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Smoke - A London Peculiar
Independent On Sunday (April 2003)

The cover of the debut edition of Smoke – A London Peculiar, a pocket sized love letter to the curiosities of the capital, lists a handful of articles that didn’t quite make it into the issue. London’s ugliest dogs. Hidden London: Salman Rushdie tells us about his favourite doorways and bushes. Are night buses the new churches? Whelks: what on earth are they? London’s campest statues.

Sitting in the Doghouse pub in Kennington, co-editor Matt Haynes – a mid thirtysomething with a thatched bowlhead of straw hair who would have made a very good eccentric country vicar in another life – nods with faux-seriousness. “There are some incredibly camp statues in London,” he says, with the fervour of a man who clearly has too much spare time on his hands. “I’m compiling a list.”

Smoke – A London Peculiar is a 36-page, A5 fanzine dedicated to the passions and tiny epiphanies that make up both modern day London and the many Londons that have gone before it. The features that made issue one are almost as ludicrous as the ones that didn’t. London’s most pointless streets. Just where does the north London line really go after Stratford? Love on the 253 to Aldgate Via Holloway Road. West London’s most three-cornered landmark. One more reason to avoid Cambridge Circus Pizza Hut.

“There’s something about London that is slightly peculiar,” says Haynes. “It has a ridiculously long continuous history that most cities don’t have. I love the fact that everything in London has a reason for why it’s there and why it’s called what it is and why it’s the shape it is. Like a lot of streets follow the course of old rivers that are no longer there or they’ll be named after an old estate whose owners have long been forgotten. Everything has an explanation but you have to dig down to find out what it is.”

A good example of this ethos in action is Smoke’s piece on a stroll along the river Tyburn, which apparently flows from Regent’s Park, past Berkley Square, through Green Park and into the Thames. Our hostess is an obviously fictional romantic novelist called Tricity Bendix with a strange penchant for bestiality. “It was in the old burial ground of Paddington Street Gardens,” writes Bendix, “that Sir Basildon Thrupp was famously beaten to within an inch of three foot six by a couple of spade-wielding Cockney cabmen, furious that he had worn out their ponies with his relentless attentions.”

Providing a counterpoint to Haynes’ gently perverse sense of humour is 25 year old co-editor Jude Rogers, who moved to London four years ago from a small village in south Wales and was “terrified by its immensity”. Her piece on the graves of forgotten working class heroes in Postman’s Park captures the more serious side of the magazine. “London is full of statues to famous people and generals but there’s nothing to commemorate the ordinary people who died in heroic ways,” Rogers says. “With Smoke, we want to tell the small stories that go to make up the fabric of London.”

The pair also seem obsessed with public transport. A page is dedicated to the Bus Of The Month (“My favourite is the 360. It goes from Elephant & Castle to the Albert Hall but by the most indirect route it can,” says Haynes. “It’s one of those routes that you think the driver is making it up as he goes along”) and there’s a column on London’s Lost Tube Stations. “If you cup your hands around your face and stare out of tube windows, you can see a lot of the stations,” Haynes claims. “Suddenly the tunnel wall will disappear and there’s the old platform, exactly as it was seventy years ago.”

Their only problem now is how to sell Smoke. “With music fanzines, it’s easy. You just go to a gig and flog them there,” says Haynes, who once penned a notoriously fey indie pop fanzine called Are You Scared To Get Happy? “But we can’t really go up to strangers and say ‘you look like you’re enjoying this bus journey, you might like this’.” The current solution is mail order, via the website for Haynes’ record label, Shinkansen. “So far we’ve had three orders from Singapore and one from Germany.”

As for future ambitions, they just want Smoke to be read. As you would any love letter. “I’m happy for it to be viewed as a love letter,” smiles Haynes. “The sort of love letter you send every three months. And ask someone to pay for."

Ian Watson
Music, film, comedy and travel journalist based in London

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