In late 1988, whilst turning into Cold Blow Lane to watch the latest Millwall home game, I noticed someone selling what at first appeared to be a programme. On closer inspection it wasn’t the glossy, full colour, advert-strewn rip off that passed itself off as the official club mag for a quid, but a black and white unofficial ‘supporters magazine’ for a bargain 50p. I bought a copy and spent the rest of the weekend lost in the pages of ‘The Lion Roars – the unofficial Millwall Supporters Magazine’. I was inspired.
Twelve months later I found myself outside the doors of a ProntoPrint in a Croydon shopping centre, clutching the ‘artwork’ of issue one of ‘Don’t Panic’ – our brand new football fanzine serving the four south London clubs who were all competing in football’s top flight for the first (and only) time.
The title referred to the then Millwall manager John Docherty who, despite his team free-falling out of the division, repeatedly insisted in his programme notes that he was not going to panic. Later, some slightly more educated readers would ask if it was a nod to the cult book and TV series ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy”, and, not wanting to disappoint, I said “Yeah, a bit of that and John Docherty too…”
Ably assisted by my co-editor Big Tony – who contributed the Crystal Palace content, along with contributions from college pals to satisfy the Charlton and Wimbledon contingent, we entered the large glass-fronted shop and approached the young assistant behind the counter. We handed him our dummy copy, ready for photocopying, along with a pile of crumpled five and ten pound notes harvested from overtime shifts at Sainsbury’s and made our deadline-busting print order:
“Hundred copies of this please mate, can you have it done by this afternoon?”
The copyshop clerk tentatively fingered the mish-mash pamphlet with the same enthusiasm as if he’d just picked up a dead pigeon. It was a hefty volume, not in terms of pages (16 was all we could afford for our maiden voyage into the world of publishing) but for the sheer weight of Letraset and Pritt Stick montages that made up each page.
After a silent age, he glanced up.
“I’ll have to show it to my manager, be back in a minute…” and with that he disappeared into the back of the shop.
Was it that good? Did he feel the need to share our brilliant efforts with his seniors before slamming it onto the photocopier glass and allowing us to share our genius with the rest of the world? Well, a hundred of them at least.
The answer was a gut thumping ‘no’.
“We can’t print this, it’s libellous, we could get sued” he reported nasally as he returned some fifteen minutes later, contemptuously sending our mag sliding through the fivers and tenners across the glass counter back toward us.
We flicked through the mag, trying to find out what was so offensive. The only thing we could find, apart from the merciless piss-taking of Charlton striker Carl Leaburn’s failure to find the back of the net, was that we were calling Margaret Thatcher and her Tory Government ‘ignorant b’stards’ on our front cover. This following news earlier that day that Sports Minister Colin Moynihan’s plans to introduce a nationwide members only scheme for football fans had been defeated.
It had been, we thought, a sign that we were on the road to success. Sat in the college library at 9am that morning, with plans to distribute the mag the next day (essential because it was a ‘free weekend’ in terms of other mags in the area not being on sale for another week) we were without a front cover. We wanted something topical, outspoken, eye-catching, that would cement this first edition in fanzine folklore for years to come, but we couldn’t think of anything.
Then came the news about Moynihan and his ill-fated card scheme. It was perfect. The ordinary bloke on the terraces had socked to ‘the man’ and we could be the first to report it. Within an hour we had a front cover montage of Maggie in typical spouting pose but with a football planted firmly in her gob, against a backdrop of football fans celebrating with the headline: Latest: Football 1, Ignorant B’stards 0.
“B’stards” was intentional and meant we could avoid actually swearing on the front cover but still claim artistic licence, Rik Mayall was at the time starring as Tory Alan B’stard on TV in the hit comedy The New Statesman and it seemed to fit perfectly with the football fan’s perception of what the average politician knew about our game. We were so ‘right on’ it hurt, and yet our brilliance looked like being stifled.
Then fate threw us a new ball.
