone down to “A Magazine for Assorted Itinerants” which then seamlessly slid into “… for Sorted Itinerants” - a deft switch which says something about your readership, and the times: with “assorted” suggesting miscellaneous itinerants, and “sorted” connoting the rave generation.
JC: Yeah spot on. “Sorted itinerants” was a rave-play on words as you suggest but it was also connoting a magazine for those who wanted to get themselves “sorted” out for information. Those who were up for a bit of reading as well as jumping up and down in a field at the weekend.
JH: But back to the question...
JC: Yeah, it became clear to us fairly quickly that squatting itself was a skein of issues inextricably entwined with many other issues.
Why were we squatting in the first place? Was it the dearth of affordable housing? If so how has housing become so ludicrously unaffordable? And off we went….
JH: Where abouts were you squatting?
JC: I first squatted in London on the Kings Road in Chelsea around 1983, then Notting Hill Gate, then Islington then Shoreditch, then Stoke Newington, then Deptford and so on. All these areas subsequently morphed into places full of what were nicknamed ‘Des Res’s’. Desirable residences in desirable areas commanding undesirable prices!
Basically, although bailiffs carried out the physical eviction process, it was gentrification which was chasing squatters and low rent tenants around London. People with money wanted to buy into areas where there was a lively culture. But their purchases pushed up the price of housing and the very bohemian culture they were attracted to in the first place was forced out because its protagonists couldn’t afford to live there anymore. The other day I walked past the very last squat I lived in in south east London and, I kid you not, there was a Maserati parked outside. And I can assure you I didn’t leave it there.
JH: Tell us more about this ‘skein’ of issues...
JC: One clear factor was the conceptual redefining of housing away from the notion of ‘shelter’ towards ‘investment commodity’. A process turbo-accelerated by Margaret Thatcher’s ‘right to buy’ scheme for council tenants in the 80’s; a shrewd and highly affective tactic for crow-barring social housing out of public ownership and into private hands.
There weren’t many council housing tenants who could resist the attraction of purchasing their own council flat in a government fire sale, and then immediately selling it into private hands for £30-50 grand more than they’d just bought it for.
It was basically a political bung. Once social housing passes into private hands the ‘market’ can then manipulate upwards to maximise its new role as an investment commodity, leaving the basic human need for ‘shelter’ shivering in its wake.
JH: Yes I was reading an article about some of the consequences of that just recently. There are currently two million council homes left in Britain – down from 6.5 million when Right to Buy was introduced by Thatcher in 1980. And over 40% of properties sold off under the scheme are now being rented out privately by landlords. See link in The Independent, Dec 2017
JC: Yep, more than ever before housing has become a form of currency, like vintage wine or contemporary art. Everyone with spare cash bought property and then politically lobbied for the swelling of the housing market. It was a sure bet for those with the cash. The investment market for housing even coined its own colloquialism: “It’s as safe as houses”. Tony Blair has a property portfolio, and huge swathes of London property are now owned by Russian, Chinese and Saudi money, often smoke-screened by companies registered in offshore tax havens. Other swathes remain in the possession of the English aristocracy like the Duke of Westminster and Viscount Portman. Anyone with the money to make more money cheered the process on.
However, although we can all get by without vintage wine or contemporary art, we can’t do without shelter. Thatcher’s right-to-buy scheme - and lots of other policies since - were basically asset-stripping the nation with scant regard for the generations of British citizens to come. In many places in the UK ‘shelter’ now means big debt for many. And it’s been convincingly suggested that debt itself is a political device, for it puts strings on limbs and makes puppets of us.
So as you can see there’s good reason why it didn’t take long for SQUALL’s journalistic coverage to expand from squatting and homelessness towards big macro-economic manoeuvres and politically charged social-engineering.
The largest volume of the iceberg lies beneath the surface but we are often encouraged not to look down.
JH: And in the meantime the same questions remain: where do young people (or anyone) live and survive? Squatting is no longer the option it was...
JC: Squatting is not fully illegal now but squatting in domestic properties is. Which means you can squat in empty commercial premises like offices or warehouses but not in empty houses. It makes the practical realities of using empty properties to create actual homes far more difficult, and protects the ability of big property developers to leave homes empty awaiting market conditions more favourable to their profit margins. Beside the housing safety net which squatting provided, there was lots lost when they criminalised squatting in domestic empty properties. We are a nation known historically for our arts. So many actors, musicians, film-makers, writers, poets, potters, painters and artists of other disciplines lived, worked and rehearsed in squats during the formative uncommercial years of their art. It is a subject that has not been much discussed but the consequences for British culture were widespread.
JH: And living in vehicles has become so much harder...
JC: The travellers scene still exists in the UK though many moved abroad to escape the fairly relentless abuse from local authorities, para-military-style policing and the media. But all round the UK you’ll find people dwelling in live-in vehicles or low impact dwellings, secreted in corners out there on the droves and in the woods. But yes it is much diminished and less overt. They don’t move around in convoys like they used to when there was safety in numbers.
JH: The worry is that not only is all this vanishing, but it is also getting written out of history, so younger generations don’t know about, and therefore can’t defiantly continue its legacy or at least learn lessons from history.
JC: Yes. Some say “journalism is the first draft of history” so it’s important these things get written about. The Battle of the Beanfield was a moral outrage but Margaret Thatcher knew what she was doing when she ordered the bloodbath. And she and her political descendants were largely successful in smashing up youth cultures at the time. That’s one reason why this SQUALL archive is important.
A significant youth counter-culture flourished in the 80’s/90’s which was violently suppressed by the British state, and the British State would be happy to have this culture’s very existence erased from the nation’s memory so that their violence remains beyond the judgement of history.
