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I’m sorry I haven’t been around – it wasn’t planned. Unforturnately I was taken unexpectedly ill, and the illness (and treatment, which has been quite time and energy consuming). I’m doing OK, and now finally have some time for ordinary life, and one of the “ordinary” things I plan to do is to resume my blog farly soon. So in the meantime before that happens I just thought I would led you know briefly why I’d been silent and that I am planning to resume blogging fairly soon.


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Multi-channel mania

The period post-January 2001 to I think, around March, is the run-up to “listings deregulation” – the moment when Radio Times can publish programme details for all channels and so, of course, can any other publication. The cosy duopoly that has existed since the 1950s, which has allowed RT and TV Times (its commercial TV equivalent) to become hugely profitable on weekly sales of over three million, is about to end. Generally speaking, we listings sub-editors have very little contact with the “real journalists” in the features section but one morning our Editor Nick Brett gathers us all together in their office space for a pep talk. Nick is a very nice man but, although no business expert, I am not quite persuaded by his arguments. Deregulation, he says will expand the market. RT could be selling even more copies – the fact that people can buy a magazine with all programme details for the first time will liberate a potential readership who are currently put off by the requirement to buy two magazines. I recognize some truth in this, but even then wonder how many people have been sitting around holding their loose change, simply pining for a multi-channel magazine. The other element of Nick’s argument is that because we produce, in his view, a better magazine than ITV we will be the natural market leader. He doesn’t talk about other possible competitors, possibly assuming that this is such a specialist market there won’t be any. Well …

The work done by me and my chums the previous year starts to get rolled out. New page designs are installed into RT’s elaborate publishing system. The sub-editing team gets briefed on the plans for the spring launch. The process of putting our pages together will be the same – it’s just that there will be a lot more work. You may recall I mentioned that at the time, RT has four regional editions to accommodate minor variations in BBC programming around the UK, plus BBC local radio. From March we will have, I think, thirteen individual editions, i.e. producing three times as many different magazines, to accommodate the many different TV companies that make up ITV at the time. And the differences will be much more substantial – in those days there is still quite a bit of regional variation in what the different ITV franchises broadcast. We will not, it will come as no surprise to you, be employing three times as many sub-editors. Although the number employed goes up, the increase is relatively minor so we are all set to become a lot more busy.

Having said that, it’s all quite exciting. I am now a reasonably embedded part of the team – I have got past the baptism of fire overseen by Chief Sub P- – and now more or less know what I am doing. At some time around then my contract is extended, but only by a further six months. You may be puzzled why they don’t make new subs permanent. Well … a number of subs have had health problems leading to difficulty in using computer keyboards. If a sub is permanent, then clearly the BBC has a responsibility for their welfare and heathcare, particularly as health problems are arising in one of their workplaces and as a result, it would seem, of their working conditions. If new subs like me are employed on fixed term, almost casualised contracts which are periodically discreetly extended, then RT has the potential, should a healthcare problem arise, of quietly letting the contract expire, and the injured sub to fend for his/herself. Sounds like an over-cynical reading of the situation? Reader, I saw it happen. Reader, it happened to me …

RT has hired a former listings editor from soon-to-be-rival publication TV Times as a consultant. I met him when we were working on dummies but now he too is a key element of the real version, commening on the ITV and Channel 4 parts of the listings. He is a lovely man – because of the brevity of our relationship I can’t remember his name sadly. His strong London accent and Fleet Street press room demeanour singles him out from the more genteel editorial team he has joined.

