IF YOU’VE ever wondered how Undercurrents even got started – never mind how it’s lasted ten years – then read on. Godfrey Boyle was the founding editor of Undercurrents way back in 1972, and now reveals how it all began:
THERE’S A THIN dividing line between satisfying readers’ legitimate curiosity about the people who produce a magazine, and that narcissistic selfindulgence typified by some American publications in their regular “Letter from the Publisher” columns. I hope I can stay on the right side of that narrow boundary. Still, once every 10 years is probably about the right interval between bouts of behind-the-scenes revelation. And anyway, as Oscar Wilde should have said (but didn’t): “If there’s one thing worse than talking about yourself, it’s not talking about yourself.”
Undercurrents came to me in the bath. Yes, really. The name, I mean. For months I’d been trying to think of a good title for an “alternative” science and technology magazine and then suddenly, as I wallowed amid the soap racks, the loofahs and the rubber ducks, it came: Undercurrents! It was 1971 and I was working as a journalist in London on an IPC paper called Electronics Weekly, writing mainly about communications. But the idea of producing an “underground” science and technology magazine had, I think, really begun to form in the back of my mind in the late 1960s.
At that time I was coming to the end of a somewhat, er, chequered career as an engineering undergraduate at Queen’s University, Belfast. I’d spent a lot of my time (probably too much) editing a student science magazine with the uninspiring name of Spectrum. I’d developed an interest in the paranormal, altered states of consciousness, unorthodox philosophies, “disreputable” phenomena like UFOs and the strange occurrences chronicled by Charles Fort, and libertarian political ideas. These enthusiasms were strengthened when I visited the States in 1966. Like many students at.the time, I was also impressed by the criticisms that were being voiced, especially after May 1968, of technology and the technocratic society. More than once I launched into print in the students press with quixotic onslaughts against the engineering profession for which I was being trained.
On coming to London in 1970, I was turned on not only by the more famous “alternative” papers like Oz and IT, but by other obscure specialised periodicals: Real Time with its criticisms of the computer industry, and Red Rat with its criticisms of behavioural psychology, are two I can remember. Other things that seemed interesting included the work on video and computers being carried out by John Hopkins and others at the old “Arts Lab”, and the first Whole Earth Catalog from California.
It was an era of the inauguration of the British branch of Friends of the Earth, and of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science. I came across the group that was publishing Resurgence and liked their ideas on decentralisation: they introduced me to the writings of an obscure economist called Schumacher, and showed me a pamphlet about the work of an equally obscure group of US scientists called the New Alchemists.
But the idea of publishing a magazine covering all these subjects (and more), though it, continued to simmer in my head, might well have gone unrealised for the simple reason that I didn’t have enough capital to get the first issue printed. Then I came across Ann Ward. Ann was a Labour councillor in Southwark who, with the aid of some money she’d inherited, had installed in the basement of her house a litho printing press, complete with platemaking and typesetting facilities, which she made available virtually free to non-proflt group. So the first Undercurrents (subtitled ”the magazine of alternative science and technology”) was produced for little more than the cost of paper, with the aid of Ann Ward and of one Pat Coyne who came along to print the local community newspaper and was cajoled into helping us print Undercurrents. He stayed.
Mag In A Bag
The format of the first few issues of Undercurrents was a little unusual. It consisted of various separately printed leaflets and articles, put together and wrapped in a re-sealable polythene bag. (We got a lot of stick from the environmentalists about the polythene, even though we kept on pointing out it wasn’t meant to be thrown away.) The bag was supposed to act as a “common carrier” for lots of different material, printed by the authors themselves and sent to us for inclusion. The idea was, I suppose, inspired by the concepts of decentralisation, variety and networking that I’d become keen on. When the first issue appeared, in January (or was it February?) 1972, we hawked it round the London “alternative” bookshops, sent out a press release and got a few plugs in places like Time Out and New Scientist. The subscriptions started trickling in.
About the time the first issue hit the streets (so to speak), I got a note from a certain Andrew Mackillop, inviting Undercurrents to the first ever conference on “Alternative Technologies” which he and Peter Harper were organising in London, at University College. Needless to say, I eagerly went along, and discovered that there were dozens of people interested in the same ideas: they included Kit Pedler (now, I’m sad to say, the late Kit Pedler), George McRobie of Intermediate Technology and Robin Clarke. Robin presented a seminal paper called “Soft Technology: Blueprint for a Research Community” which we published in the next Undercurrents and which set out some of the ideas behind the foundation the following year of the BRAD (Biotechnic Research and Development) community in Wales. From then on several of these enthusiasts for “AT” (the expression had a fresh ring to it then), most notably Peter Harper, got involved in Undercurrents. It was also about then that someone called Sally Maloney offered to help with graphic design – and ended up with a stronger commitment than she’d bargained for.