But a naked truth sticks out of all this. When the State considers its neo-liberal agenda threatened, it’s prepared to abandon its veneer of reasonableness and fair-play and smack you over the head with a truncheon. It’s not that squatter and traveller culture were that much of a threat to the establishment in real terms, it’s just that it was increasingly popular with young people and politically active in a way not in line with State capitalism, and so it was bludgeoned. Immediately prior to the travellers, the miners received similar treatment.
JH: We’re getting some of the context and mindset around the formation of SQUALL, but, once it had started, how did it arrive at what it became editorially? What was that trajectory, beyond what you were saying about squatting? There’s all sorts of ways it could have gone – for instance it could have had a football section like the Russian version of SchNEWS did! No kidding – we couldn’t understand the Russian, but one part of it was definitely football scores 2-3, 1-0 etc etc).
JC: Ha, well we did carry music and arts reviews and cartoons but we drew a line at footie results! But journalistically I think we were obsessed with the notion of balance. The lack of it and the need for it. If you really had to boil all political issues down to just two single issues it would be: “How do we treat each other and how do we treat the planet.” And, as we discuss issues related to these two imperatives, are we allowing healthy consideration from different angles and perspectives? Furthermore, if voices of prosecution are media prevalent, are the voices of defence getting an equal hearing? Balance was, and still is, in short supply. SQUALL Magazine’s editorial trajectory was an attempt at replenishing the supplies I guess.
JH: Knowing the sorts of ethical decisions an editor and writer must make, what do you think of what passes for so-called credible mainstream journalism?
JC: There’s this proactively maintained artifice our mainstream media adhere to some Hippocratic ‘oath of impartiality’. And yet the notion that editors actually send journalists out into the field with no other agenda than “to find out and report back” is kinda laughable if it wasn’t so serious.
The agendas of each media outlet are so heavily skewered according to the background and personal advantage of the owners/funders/board of governors. Some of these are international moguls with global ambition. Some are oligarchs keen to steer the national debate to the benefit of their line of business. Many are Oxbridge graduates steeped…ney flambéed… in a culture of entitlement. Many have property portfolios. Some benefit from offshore tax havens. Nearly all draw a vastly-above-average wage out of all proportion to the merit of their work. This creates a massive imbalance of perspective and social understanding in their journalism.
JH: So these are some key motivations which drove SQUALL, even from early on?
JC: That’s right. When the political system turned against squatters, travellers and ravers back in the early nineties, the Oxbridge commentators who employ each other at the BBC weren’t providing any counter point to the political spin. We were getting pilloried by politicians with hidden agendas so we started SQUALL. And, what began with articles about squatting and homelessness, soon experienced an explosive form of ‘mission creep’!
Without fair representation, what is this thing we call a ‘democracy’? How can a jury reach a fair decision if the counsel for the prosecution is the only voice in court?
SQUALL was interested in presenting non-mainstream perspectives in an effort to rebalance national discourse, starting small and seeing where it would go.
JH: Obviously once the magazine was out there and operating, it would have been interacting with both its readers and its subject matter – the people you were writing about. Which in this case were the ‘skeins’ of subcultures and political/social movements. How did SQUALL attach-to/interact/co-operate with these movements?
JC: “Attach” is perhaps a word to be very wary of as a news and current affairs magazine. I don’t think you can be a discerning media outlet if you’re “attached” to any group, campaign or ideology.
Having said that, if campaigning activists are volunteering their own free time in order to campaign about an important issue, and are not funded by a major organisation, you can usually be sure there’s something in there worth having a look at. When politicians and media celebrities criticised road protestors as “troublemakers with nothing better to do”, we argued that politicians and media personalities are well paid in their jobs whereas environmental protestors are not paid at all, so we should listen to protestors’ concerns because they evidently aren’t ‘doing it for the money’. So the more the Oxbridge national media looked down their noses at road protestors, the more SQUALL would broadcast their environmental voice and photograph the ingenuity of their protest techniques.
I recall a group of women from a campaign group called Swords Into Ploughshares who broke into an RAF base with bolt croppers and smashed up the windscreens of Hawk fighter jets scheduled to be sold to the Indonesian government (See 'Disarming Women' in SQUALL 14). Suharto’s regime in Indonesia was bombing the native people of East Timor at the time in a campaign widely condemned by the United Nations. And yet British arms manufacturers were still flogging them the weapons to do it.
The peace activist women were arrested and prosecuted but their actions were eventually exonerated by the British courts as “a small crime attempting to avert a greater crime.” It was an amazing court ruling. We covered their action, the issues it raised and the court case because it was an extraordinary direct action and sequence of events.
I remember one of the women actually wrote to SQUALL to complain about some of the language we used in the articles. She deemed phrases like “smashed the jets with hammers” as too military and male macho, and therefore antipathetic to the spirit of her peace group’s action. But, as much as we respected the women and their protest, we weren’t simply press officers for their campaign or ideology.
I felt we were trying to convey the full-on nature of breaking into a military base and decommissioning an active war plane. And that the best way of getting people interested about reading about peace activists was to highlight the commando nature of their brave action, possibly using phrases that they wouldn’t use themselves. We published her letter though. She was making a fair point we thought.
JH: You’re bristling at the word ‘attach’ - it was actually a poor choice of word from me to be honest – but it’s brought up an interesting point. It sounds like you preferred to keep something of a distance between you and the people and groups you covered in SQUALL – perhaps more than it looked.
JC: Well, I think it’s really important to have some journalistic perspective and not simply to be a PR mouthpiece for any one campaign or cause.
SQUALL’s reputation was established fairly early on and then preceded us wherever we went. People could see we worked hard, didn’t do it for the money, cared a lot about what we wrote and weren’t undercover cops. So I think people were prepared to talk to us and didn’t view us with the same cynicism and suspicion they rightly reserve for mainstream media.
A few people used to say we were only doing it to build a career in journalism off the back of the direct action movement but it’s the nature of British culture that some people will chuck rocks at you just because you’ve climbed up a few branches and are sat in a tree.