We are briefed on the form that the new magazine will take and given dry runs with the new layout. Work on the listings desk gathers pace, and I am briefly taken away from my standard job of working on terrestrial listings for a special job. RT has decided it will carry listings for satellite TV. Here in 2010 multi-channel listings are a key part of the main pages but back in 2001 relatively few people have satellite and if you look at RT’s traditional middle-class readership the proportion is even lower. Nonetheless it is considered vital that these listings are included from the word go. They are available further in advance than terrestrial listings so we can store up a decent amount in advance. Thus it is that Roger Hughes gives me the task of inaugurating the satellite listings – so every time I look at multi-channel pages in the magazine today I can think “I started those …”. Which is not to suggest they are the most riveting part of the magazine, you understand …

With those listings banked for future use I return to the main listings pages in time for the multi-channel launch. We await, for the first time, listings information from ITV and Channel 4, poised to pour them into the new layouts. In the run-up to the multi-channel launch, we discover that we will have more rivals. German publisher Bauer has decided to enter the UK listings market with a magazine aimed at the lower end of the market called TV Quick. ITV bizarrely launches a rival to its own publication in the form of the skinnier, skimpier What’s on TV. Some weekend newspapers appear to have plans to produce giveaway listings magazines. Nick Brett’s optimism about an expanding market seems misplaced.

We hope that all will go well, but we are not sure. In fact, we are about to enter a perfect storm, and there will be casualties …

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Apologies if anyone is finding this comics stuff a bit esoteric, but it’s all part of my journey (and gets a little more dramatic in upcoming posts). Just before things got a bit sticky at JBP, the Speakeasy crowd descended on a festival in Angoulême, France. I wrote about it at the time, and having re-read the article, I still quite like it. So as an example of me having a good time, and a snapshot of what the UK comics industry was like at the time, I thought you might like to read it.

I guess the words are my copyright. Many thanks to the wonderful Hunt Emerson for kind permission to reproduce his one-page Angoulême strip. I have no idea where Brad! Brooks, who provided the other cartoon, is these days.

This is what I wrote … Angoulême 1990: the Brits Abroad

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A mainstay of early UK comics fandom, Dez was also one of the first fans to turn pro, initially working for IPC on humour titles like Buster. Dez

A selection of disposable felt tip pens.

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then became editor of the British edition of Mad Magazine; founded movie magazines – one covering Hammer Films and the other SF and fantasy more broadly; opened a comics store in south London: and by the early eighties is publishing Warrior, as a result raising Alan Moore’s profile considerably.

By 1989 Warrior is long-gone and relatively little has been heard for Dez for a while. In due course I am told that at some stage during early negotiations between Acme Press and JBP over Speakeasy, one of my former Acme colleagues has an indiscreet discussion with Dez.

Never anything less than canny, Dez spots a possible gap in the market which could be filled by a news-heavy, low budget publication. Thus it is that we find ourselves facing unexpected competition in a pretty narrow field. As we are a news magazine, I choose to report the arrival of Comics International quite extensively. On the one hand, I am indirectly promoting the competition, but on the other hand it is one of the bigger news stories of the month.

Dez has a chequered (but substantial) comics career, and those who have worked with him have differing opinions. I never worked with him closely so I will refrain from venturing an opinion on some long-standing controversies – you can find them discussed elsewhere on the Web if you wish. The arrival of Comics International presents us with a challenge, but in the short term JBP decides to continue with its plans for Speakeasy more or less unaltered.

Sales of the new version are very encouraging, and the feedback from Titan Distributors is positive, although we know we are weeks away from the arrival of our new competitor. After the relatively easy ride of the first issue Rian Hughes visits JBP and takes me through his design bit by bit, as I will be putting the next issue together myself, using PageMaker on my trusty Mac.

Can I just say, I am not a designer, and I am not a typographer. As a result, some of the finer nuances of Rian’s design are somewhat lost on me. And I have a lot of material to put together. The first issue I fully produce myself has 80 pages, 46 editorial and the remainder advertising. In addition to writing the editorial and news pages and putting together the Shipping Guide, I have to edit and proofread the pages, art edit them (select all the images we will use, and scan them), and lay out every single page. Some editorial content arrives very close to press date. Each month Ronnie, through no fault of his own, keeps me on tenterhooks as to how many editorial pages are acutally needed. Looking back, I am amazed at how much work I actually did every month to get this beast out. Obviously I wanted to justify John’s confidence in me, but if I’d stopped to think I would realize that I was simply being asked to do too much. In the end the workload and other matters takes its toll on me. Stuart, on the other hand, seems jolly relaxed.