Armageddon For Beginners
The United Nations was holding a big Conference on The Environment in Stockholm that June, and someone had the bright idea that we ought to go along and spread the AT Gospel. Peter Harper had in any case been asked to do a “Peoples’ Technology Exhibition” there, as one of several “alternative” events planned by the Stockholm eco-freaks to ginger up the otherwise unutterably boring official UN proceedings. So we set to work and managed (just) to get issue # 2 of the mag ready in time to catch the train and boat for Sweden. It contained what was to become Undercurrents most notorious article: “Towards’ a People’s Bomb”, written (and printed) by Pat Coyne. Pat was then a brash young nuclear physics postgraduate. His article purported to show how anyone, armed only with a smattering of atomic theory, a couple of kilos of hijacked plutonium and a sincere desire to be destructive, could vapourise the entire Cabinet and House of Commons merely by depositing a simple box of fissile tricks in one of the left luggage lockers at Charing Cross station. It was one of the first articles to draw attention to this disquieting (or tantalising, depending on your point of view) fact.
It turned out later that the mechanics of amateur Armageddon were a little more complicated than Pat had foreseen, but the essential point is now accepted: nuclear weapons proliferation is easier than you might think, and the Big Powers can’t count on retaining their monopoly of the instruments of terror. Anyway, while this journalistic time bomb was ticking away, we spent a merry fortnight in Old Stockholm enjoying that short but magical Swedish summer when the sun never quite goes down, and pedalling around on the white bicycles which the UN was lending free to journalists.
Soon after we got back, the “People’s Bomb” article hit the front page of the London Evening Standard, which reported its denunciation by Prof Joseph Rotblat, who cited it at a nuclear conference as a dire example of how nuclear information might get into the wrong hands. Then as now, people were touchy about terrorism and some thought that we were actually in favour of this rather spectacular method of dissolving Parliament.
We began to suspect that our mail was being opened and our telephones tapped – though without any real evidence. Maybe we were just paranoid. During the entire 10 years that Undercurrents has been publishing, although we’ve had our suspicions from time to time, we’ve never really had any strong indications of State surveillance. This either means there hasn’t been any, or else it’s a tribute to the quiet skills of that fine body of men, the Special Branch and MI5 (that should count for a few months remission when they finally lock me up).
After the “People’s Bomb” scare, things quietened down a bit. By the time UC4 came out, in early 1973 (yes, we had a leisurely “quarterly” schedule in those days) the magazine was being professionally printed – though we did the type setting and layout ourselves, and the mag was still in a bag. Around that time, we were also publishing a duplicated Newsletter for subscribers only, called Eddies. One of the first Eddies issues scored a “scoop” by publishing, for ‘the first time anywhere, details of Stafford Beer‘s extraordinary computerised information and control system, which he was then busy installing for the ill·fated President Salvador Allende of Chile. The Observer immediately picked up the story and splashed it on the front page, much to Beer’s annoyance. Though his project had become common knowledge in various circles, Beer had wanted to keep it out of the public eye until he was ready to unveil his creation. But many people had misgivings about its potential for abuse, so we decided to publish and be damned. We did, and we were.
But back to the bag. By this time it was obvious that it wasn’t working. People were reluctant to 10 to the bother (and expense) of printing items for inclusion; and booksellers were reluctant to stock the awkward package on their shelves. So from UC5 onwards we changed (a little regretfully) to a conventional magazine format. By the end of 1973, I’d become tired of working for IPC and felt eager to get a job writing about the things democratlcally-controlledI really believed in. So I decided to quit my job with Electronics Weekly and try to edit Undercurrents as a full-time, or at least part-time, job.
With the help of a few hundred pounds in loans and donations from sympathisers, and a small subsidy in the form of a short-term contract to write an “Environment” column for Time Out, I convened the first meeting of Undercurrents Limited, a democratically-controlled Company Limited by Guarantee, which was held in the Opera Tavern in Covent Garden in January 1974. At that meeting, someone called Chris Hutton-Squire turned up and offered to help with the business side of the new enterprise. He seemed to know what he was talking about, so we elected him a member.
What happened after that is another story.
(End of Part One )