I also think that if SQUALL had got even bigger as a current affairs organisation than we did, it would have become even more important to pro-actively make sure we maintained editorial distance from any one group or campaign.
JH: What about the Exodus Collective? SQUALL’s relationship with that group seemed very close. How did that form and strengthen? I’d imagine they would’ve been very wary of journalists (and undercover police)?
JC: Out of all the groups SQUALL reported on, the Exodus Collective was the one we sailed closest to the wind with in terms of our relationship with any one particular group (For a list SQUALL articles about Exodus see here). Exodus fashioned an interesting and charming practical philosophy/spirituality out of the lyrics of Bob Marley and named themselves accordingly. They were also from the inner city and possessed an urban edge a lot other politically active subculture groups didn’t have at the time. With masses of energy and gall they squatted properties for housing, put on massive free dances for local communities in warehouses and quarries, and openly exposed/challenged the hidden agendas of local politicians.
Key individuals in the Collective, particularly their spokesman Glenn Jenkins, were very switched-on to British politics. Glenn and others in the Collective had read copies of SQUALL previously and actively sort us out at a festival as I recall. SQUALL subsequently covered the Exodus Collective’s activities extensively because the issues they exposed, the authority they challenged, the obstacles they surmounted and the solutions they discovered had a lot to say about our nation, its communities and how things work (or don’t work) at a local level.
The authorities tried hard to crush them, even resorting to murder charges at one point, and I wrote masses of articles about their activities in SQUALL and several for other media outlets too, including co-producing and presenting a two part BBC Radio 1 documentary. The radio doc was nominated for a Commission for Racial Equality Race In Media Award, but that wasn’t because of me and the co-producers of the programmes. It was because of the diverse ethnic communities Exodus brought together to dance.
I was actually in talks with Verso to co-write a book with another journalist Tim Malyon about the Collective but circumstances overtook the situation and the Exodus Collective finished itself in the end. The pressures on the group were enormous and unrelenting, and key individuals eventually cracked under the strain and Exodus came to an end. I’ve got to admit it was difficult covering their demise journalistically after riding with them so closely for so many years. However, key protagonists from the Exodus Collective, including their firebrand spokesperson Glenn Jenkins, soldiered on via other projects and, to this day, the Marsh Farm Estate in Luton is still a very interesting and proud political place to be. No local politician can hope to get away a malevolent manoeuvre without a very public fight, and activists on the estate have just opened up a new community café and venue called Fidel Gastro’s. Priceless
JH: But it sounds like Exodus was unique as far as SQUALL’s relationship with some of the groups or campaigns you covered. Them aside, I’m forming an image that SQUALL – by keeping an editorial distance from the groups and campaigns it covered - perhaps avoided getting caught up in the ideological or political trappings that some other publications I can think of did. (And they mostly weren’t so much caught up with as much as signed up to the various anarcho-eco-left alignments/tendencies/cults etc which they covered and were effectively the propaganda wing of).
JC: Hmmm, well we didn’t like boxes. (Though as squatters we were constantly living in and out of boxes!) Journalistically we were keen no to be tagged with this “ism” or that “ology”. A complacent way of dismissing a point of view is by sticking a historical tag on it so you can avoid considering it on its own merits. We wanted to exercise our observations judiciously and, as much as is possible, report the truth without prejudgement.
Given our interest in the environment, human rights, new culture, fair play and genuine people-led democracies (as distinct from monopolies, theocracies, monarchies, aristocracies, dictatorships and media-ocracies), we naturally attracted the description of “left wing”. We are also serious critics of the greedy designs of unfettered neo-liberal capitalism, and are crucially aware of the corruption of human integrity which seems to occur in the vicinity of money. All of which, once again, attracts “left wing” labels. But we weren’t Trotskyist, Leninist, Marxist, Anarchist or Anythingist. We didn’t like badges or flags, and we’d scrape any label off with our bare nails as soon as it was stuck on us.
JH: OK - so we’ve had some illuminating insight into the some of the motivations initially driving SQUALL, plus the thinking behind its progression from a magazine for assorted then sorted itinerants, then to a broader remit and readership than that…
Let’s move on to talking about some of the political/social movements SQUALL concentrated on over the subsequent years...
JC: There are lots of actions/movements we covered in SQUALL whose activities proved revealing of the social politics of this country. McLibel, Reclaim The Streets and – as I’ve already talked about – the Exodus Collective to name but three of many. There were also the various road protest campaigns, arms trade activism and the resistance movement to the introduction of genetically modified agriculture. We gave a lot of coverage to these projects/social movements because they provided a big window on the enormous power of big corporations and the state of our nation.
JH: These initiatives you talk about were all ongoing unfolding stories which SQUALL became an important source of information about… (remember this is still pre-Internet).
JC: Yes that’s true. We were telling the stories as they unfolded. The McLibel trial for instance, which developed after McDonald’s (much to their later regret) sued two critics who refused to back down, became the longest civil trial in British legal history. During the course of the trial, truckloads of primary court-disclosed evidence poured out in court, revealing just how pervasive, insidious and covert a massive corporation like McDonald’s actually is. Behind the plastic clown was a seethe of corporate calculation. From poor employment conditions, to targeting children with advertising, to unhealthy dietary credentials, to adverse environmental impacts, to their links with the British police force etc. It was a gold mine for any truth-seeking journalist, and all we had to do was polish the nuggets and make them attractive to look at/read. (for more of SQUALL's coverage of the McLibel Trial click here).