Rian Hughes is, I think, somewhat dismayed that I do not stick rigidly to his design. I haven’t deviated from it intentionally – I’ve got as close as time, and deadlines allow. The following month he pops in to talk me through where I went wrong.

Nice though Rian is, I am mortified and keenly feel the sense of my own graphical limitations. Looking back now at that first issue however, I am surprised at how decent it actually looks, under the circumstances. The single most disappointing element of is is the cover, some artwork by Steve Yeowell (who is quite a quirky artist) which sadly looks as though it has been coloured with felt-tip pen – a bit of a let-down after our strong debut cover image.

As anyone who works on any regular publication will tell you, as soon as you send one issue to publication you immediately start thinking about the next one. The stress begins to tell on me, as does the developing nature of the relationship between myself and my Deputy Editor …

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After Christmas we get down to the faintly terrifying business of putting the first new-style Speakeasy together. The reassuring bit is that we are fairly confident about the editorial content (and also start planning ahead for articles for future issues). We introduce a “Shipping Guide” – listings for all new comics to be published that month (no small task). Stuart offers to write a monthly two-page gossip section which he calls Graffiti – effectively a transplant of the kind of stuff the music press does but focussing on the fringe elements of our nerdy little world – the fringe of a fringe.

In production terms I have a bit of a breathing space as Titan Studios, groaning with personnel, will handle the page layout chores which in due course will fall on my shoulders. From the JPB advertising team, the redoubtable Ronnie Hackston is allocated the task of selling ad space for us.He proves a joy to work with, although every month we reach an uneasy point where we are not sure how many pages of ads we have and therefore we are equally unsure how many editorial pages we will need.

I find myself visiting my former employers, Titan Distributors, to encourage an increase over their normal Acme Press order numbers for the new, glossy Speakeasy. Accompanied by Vic Lime I find myself cutting a deal with my old colleague and chum Nick Parry-Jones. Titan also has a rival by this time  – Neptune Comics Distribution, based in Leicester. So Vic and myself trek up there as well securing a rather smaller order. Within a few years Neptune will be taken over, giving the mighty Diamond Comic Distributors from the USA a foothold in the UK market.

The Acme version of Speakeasy has tended to reproduce existing artwork on the cover, and there is a strong sense that we want to go for original art. However, because we are limited to the direct-sales market (i.e. comics shops) and not the mass newsagent market, this is one of many things John Brown and Vic want to pay next to nothing for. Such personal industry contacts as I had have started to go cold, but we have inherited the magical Acme address book, which is invaluable. Nonetheless I flounder somewhat at this initial challenge. Happily Stuart is on good terms with artist Simon Bisley, and manages to extract an unpublished image of Marvel’s Wolverine from him for our first cover.

Rian Hughes’ design for the magazine is great, but makes it look very different. I’ll try and reproduce a cover  in a later post. Gone is the home-made feel of a magazine that has never shaken off its fanzine roots. The first issue shows off high production values in terms of design, imagery and the new paper stock, disguising the precariously thin editorial resources. As the year progresses I am struck by how the other areas of JBP have – not money to burn, exactly, but certainly enough. The decision to restrict Speakeasy to the direct-sales market is understandable  – few of us have any confidence at the time that a magazine on comics could prosper in the mass-market – but limits our resources terribly.

In some ways January is a month of grace. The relationship between myself as Editor and Stuart as Deputy has yet to fully form. Titan Studios’ accomplished job with Rian’s design keeps the production heat off me for a while. We are looking forward to a trip to the comics festival in Angoulême, France which will include an opportunity to plug our work and gather some useful interviews. Then, separate from all the production and editorial challenges that are about to hit me like a collapsing, encyclopedia-filled bookcase, we are blindsided by an unexpected development.