I left the bus at my stop, Big Tony stayed on to go home, glumly accepting the fact that ‘Don’t Panic’ had finished before it had even begun. We solemnly agreed to meet later that evening at our Friday night Sainsbury’s shift to see if we could salvage something, but you couldn’t help thinking our ship had sailed. By next week, the Moynihan story would be old news.
My stop was right outside a new tattoo studio, housed in a tiny business unit squashed between the newsagents and some terraced houses at the beginning of the high street. As I stepped from the bus, I noticed the shop owner fixing a small sign up in his window. He had already branched out from tattoos to car graphics and now he was offering a third service: “Photocopying 7p”
It was considerably cheaper than ProntoPrint, but would he risk his business and reputation by sanctioning our libellous publication? It was worth a try.
“It’s brilliant mate, well funny, I love these fanzines…” was the response of the shop owner after I handed him the mag and within five minutes of flicking through our artwork the photocopier was churning out neatly collated pages of Don’t Panic’. The shop owner, far from fearing legal action was only too keen to get in on the fanzine craze. We were back in business and just before midnight we had the first print run completed and ready for sale.
I was about to head off to bed when the phone rang, I quickly answered before it woke my folks up and was greeted by a panic-stricken Big Tony:
“Merv, we can’t sell the mag like that, we’ll have to scrap it”
“The Terry Marsh joke on the inside front cover, my dad said we’ll DEFINITELY get sued for that…”
Let me explain the ‘Terry Marsh joke’:
Boxer Terry Marsh had just been arrested for the attempted murder of his ex-manager Frank Warren who had been shot in what looked like a classic ‘hit’. We decided we wanted some credits on the inside front cover and, alongside our own name checks and contact details, we decided to throw in a few space-filling lampoons. One of these being the annoying fact that, with every live football match on TV at the time, Bryan Robson always seemed to be named ‘Man of the Match’ no matter how crap his very poor Manchester United team of the time performed.
So, beneath the ‘Edited by’ and ‘Printed by’ credits, we put: ‘Man of the Match: Bryan Robson’ and then, in a wickedly inspired moment of mirth, added: ‘Hitman of the Match: Terry Marsh’.
The problem with this was that Marsh had not been found guilty (and would eventually be acquitted) so it was, even with only a hundred copies, a bit risky and Big Tony’s dad, a well-educated chap who’s opinion I greatly respected, had a bloody good point.
So my production shift extended into the small hours as I went through each copy with a thick black permanent marker and attempted to remove the barb. Suffice to say it only drew more attention to an area of the mag that most would have probably skipped, and, worse still, on close inspection you could quite easily read the original text.
Undeterred, we dropped the initially requested batch of ten sample copies at Sportspages in Charing Cross Road, sharing its floors and shelves with hundreds of other big-selling titles such as ‘Red Issue’, ‘Over Land and Sea’, ‘Not The View’, ‘Follow Follow’ and many, many more. We doubted anyone would even notice little old ‘Don’t Panic’ amongst such illustrious company, let alone purchase one.
Excited curiosity led us to journey back to Sportpages in the middle of the following week, “Just to see if we actually see anyone just looking at one…”
As we attempted to ‘browse’ the shop incognito, we were horrified to find that our mag had disappeared from its place on the floor. Me and Big Tony bolted from the shop and held an emergency meeting on the pavement outside.
What had happened? Had the shop received a stern letter from Marsh’s eagle-eyed legal team? Or maybe they had just decided on second inspection, that, even by fanzine standards it was just too crap to sell in their shop. We returned tentatively to have another look but before we could search the piles of fanzines I heard a “Oh there you are”. It was the shop owner.
“I’ve been trying to ring you, it’s about your fanzine, you are the lads that do ‘Don’t Panic’ aren’t you?”
“Er, yes” I stammered, “why?”
The owner looked a bit puzzled at my cagey response.
“We need some more, we’d sold them all by Monday morning, can you give us fifty next time?