For as long as it lasted, Reclaim the Streets was an interesting phenomenon too. It was an unusual campaign which combined environmental protest with issues of land ownership and access to public space. The campaign had no leaders and was run instead by an amorphous collection of people who attended meetings. It referred to itself as a ‘disorganisation’. The project was riddled with undercover cops but, as there were no leaders to target, it was difficult for the authorities to take it down. Not that they didn’t try. The Sunday Times so called ‘Investigations Team’ ran a ludicrous story about Reclaim The Streets stockpiling weapons. It was a complete fabrication which presented no tangible evidence but they still managed to eek out an entire page of broadsheet dedicated to a single insinuation. Reclaim The Streets submitted a complaint to the Press Complaints Commission about the article but it was dismissed on the basis that, as Reclaim The Streets doesn’t have any formal management structure or membership, anyone in the world with a gun could possibly be a member, and therefore the Sunday Times’ article could possibly be right at some point or other and certainly couldn’t be disproved!
In the end Reclaim The Streets’ activities were suffocated by overtly ‘political’ policing using draconian law drafted under the pre-text of combating anti-terrorism. Section 70 of the Terrorism Act was cited by the Metropolitan Police as lawful reason to surround demonstrators in a thick cordon of police officers and then hold them in one place for up to 7 hours. I personally was corralled twice…once for four and half hours and once for five hours. It was very boring. Women had no where to go to the toilet but would not be let out of the cordon. People were pissing in bottles. No one had any water to drink. It was crude and later challenged in the courts as a misuse of the law, but it was effective at the time. People stopped coming.
JH: What do you think was the political/cultural impact of SQUALL both in the movements/subcultures and in the mainstream?
JC: It’s difficult for me to assess this properly. We were so damn busy with the ‘doing of it’ that I never stood back to assay our impact properly. The project was obviously resonating with a significant section of the population and we expanded rapidly beyond our capacity to cope actually! Words from the magazine appeared on placards at public demonstrations and I appeared fairly regularly as “co-editor of SQUALL” on TV/radio news current affairs programmes and live events including BBC Newsnight, Sky News and the main stage at Glastonbury Festival. I never courted any of these media appearances and, for a certain period, they were numerous. So in hindsight I guess these were all indications that SQUALL was having an impact. I think we’d know more if a student decided to take it on board as research for a PhD for instance but I don’t feel qualified to answer this question properly.
To this day I bump into people who speak well of SQUALL and there’s an evident respect for the project from those who were exposed to it. We also ran a venue, photo exhibition and sound system at festivals for several years and I think everyone who spent time with us under that stretch of well thumbed khaki canvas remembers us fondly. But that might be because we played great music and sold the best beer at the cheapest price possible. Always a winning combination if you wanna make friends.
JH: Tell us a bit more about the extent of SQUALL’s activities, beyond producing print media?
JC: I’m not sure where we got hold of that old rectangular army marquee. Its ropes were made of hemp I recall. But we took it around to festivals and other live events for several years. We also recycled an old mahogany bar top we found on the street outside a closed down pub on Holloway Road, north London. A member of our events team called Ben - a dab hand at furniture design - modified the solid bar top into a flat pack travel version which we took around to festivals for the next five years or so. The bar was a fine touch because we could set it up in a field and straight away it looked like it’d been there for 30 years.
We printed and laminated around 60 classic original photographs from the magazine, and presented them as an annotated exhibition. And we travelled to wherever the SQUALL tent was invited to tether - festivals, parties, and even the odd wedding!
We also took the photo exhibition to other events including to Latvia at the invitation of a radical events organisation. The Latvian Minister for Culture even paid us a visit as we toured the exhibition around Riga in a converted tram.
SQUALL’s collection of laminated photographs was a powerful and attractive celebration of direct action and activism. Just looking at it made you feel like something was happening you might want to join in with.
At night the photographic exhibition became the décor for a ‘night club in a tent’. My brother was a nurse who’d run a hospital disco for a few years and, when he moved abroad, he gave me the equipment to form the core of the SQUALL Sound System. Quite a few of our crew were also DJ’s, so we began presenting all night music and sold no-additives beer at discount prices. The ‘dance with a stance’ we called it.
We were a regular at Glastonbury Festival for several years before the bars there were corporatised, and at plenty of other festivals, raves and parties elsewhere. Our tent was usually rammed with people and, despite selling beer at the bar, we never seemed to make much money. It was a fun side project, and a counter point to the serious office work involved in producing the magazine. But fucking exhausting!
JH: What historic context would you put around that 1990s-early-2000s period?
JC: Cor blimey that’s a bigun. One thing is clear, the activist movements and counter-mainstream projects of the 90’s/2000’s are still massively underestimated by journalists and socio-political historians. If you were to read/listen/watch the largely Oxbridge commentators who dominate our mainstream media, you’d assume 1968 was the last time anything politically active occurred by way of a youth movement in the UK. I suspect it is the selective memories of their own youthful rebelliousness in 1968 which inform their nostalgic and rather stagnant assessments of the history of dissent in the UK.
And yet, at the time, the public demonstration against the Criminal Justice And Public Order Act 1994 was the biggest street demonstration against a piece of legislation in British history! The environmental movements and campaigns of the 90’s/2000’s were extensive and ingenious. And with the effects of climate change becoming ever more obvious, these movements should now be hailed as the early warning sirens.
I guess one of SQUALL’s intentions was, and is, to play its part in amplifying these ‘carbon monoxide detectors’, to stir people from their slumbers before we sleepwalk to catastrophe. I view the recent Extinction Rebellion direct actions to be a modern manifestation of the Reclaim the Streets and road protest lineage.
JH: How did the magazine - in printed form - evolve regarding production? It began as A5, then A4, but SQUALL is best remembered for the run of tabloid-sized newsprint issues which followed. How did you approach the design of the printed editions?
JC: I think the short answer to that is that we started with expedience, and survived. And then we thrived and moved to a deliberate style choice. A5 to A4 is a fairly obvious step. But I remember well our decision to go tabloid-size because we were excited to move to an innovative and unusual format. It gave us space to work with design and photography. It wasn’t just the tabloid size that was important though, The printer we went with was able to guarantee the quality print resolution we needed for the photojournalism aspect of what we were doing. So SQUALL became crisp and innovative in its presentation, something even mainstream national tabloid newspapers hadn’t graduated to at the time. We stole a march and it gave us energy.