Early in 2000 UK comic store owners receive an information pack about a rival news magazine, to be called Comics International. The pack contain the important information that the magazine is coming soon and also that it will be free. Early in my editorship, this is an unnerving development. A letter which accompanies the pack gives a swanky address in Oxford Street, central London, but does not identify the publisher – it is simply signed “The Editors”. The industry rumour mill is working overtime, but no-one seems to know who is behind this new venture.

Thus it is that I embark on my first and only piece of “investigative reporting” – although it doesn’t take much investigating to get the bottom of things. One crisp winter morning at JBP I telephone the number on the letter. When the call is answered, I recognize who is speaking instantly. I pretend to be the owner of a new comic shop who is interested in advertising in Comics International and have a jolly chat about advertising rates and so on. I hazily recall giving my home address so that the publishers can send me more information.

As the conversation draws to a close, I innocently ask whether the person I am speaking to has any history in the comics industry. A little, he says. Would I have heard of you, I ask? Oh no, no, comes the reply, I’m not very well known, you’d never have heard of me. Throughout the conversation, the speaker cagily avoids revealing his name. But after eight years working in the industry myself, the voice is unmistakeable – from the first moment of the conversation I know that I am speaking to Dez Skinn

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There are two Acmes is my lfe – Acme Press, of which I was a co-op member, and the rather more famous Acme Corporation which supplied Wile E. Coyote and other cartoon characters with a succession of unpredictable products, often leading, in Wile E.’s case, to plummeting over a cliff or falling from the sky, hence the title of this post. I am particular fond of Earthquake Pills. A note or warning though – they don’t work on road-runners.

As 1988 progresses and blurs into 1989, I become increasingly worried about my involvement in Acme, particularly as more personal events are starting to affect me. Acme has, by this time, an increasingly close relationship with Eclipse Comics. Our reasoning is that this will give us better access to the North American direct-sales market, which grew up in the seventies and eighties as an alternative to newsstand distribution and which is, by this time, huge. Eclipse handles our North American distribution, and many of our later titles appear under a joint Eclipse/Acme imprint.

The partnership is always fraught with difficulties though. Even when U.S. sales are strong, revenues that are due to us arrive painfully slowly. At one point Richard Ashford pulls off a real coup by obtaining the rights to publish the comics adaptation of the new James Bond film Licence to Kill, followed by an original Bond story. We engage US artist Mike Grell as writer/artist on these projects, but strong pre-orders, particularly on the original series, fail to be realized when production deadlines are missed and issues limp out many months apart. Back in the UK our Brixton comics shop is also poorly managed and so never as profitable as it should be.

I become increasingly worried about all this, not least because we are all financial guarantors to Acme’s bank – not for a huge amount actually, but at the time it seems like money I can ill afford to lose. I try and urge us to be a bit more assertive in our relationship to Eclipse in particular, but it would be misleading to suggest I am a strong voice, for reasons I will explain shortly. If I felt a little more together myself, I might have been a little more insistent, although to what effect who knows? In the end, I don’t feel that Acme is going anywhere, and I decide to withdraw from the co-op for this, and also health reasons. I announce this at a co-op meeting, although I am cagy about the “health reasons”, unable to talk about what has happened to me. Alan Mitchell, who attends most meetings, offers to take my place as a co-op member. As I leave that evening, I am sure that this signals the end of my involvement with Acme. It turns out I am very wrong, but that’s a tale for another day.

The aftermath of my unfortunate surgery takes a while to emerge, but when it does so there are two main effects. The first is hormonal – I am prescribed testosterone supplements by the hospital. The medication supplied takes the form of some rather nasty pills – nasty because they are not particularly effective and also because they lead to weight gain and fluid retention. Compliant, helpless me assumes that the doctors know what they are doing. But amazingly in retrospect no-one – not the hospital, nor my GP – ever orders a regular blood test to check hormone levels. These days, happily on estrogen, it’s considered critical that my levels are checked every six months, but back then it isn’t done at all and I endure the consequences for years.