We were amazed. It was only ten copies but to us it was a nation’s acceptance of our humble organ and we were ready to give them more. I was in no doubt that Don’t Panic was to be the first stone laid in my publishing empire that would make Richard Branson’s little set up look like a moth-eaten old stall on Surrey Street Market. It was no ‘Sniffin Glue’ by any stretch, but from similarly small acorns…
Sunning myself during the long hot Summer of 1990, I have to confess I started to fantasise a bit about what the future could bring. Like Alan Partridge’s ‘lapdance’ departure, only slightly less disturbing, I pictured myself behind the wheel of a brand new H reg Escort XR3i Cabriolet, a busty blonde sort at my side with Luther Vandross blaring out of the stereo.
I needed a reality check and I quickly got one.
The first four issues of Don’t Panic relied on the charity of Mr Evans, the College Computer studies teacher who turned a blind eye and allowed us to do most of the typesetting for the mag on the Apple Macs in return for a couple of free copies. The rest was down to Letraset and Pritt Stick. The company coffers were in quite good shape and well up to new supplies of glue and little black letters, but the cost of buying our own Apple Mac and printer was way out of reach now that we had left college. The best we could see was an Amstrad ‘desktop publishing system’ in Dixons but a quick test proved it wouldn’t do the job. Amstrad? Who are they? They’ll never last.
I didn’t fancy going to the bank so I did the next most sensible thing. I got myself a job. Handily it was in the design department (Apple Macs and all) of a publishing company. I soon rattled out 2,000 copies of issue 5 in time for the new season but was now running solo after Big Tony had bailed out. I was also using a ‘proper printer’ which meant higher costs but less time spent on my hands and knees stapling them together myself (besides which the big stapler had gone now anyway).
Issue five sold out and now I was getting subscription requests from as far off as Scandinavia thanks to the mag being listed at the back of ‘When Saturday Comes’, the leading general footie mag that is still going strong today.
Issues six and seven were rushed out but I had to admit the quality of content was suffering and the mag had perhaps become a victim of the technology I so readily adopted to produce it. Writing it almost entirely on my own didn’t work and, only when I put issue seven next to that famous Thatcher-emblazoned issue one did I realise that it had quickly run its course. Things had moved on very quickly in just 11 short months. Thatcher wasn’t even PM anymore. Many fanzines had fallen by the wayside for various reasons.
More significantly, during that Summer of 1990 I met my future wife while on holiday. She lived in Manchester and I started to commute each Friday night to see her at weekends, instead of, brace yourselves, going to watch Millwall. I really couldn’t justify being the editor of a football fanzine if I wasn’t even going to matches.
And so the curtain came down on Don’t Panic’s brief existence. It had been an amazing journey, a steep but thoroughly enjoyable learning curve. One memory that sticks in the mind the most was when I found myself struggling to move a park bench around the local rec football pitch early one morning and photographing it as being the exclusive first shots of Wimbledon’s new all-seater stadium – much to the dismay of the dog walkers and joggers. What a shame that, thanks to the crapness of my little 110 camera, the poor light of an early spring morning and the fact that the already appalling quality photos were then photocopied for the final artwork it was virtually impossible to see what the hell was going on.
Looking back, perhaps my big mistake was to take the nine to five. At the time I was an energetic, cocky, fearless and resourceful 18-year-old who surely would have found a way around the problem of not having the equipment to continue the mag. I’d give anything for a mere shard of those qualities right now. It’s every middle-aged man’s privilege to look back wistfully and recall how he ‘almost made it’. It’s convenient to blame marriage, kids and mortgages for failure to realise your dreams but that is of course apologist, ‘coulda woulda shoulda’ bunkum. The truth is, it was just a little mag that ran its course and provided a few months of adventure before I, like most of the world, went out to work for a living.
The college I attended closed and become a ‘Fame School’ (or BRIT School to give it is official title) the year after I left. It went on to spawn such mainstream musical talents as The Kooks, Amy Winehouse, Rizzle Kicks, Adele, and Jessie J among others. But of course, before them all, came the punk-rocking Don’t Panic.