JH: Most of those tabloid-sized issues are now available as PDFs on this site, free to download. They've come up great in this digital form – in some ways they’re even better than the printed copies, particularly in regard to the photos because they’re no longer reduced to newsprint dot-screens. (To peruse the back issues and download the PDF's click here)
Photography became a key aspect to SQUALL - how did that come about?
JC: Within the SQUALL project I was generally regarded as the ‘words’ person. But I personally love the way an image can say so much without pinning you to the wall with verbage for half an hour (I apologise to all my victims!). Jez Tucker, as the magazine’s chief designer, loved image too of course and the graduation to tabloid, allowed him to play with space. The project attracted a fine photographer called Nick Cobbing whose aesthetic attention to the art and craft of socio-political photography lifted SQUALL’s treatment of image to a new level. Other quality photographers like Andrew Testa and Ian Hunter began offering their work to the magazine. I think we achieved a point where good photography and graphic design became something SQUALL was known for as much as the words. There are too many memorable images for me to list here but I heartily recommend taking a look around this online archive because there’s some cracking images in there. And they say so much whilst asking so little of your time.
JH: Word has it that you were a bit of a tough editor – er something about being a fastidious fact-checker?
JC: Haha, I dunno who’s been grassing me up but I suspect your sources are telling you the truth. And I’m sure you’re putting it politely! SQUALL had this notion that loose facts and partially incorrect information was as much an enemy as malevolent propaganda. As in, “it’s dangerous to go into battle with a blunt sword”. So we placed great emphasis on attempting to corroborate everything before going to print so our readers would be ‘armed’ with reliable information. It was a very time-consuming self-imposed mandate but we considered it essential. We knew that, without even thinking much, people unconsciously trust organs like The Times newspaper whilst unconsciously mistrusting independent news sources like SQUALL. So we had to work harder to earn trust and I probably came on like a massive pain in the arse to some of the writers who submitted work to SQUALL. Even if their article was generally very good I’d be on the phone diving deep into certain things they’d written, asking: “How do you know that? Where did you get this piece of information from?” You have to bear in mind here we had no budget at all to pay content producers and everyone - including the producers of the magazine - contributed to SQUALL for no remuneration. So writers weren’t particularly expecting to get the third degree from a SQUALL editor about the accuracy of their work. But I wasn’t trying to be a clever-dick nit-picker for clever-dick nit picker’s sake. We tried to hold a line that “if you can’t prove it, lose it”.
We were also sticklers for grammar and spelling too. A woman called Sam Beale and a journalist called Andrew Johnson were also important cogs in the SQUALL wheel and assiduous sub-editors to boot. So I guess I did end became a clever-dick nit-pick editor…. but for a cause! Haha, there was a time when I must have been the person to avoid at parties.
JH: SQUALL's coverage of the Criminal Justice Bill/Act was arguably the most thorough to be found during that period, making SQUALL essential reading for the many affected by it (for more click here). Tell us about what types of research you did to both monitor the situation on the ground, as well as follow the Bill's grinding progress through parliament (and indeed comprehend the laws themselves).
JC: There was a man called Jim Paton who worked with the Advisory Service For Squatters. When he’d first arrived in London from Scotland in the 50’s he’d slept in a car park at Euston Station for a year or so before moving into a squat. Then he became a stalwart in helping people with housing issues get their cases together in court. I used to visit him a lot in his co-op flat off Grays Inn Road to discuss the law as it related to squatting. He was an absolute stickler for the letter of the law and wouldn’t suffer fools gladly. “Entire court cases are won or lost on the interpretation of legal phrasing,” he’d argue. So attention to detail and accurate wording is very important in the understanding and reporting of law. As I flew backwards and forwards to the Houses of Parliament he used to serve up bowls of vegan stew to keep me going, and his cantankerous dismissal of lazy words were a feature of my week! Although, as I recall, if I visited him when the cricket was on he didn’t want to talk about politics at all haha. His unwavering insistence on correct legalese left an indelible impression on me lemme tell you! Getting to grips with and explaining the letter of the law is a discipline very important to good journalism.
There was also a fortunate turn of events around this time too when I moved into a squat in central London and my personal ability to really follow the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill was made more feasible because I was now a 10 minute bicycle ride from the Houses of Parliament.
JH: Sounds like one of yer ‘Des Res’ squats – that would have been handy...
JC: Well it’d been empty for a long time and was pretty grimy to start with but it sure was handy. Me and a friend secured entry to the property on Guilford Street in Bloomsbury early one morning. I then researched the owner and subsequently met him in a local hotel. He was an Irish property developer called Jimmy Pearce who, at some point in the future when the market was right, hd wanted to renovate and flog the place. Me and my mate Kieron introduced ourselves and told him we’d look after the building and agree to move out within a month’s notice at any point in the future. I showed him a copy of SQUALL Issue 5 with the headline on the front cover: “Jesus Was a Traveller and They Nailed Him Too”. Being an Irishman this could have gone either way, but he turned out to be more a ‘Dave Allen’ type than a ‘conservative papist’, and he found it funny. He said he’d give this copy of SQUALL to his son and told us we could stay.
In the end we spent over 3 years in that squat during the key moments of the passage of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 through parliament, and I could jump on my bike at a moment’s notice.
JH: You were probably in the Houses of Parliament more than some MPs...
JC: Ha yeah probably, though I cost the taxpayer a lot less.
JH: You must have got a rare insight into the byzantine world of the corridors of parliament and the processes a law must go through...