I become significantly overweight and fluid accumulates, particularly at the knee. I try taking water tablets, which seem to have marginal effects, apart from turning my urine bright green. My libido suffers, although my energy levels seem OK, at least for a while. But as it is described to me later, one consequence of low hormone levels is a general lack of “wellness”, both physical and in terms of psychological states. At the time I still feel I have no control over what is being done to my body, and so I never make a fuss or consider that there might be alternatives. It will take a chance encounter some years later to start putting things right.

Shortly after my surgery, I go to see my GP – who is relatively new to the practice. He is concerned about my psychological well-being, but at the time I brush his concerns aside. I am just carrying on, putting a brave face on things as usual, resigned to my crappy body, lack of self-esteem, sense of oddness and difference etc etc.

A few months later there is some emotional impact. Not much really – I manage to keep most of this stuff at bay until years later. But I begin to find things a bit harder to cope with, so I return to my GP who writes a referral for group therapy. My initial motivation for seeking therapy is to deal with the sense of helplessness and distress which my various medical treatments, and also my upbringing, have caused me. My secondary motivation relates to my transness – the start of a quest to obtain “proof”. I have this notion that if someone somewhere, some medical expert, could say to me “you feel this way because  of MEDICAL CAUSE X and this is what you should do about it” then I could show this “proof” to friends and family and say look, it’s not just me banging on about this, this is why I am the way I am and this is what to do about it. So I guess I am seeking both proof and “instructions”. A lot of trans people do this at some point on their journey, but I now know this is wasted energy.

I pursue this fruitless quest for many years in different ways, but perhaps the quest properly begins then. I now know that there is no “test” for transness – you must self-diagnose by first facing up to the truth about yourself. This is one of the reasons why medical help is so variable and inconsistent – our situation is poorly understood by those in charge of treatment and/or funding.

As it happens back in 1988 my trans feelings are becoming more and more buried. This is partly my choice, as I don’t think anyone in my life can cope with my uncertainties about gender. But another factor is the effect of hormones on the brain. My low levels of testosterone lead to a diminution in my cross-gender feelings. I am not expert enough to explain why this is so – and the sense of being trapped in my circumstances, and in my damaged body, were no doubt a strong factor. But  in the late nineties, doctors finally get my testosterone levels “right”, and when that happens my gender discomfort starts becoming stronger and stronger – and harder to ignore. That I suppose is the oppposite of what you might think – testosterone should make you feel more masculine, not less. But I am just relaying my own experience – an increase in “T” levels also increased my unease with my apparent birth gender.

When, in September 2008. testosterone is replaced by estrogen well … after a couple of months of adjusting to the change things begin to feel “right” for the first time in my life. But it is very difficult to trace the relationship between hormones, sense of gender and one’s overall psychological condition. Things today do feel very, wonderfully different from how they felt in the dying days of the 1980s.

Back in 1988/89 I trundle off to group therapy, and then in due course to another chapter in my chaotic “career” …

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Summer passes and I am, predictably, rejected by all my chosen universities because I only have two A-levels, one of them a bare pass. This is seen by all and sundry, including myself, as awful news. I have a summer job at the carpet department of Fishpools which, as you all now know, is not Selfridges to tide me over, and then I have to decide what to do next.