JC: On its way to statute, every Bill goes through what’s called a ‘Committee Stage’. process which takes place in a room reminiscent of a wild-west courthouse within the Palace of Westminster, complete with oak panels and swinging door. Facing each other on oak benches either side of the ‘OK Corral’ is a selection of government MPs and a smaller selection of opposition MPs. These ‘chosen few’ meticulously go through every clause and sub-clause of the Bill, arguing over the implications of the impending law and suggesting possible amendments. The public gallery consists of two rows of plastic chairs, with almost no leg room but 3 yards from the ‘action’. Anyone can attend and observe but, in reality, there were only a handful of people watching, most of whom were political lobbyists. So I went to every meeting and it was, let’s say, intimately revealing. There were government MP’s talking all sorts of well-off-the-pulse nonsense about raves, travellers, squatters and public protest; their discourse seeping with a bottomless disdain for our upstart youth culture. As if the way they lived their privileged lives was the only way to live a life, and all else besides needed to be discredited as a precursor to eradication. And there, in that wild west courtroom, I watched their gout-speak countered by virtually nothing from the so called ‘opposition’ benches. I’ll never forget to this day how many of those MPs - on both sides of the wild west court room - were covertly filling in the Evening Standard crossword, fiddling with their phones or reading novels when they were supposed to be debating serious issues. These were supposedly the best of our ‘cross in the box’ representatives and I was 3 yards away.
JH: Did MP’s have mobile phones back then?
JC: Haha yes they did and so did I! Mine was a Motorola, a brick-of-a-thing you could have used to bang a nail in but absolutely essential to the running of SQUALL being my only consistent point of contact not subject to regular eviction. The squat I had before Guilford Street lasted just two weeks, which is no good if someone had sent me a letter with a second class stamp on it! Anyway, as result of my attendances at the Houses of Parliament, I met MPs and lobbyists and got the lowdown on stuff you couldn’t read about elsewhere. I also found out that the cafes, restaurants and bars in the Houses of Parliament are all subsidised and - if I was with an MP- I could eat a good breakfast for 19p.
Anyway, it was a very enlightening insight into how legislation gets made and I reported it in SQUALL on a regular basis. I hadn’t previously known much about how Westminster did its business, so me and SQUALL’s readers basically walked hand in hand through a lesson in British constitution.
JH: SQUALL was around during the first years of the internet. How did SQUALL negotiate the rise of this new media?
JC: Yeah we’d got on the online thing quite early. At first a politically charged IT guy called Ben Schneider had set up a SQUALL website and given us a presence but, by his own admission, he wasn’t a designer. Then Steve Redshaw took over. He was a professional web designer and an Underground DJ with an eye for a funky look so SQUALL’s online presence surfed the cutting edge of the internet media explosion. And then when problems with distribution and finance overwhelmed SQUALL as a hard copy media producer, the website became our chief presence (albeit supplemented with an occasional hardcopy A5 fold out called SQUALL Underground Update which was given away for free - to download them on PDF click here).
JH: During its second phase online after 2000, a significant feature of SQUALL was the vivid, at times devastating, first-hand accounts sent in from war-zones in the Middle East by a range of ‘activist’ writers including Jo Wilding, Ewa Jasiewicz and others. Many of these reports appeared first in SQUALL, which has me wondering how many other independent publications actually had people in Baghdad as the US-led invasion began bombing in 2003? What are your memories of that time, liaising with those writers and receiving such dramatic and historic material?
JC: Yes we had a section of SQUALL called ‘Frontline Communique’ which were unedited first person testimonies from people on the frontline of an issue. Ewa Jasiewicz was in Palestine. And when the Iraq War broke out, activist Jo Wilding was in Baghdad observing the western bombing of the city. They risked life and limb to report on what was happening from ground level just so we as readers didn’t have to rely solely on state media like the BBC for a sense of what was happening. This was serious, immediately life threatening material at an international level and it gave SQUALL readers a visceral insight to what people were going through on the ground. We pretty much considered it a duty to publish their brave testimonies. So we did, and personally some of their dispatches made me shiver, particularly the one Jo wrote on the night the bombing of Baghdad started, and Ewa’s report on the shooting of a 14 year old boy called Baha by an Israeli sniper on the West Bank. My god those women were brave.
JH: What were some of the most important stories covered in SQUALL? Or your personal favourites?
JC: Well in the 14 year lifespan of SQUALL there were quite a few and I’m not sure where to start or stop….. Ploughshares, Exodus, the political influence of Freemasonry, the shooting of WPC Yvonne Fletcher, the infiltration of the RSPCA by the pro hunting lobby… and of course McLibel.
Our attention to the McLibel trial is something I’ve mentioned in answer to a previous question. It was certainly a story we covered a lot because it revealed so much useful material about the realities of how a multi-national corporation goes about its business, out of sight and out of mind.
The insidious implications of how ‘big money devoid of moral compass’ conducts itself is something we suspect and can sometimes prove in the arms trade, big pharma, oil companies, tobacco and theatres-of-war opportunists like Halliburton. But these leviathans protect their confidentiality with virulent litigation, and often silence critics with the mere threat of it. They are more than capable of exhausting an activist’s entire life with expensive court cases, appeals and legal obfuscation. And indeed manage to silence media outlets as big as the BBC or the The Guardian who decide to avoid getting embroiled in expensive legal defences-of-the-truth by not printing/broadcasting a truth in the first place.
The McLibel trial amply revealed how such proactive ‘menacing’ is factored into the budgets and modus operandi of big corporations. And we would never have known just how low it goes if the two McLibel defendants had backed down. But they didn’t. And the corporation got hauled and mauled through the courts for over two years.
You couldn’t argue in any way that Dave Morris and Helen Steel brought the McDonald’s empire crashing to the ground with their dogged resistance but my god did their stance fire hundreds of needles at the barrage of McDonald’s PR balloons.
SQUALL reported lots of this primary source evidence in very-readable-form so our readers would be better placed to make up their own minds whether to take their children to a McDonald’s, and what to reply when their children ask, “Why not daddy?”
But more than that, we felt our coverage could provide our readers with a ring side view on how huge multinational corporations - with annual profits bigger than many country’s GDP - exert their influence over both national politics and local communities.
JH: The transformation of media by the internet in recent decades has had a huge impact on print media, affecting both mainstream and alternative alike. But it seems like sources of reliable news and information are now more scattered across the net, often with dubious or unknown provenance, with regrettably less emphasis on publications – like SQUALL – where, as a reader, you came to trust the title and the editorial process which went with it. Maybe I’m just nostalgic. Tell us a bit about how this affected SQUALL and how you approach your news gathering these days. And how do you see the state of news media?
JC: I don’t think regular hardcopy publications are finished entirely but they’re in serious decline for sure. Partly because they’re expensive to produce and distribute, and partly because the internet continues to sink torpedoes into the side of a listing ship.
Newspapers like The Guardian are attempting to survive by dumbing down their content and introducing a voluntary subscription model. Other newspapers like the 200 year old London Evening Standard are losing money but their new owners don’t mind so much because the organ commands the weary attention spans of London’s commuter-millions and therefore proffers a political influence they’re content to pay for.
For radical underground media, distribution of hardcopy is and was always a massive logistical headache. We couldn’t get WH Smith to take SQUALL. We tried. They wouldn’t let us in.
At one time festivals provided SQUALL with a good point of dissemination but, as the UK festival scene corporatized, these events became more expensive to attend for punters and less welcoming to the likes of us. Even fairly mainstream radical hardcopy publications like Adbusters and The London Review Of Books are funded by philanthropists and wouldn’t survive on their own commercial viability. I still like to incorporate hard copy into my reading experience and I’m an enthusiastic subscriber to the excellent London Review Of Books. But a generation of younger people now consume the majority of their information via their phone. That’s a plain unalterable reality.
There are lots of internet radical media sources out there including SQUALL Magazine’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages. But you have to put the work in to find them. The BBC won’t tell you about them. The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Times won’t tell you about them either. The Canary, Byline Times, Now This to name but a few.
There is a very real problem with the provenance and reliability of web news sources. But, having said that, the provenance and reliability of the Daily Mail or The Times isn’t much to trust either!
I’d personally advocate mixing your media. Every news source is biased in some way, some more than others. By mixing your media you expose yourself to a venn diagram of perspectives and the truth is out there somewhere in the area where the circles overlap. As a populace, we are largely passive consumers of news and therefore prey to the power of repetition. It’s important to remember that lies can be forged into popular truths by repetition. Here in the UK it’s fairly likely the BBC fills your ears and eyes with their particular news agenda. The eight items their gatekeepers decide you need to know about all day long. If so then I suggest pro-actively making sure you check out Al Jazeera, Russia Today or Tele Sur for example, as alternative views on the world to balance the Brit Empire/Oxbridge perspectives which qualify a lot of BBC news output. Al Jazeera, Russia Today and Tele Sur are biased too…..but from a different perspective to the one that we might unconsciously absorb living in the UK.
JH: As of 2019, how do you look at some of the issues covered in SQUALL? Eg - squatting is now illegal. The travellers scene is very diminished.
JC: Most fortifications get over run at some point, however vigorously they’re defended. The important thing is to put up as much resistance as you can and then move on before you’re slain/burned out.
JH: Crikey sounds like an evening of Dungeons & Dragons...
JC: Haha. I’ve never played Dungeons and Dragons so I dunno what yer on about mate. But if you’re saying: “Is this is the stuff of mighty myth and legendary legend”. Then who am I to say you’re wrong? Haha.
Anyway, given how much kick-back there was from activists and housing charities over the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, there was barely a whimper when the Conservative government actually made it illegal to squat in empty domestic properties in 2012. It felt like the resistance to it was spent.
It’s a much deployed technique exercised regularly throughout history.
The conqueror has more resources and more time than the opposition. The conqueror applys pressures, draws the fight, waits until the resistance grows weary, and then moves in for an easier kill.
JH: Yes, Aragorn, son of Arathorn...
JC: Is he the dashingly handsome one with the chiselled cheekbones? If so, then yeah I’m a bit like that. Haha. Now where was I oh yes…Mordor.
The conqueror is formidable looking for sure. But history records insatiable ambition to be the undoing of the conqueror in the end. Each castle they lay siege to may fall eventually but each stubbornly resisted siege depletes the attacker until the conqueror crumbles. So live not in fear of Mordor…haha.
JH: Here’s fucking hoping...
JC: Yeah of course but there’s plenty of historical evidence for such hope. There’s these photographs of Hitler’s Nuremburg Rally in 1937 in which regiments of Nazis - with their Roman-style swastika and eagle standards - stretch to the horizon. Frighteningly formidable, they look utterly unstoppable. Ten years later the Nazi’s were thoroughly defeated and their leader topped himself. There comes a time when the conquering force, and its insatiable ambition for more, spreads itself too thin and collapses; to the unfettered joy and celebration of all those previously oppressed and cowed by its might. Mongol, Persian, Greek, Roman, British, Nazi. At their height, all these empires appeared as ineluctable as the waves of a poison sea. But where are they now?
Neo-liberal capitalism is another such empire-building force with an insatiable appetite for expanding its girth. It pursues infinite growth in a finite world. How can it not fail?
The only worry of course is that it’ll take us all down with it. And that’s why principled ingenious stubborn resistance is so necessary!
JH: There’s always been those on the anarchist scene cheering the collapse on, revelling in the thought of stockpiling tins of baked beans and living out some Mad Max fantasy. But the truth is it ain’t going to be pretty if it all goes down.
JC: Nope. Pretty it won’t be. And yes there’s a strand of nihilism that wants to see the whole thing collapse spectacularly like some fireworks finale. But I’d say SQUALL is the opposite of nihilism. It isn’t enough to tear stuff down without any notion of what you’re putting in its place. If the mainstream media is shit then don’t just moan about it (we did a lot of that too!)… start a magazine.