As the autumn of 1977 arrives I attempt to study History A-level by correspondence course. This is a dismal failure – sitting in my bedroom with the textbooks and tasks they send I just can’t motivate myself. At least I am sensible enough to figure this out by myself and realize that if I’m going to get to university I need to adopt another approach. I have no real idea why I want to go there. It is just expected, although I will be the first in my family to do so. I am hoping English Literature at university will be as exciting as the A-level was. When I finally get there, this turns out not to be the case …

I have a big think, and I decide to go back, tail between my legs, to see my old head teacher Dr Hadley and ask if I can come back to school to pick up the missing A-level. I find myself sitting in his office, talking to him and to the Deputy Head, Mr Bird (a very colourful character but sadly peripheral to the concerns of this blog). I remember this meeting vividly because a very weird thing happens. When I was in the proper Sixth Form, we were not treated like people at all by the ruling classes. I remember the Upper Sixth being kept behind after assembly one morning by Bird, who told us that that the school had decided we were an entire year of underachievers. Honestly – even if you bloody thought it, why would you tell us that? But because I have come to ask them to take me back, even though I am no significantly different from the person who departed three months earlier, I am now to be treated as an adult.

We have a sensible conversation. I suggest doing History A-level, as I had made a (slight) start by myself. Dr Hadley says fine, but to come back I would have to take two A-levels, not one. In a year. He doesn’t say why, and I have no idea why, but he appears inflexible (a not unusual state for him). Any subjects you fancy, he asks? I ponder for a minute. How about Religious Studies, I say? The deal is done.

I am quite interested in RS, despite not having studied it since the third year. Some of my chums did it at A-level and it did sound interesting. We agree a date for my return. In order to do two A-levels I will need to attend Upper and Lower Sixth classes in each. This turns out to be a wacky but not unpleasant experience. The new Upper Sixth are our old Lower Sixth, so I know a few of them. The new Lower Sixth are mostly unknown to me, but I quickly make some good friends among them. Once again, shifting me out of context works wonders – among a fresh group of kids my confidence grows a little bit more. Two other people from my year return – a boy called M– and a girl called SP (need to use initials to distinguish her from S–) who I had a crush on a bit earlier. The three of us support each other and socialize, but we don’t share any classes, we are all doing different subjects.

Only doing two A-levels leads to a quirky timetable. On Tuesday my lessons are over by 10.35 in the morning! Usually I stay and work until lunchtime on Tuesdays, and then go home, fall on the bed and sleep the drool-laden, comatose sleep of the late developing teenager. Some good naps on those Tuesdays.

I am motivated and conscientious, reinvigorated. I turn in work on time, I do well. I find RS fascinating in fact, particularly the stuff about textual criticism of the Bible, authorship of the texts, aprocrypha, Dead Sea Scrolls, the book Honest to God, the controversies around the Reverend Don Cupitt, the theories of Teilhard de Chardin. Around the same time I read Michael Moorcock‘s interesting take on Jesus, Behold the Man (having first come across a Marvel Comics adaptation). It is to say the least provocative. As with Basil’s English classes, I find Romie Tribe (later Romie Ridley)’s teaching endlessly stimulating. I am aglow with philosophical and religious thinking, loving every minute of it. History is pretty good too, but a lot to learn in a year. I find it fascinating and try hard, but don’t cope quite so well.

I get on particularly well with the Lower Sixth. I have next to no history with them and they are a fun bunch. I manage to restrict my terrifying disco lurching at girls to just the one in the whole year and I manage to make some good friends, including a chap called Colin Dixon who like me, develops a taste for Richard Thompson, although his true musical hero is Paul Kossoff (a fine player, certainly – Colin ‘got him’ before I did). I mention Colin’s name in full in case anyone knows where he is – he moved to the US for a while. I appreciate it’s not an uncommon name, but Colin Dixon formerly of Goffs Oak, anyone? Last time I saw him was at an RT gig in London around the mid-80s, when the support band was The Pogues (although support hardly turned out to be the right word that night).

Basil tries to lure me into the school drama production that year, but worried about my workload, I reluctantly decline. Being in the third year of Sixth Form, facial hair rules are relaxed and so I grow a huge, blokey beard, leading a parent to mistake me for a teacher on one occasion.

Nearly a whole year of extra secondary school passes, mostly happily. I reapply for university, hopeful that I will be able to add two more A-levels to my roster. My transness mostly bubbles under. The end of my teens is in sight, and I have still never had a girlfriend. But this is about to change …

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