I know quite a few folk whose lives are consumed by relentless moaning. “It’s shit. All of it. Tear it down. Cos it’s shit. All of it.”
But relentless moaning, however justified by the state of something, is boring and ultimately useless. It’s a stagnating pond; expending oxygen and therefore giving up any ability to sustain life. The only value of moaning is as a diagnosis pending the prescription of a medicine. Without the medicine bit it’s just another load of moaning.
And I’ll draw no solace from hearing the apology of a neo-liberal capitalist if my children inherit an irreparably damaged planet I did nothing to protect.
JH: Another pertinent issue during the SQUALL years, which unfolded and unravelled in a dramatic way years later was around police/state surveillance/infiltration and privacy...
JC: Yep. True dat. In 1996 I appeared as “Co-editor of SQUALL” alongside the then head of the bar council on BBC Newsnight to speak out against a proposed increase in police surveillance powers in an upcoming Police Act. We both survived Jeremy Paxman’s pernicious ego and did a reasonable job of countering the government apologist/advocate for the measures. Indeed, we got a little round of applause from production staff when we returned to the green room after our stint on the programme. Nevertheless, not only did the Police Act 1996 get passed with no parliamentary opposition to speak of, police powers of surveillance are even more extensive these days than the measures introduced by that Act.
We took a stance when we could but that particular defended position has long been over run. The frontline has moved elsewhere. Unaccountable police infiltration and disruption of domestic activist organisations continues a pace to this very day. Of course it’s officially excused under the pretext of tackling terrorism but peaceful environmental activist campaigns have undercover cops all over them. Alternatives are throttled in the hope of suffocation. This is why we have to stay fleet of foot.
JH: Looking at articles in SQUALL covering events like Reclaim The Streets, it’s exasperating reading about them knowing what we now know about the police who’d infiltrated RTS and other groups. And they’re just the ones we know about so far – we may have been rubbing shoulders with other people we still don’t yet know were also undercover cops.
JC: Yeah. There were lots of rumours of undercover cops on demonstrations stoking up flashpoints to provide justification for riot police to weigh in heavy handed. The McLibel trial also revealed that McDonald’s security department had easily been able to gain information from the police database about activists campaigning against McDonald’s. This disclosure proved that information gathered by undercover British cops was being passed to corporations with no oversight. And, as we have seen with the recent ‘spy cops’ scandal, a high number of these police surveillance operatives were even having sex and siring children with the very environmental activists they are covertly undermining! Everyone should be worried about this moral outrage. Meanwhile the dire warnings of the consequences of climate change continue to back up down the motorway. Who will be judged to have been on the ‘right side’ of history, environmental activists or the British state/corporations? The battle rages on. Often out of sight.
JH: The Swords Into Ploughshares woman was right. You do use a fair few military metaphors. Some of your answers sound like war manoeuvres!
JC: Ha yes. I do use military metaphors it’s true but that’s because this is how it feels to me. Powerful people make money from lies. The litigation and marketing departments of massive corporations are crammed with mercenaries who help deliver and defend the lies. There were cohorts of people paid lucrative wads to thwart public knowledge about tobacco being a killer. There are cohorts of people now paid to undermine public perception that global warming is a reality. The enemies of truth are well funded and calculated. They want to drill for oil in the melting Arctic and they have an army to deliver their strategy even though it’s morally untenable. To have any chance of protecting the world/planet from this devilry we have to adopt military-grade levels of discipline and strategy in response. So…er..yes…for me it is a war. And the price of defeat is for us to become lowly subjects of a dictatorship devoid of moral compass.
JH: Things mostly seem to be in a more perilous state than they were in the 90s – despite best efforts. Are you optimistic?
JC: As I said previously, any resistance against a formidably malevolent force necessarily involves a series of forsaken positions. The importance of the Newbury Bypass campaign in the 90’s for instance wasn’t to prevent the bypass being built. If it was, it failed. No, it was to highlight the urgent issues surrounding car culture and global warming. And so it succeeded even though the bypass was built.
I would say a whole generation of people are now more tuned in to the alarm bells of climate change because of the environmental protests of the 90’s/2000’s. And it’s not like we’ve got loads of time to cotton on.
Similarly more people are now aware of the foist of multinational corporations because of the campaigns against the arms trade, genetically modified food and empire-ambitious multinationals, like McDonald’s, Shell and Monsanto, because of the protests of the 90’s/2000’s.
These corporations are clandestine. They would prefer you didn’t know how they operate and what they get away with. But radical journalism and well informed social campaigning is often the only reliable news source.
The rotten fruit which falls out of the tree for all our shaking is hastily removed of course and the lawn re-manicured. But we saw it. And it’s important not to get too weary and forget what you saw. And by the looks of it, the school children of today won’t let us forget anyway god bless ’em!
My young children struggle against ‘the dark side’ every time they play their Stars Wars video game. At some point in the future I hope they’ll take some pride from the fact their old man didn’t stand idly by whilst the ‘dark side’ ran rampant for real during his life time.
Whilst ‘giving up’ is thoroughly understandable, it’s no bloody use to your children, your mates, the planet or yourself. As I said earlier it’s important to hold your position for as long as poss, and then get the hell out so you and your morale live to populate another day.
As every football manager insists, “the game is not lost until the whistle goes”, and some of the most thrilling victories occur in the last minute of extra time. There you go, we managed to fit in some footie results after all!
Squall Magazine continues its journey today as a regularly updated Facebook page. You can find it here https://www.facebook.com/Squallmagazine
John Hodge worked for many years with SchNEWS, the UK news sheet for direct activists, whose timespan and subject-matter very much overlapped that of SQUALL. Back in the day John also worked with SQUALL to co-produce several books which were collaborations between the two publications. Currently he is working on online archives of UK radical media, and has overseen the project to put the entirety of SQUALL’s articles onto the website you are currently viewing.