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Monday, August 15, 2016

Comic Cuts - 15 August 2016


Yes, it's 10 years since I started Bear Alley, during which time I've posted over 3,900 posts, although  this post will be number 3,797 currently available, the removed posts including serialised comic strips (Eagles Over the Western Front, The Wanderings of Ulysses, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, etc.) and serialised text (The Man in the Iron Mask) that I've subsequently published as books.

The Bear Alley blog has seen some ups and downs over the decade it has been running. It started when I was working for the Look and Learn art library, inspired the launch of Bear Alley Books and has kept me in touch with my hobbies while I've worked on Hotel Business. I've worked on 64 different books during the period Bear Alley has been running. Although I tend to drift off onto mundane topics, like how many tomatoes we've managed to grow (notice how good I've been this year... not a single mention of tomatoes or cucumbers in the weekly Comic Cuts column so far), or news about our new fence, I'm pleased that my interest in the history of comics and old paperbacks remains undiminished. I still find it fascinating to dig into the lives of old authors to see what can be discovered and I hope that I'll be able to keep that side of things going in the future.

The task of earning enough money to pay the rent has meant that Bear Alley has sometimes had to take a back seat, but I'm not planning to let it drop any time soon. Although it's not daily, as it was when I started, I think we're averaging four posts a week at the moment, which is still pretty good. I guess the next headline date to look foward to will be post number 4,000, which—if I can up the pace—we should hit next summer.

The first post I posted was an explanation about my choice of title...

Why Bear Alley?
"The only approach is by means of a fire-escape-like structure descending into a kind of man-made gorge between Farringdon Street and the railway line that runs from Ludgate Circus to Holborn Viaduct. At the bottom of the steps, you look up and see rearing above you a miniature cliff-face of blackened brick, as thick with soot as the inside of a railway tunnel. The next moment you are in a concrete fortress -- once housing the Daily Mirror -- printing presses, later an air-raid shelter -- as elaborate as a stretch of the Maginot Line; and five or six corridors later, there is actually a strong room door, a foot thick, to be negotiated before you are allowed into the dusty presence of Fleetway Houses's hallowed past" – William Vivian Butler.
When Alfred Harmsworth had the Fleetway House built in 1912, it was to bring together all the various elements of his sprawling publishing empire. In the vaults underneath Fleetway House that had once housed printing presses were stored all the old records and file copies of magazines that were published by the Amalgamated Press; down in the vaults you could even find cheque stubs dating back to the earliest days of Harmsworth's publishing in the 1890s.

And the "man-made gorge" described by William Vivian Butler that led to this treasure trove was called Bear Alley.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, when the late Bill Lofts was researching old boys' story papers, these records still existed and many of the mysteries involving anonymous and pseudonymous stories solved by Bill and his good friend Derek Adley were resolved by L. P. Lawrence, the literary cashier of Fleetway Publications at the time, who was able to track down payment records from old ledgers and stock books hidden away at Bear Alley.

Fleetway House was built over part of the course of the old River Fleet which still ran underground into the Thames but which was occasionally swelled by high rains. When that happened, the vaults under Fleetway House were filled with noxious black water and much of what was stored there was damaged beyond repair. Moves, leaks and culls of items considered a fire hazard meant that invaluable records, artwork and correspondence was destroyed.

Thankfully, a few things survived, including many of the file copies of old Amalgamated Press publications. Collectors will be familiar with the red binding and gold lettering of old A.P. volumes. Originally, three file copies were bound of each title. Two were kept in storage, one to use as a file copy for anyone needing to find out something from a back issue and the other held in reserve should the file copy get lost, destroyed or damaged. The third copy was for the editor's own use and was kept in the office for reference. When the editorial offices moved out of the old Fleetway House, many editors simply chucked their file copies of old, defunct magazines. Bill Lofts once recalled, "They were simply dumped in dustbins. I can remember seeing huge piles of them in Bear Alley."

Some Bear Alley file copies—each with the large, blunt message that "This File Volume must not be mutilated, and should be returned at the earliest possible moment to STOCK ROOM, BEAR ALLEY"—have survived the years but Bear Alley itself no longer exists and, all ramblings aside, to me Bear Alley represents all the lost knowledge that we might have once had access to.

Having spent twenty-five years on and off trying to reconstruct some of the records that were once housed in Bear Alley, it seems an apt name for a blog in which I'll probably spend a lot of time talking about old comics and old story papers.

That was where Bear Alley started ten years ago. What actually inspired it was a phone call from Peter Haining, who was looking for information on a writer named Ernest McKeag. I'd written a piece about McKeag a couple of years earlier when I was publishing a fanzine called PBO—it was actually the newsletter of the British Association of Paperback Collectors, but it was pretty much a one-man show as getting others involved in the printing (issue 2/3) and design (issue 4) had caused months of delay.

It is in my nature to hate this kind of thing... if I'm to be blamed for something not happening (like a magazine not coming out on time), I'd rather it was my fault for taking on too much than to be blamed when it was someone else causing the delay. I even turned freelance because I was fed up with losing jobs through no fault of my own (privatisation, companies going bust). I'm starting to sound like I enjoy the isolation of working only with myself, which isn't true, although I do sometimes wish there were six of me, each with four pairs of hands, working in a world with 48 hour days and no need to sleep—there are just so many things I'd love to do and there isn't enough time to do them all.

But I digress, which is part of the problem. I digress an awful lot.

PBO folded before I could use the article on McKeag, and, having dug out the information for Peter, I wanted to find somewhere to publish it so that it would be available, rather than remain hidden away on the hard drive of my computer. I'd noticed that David Bishop was posting a regular blog on this thing called Blogger and dropped him a line to see whether it was easy to work with. His answer was along the lines of "If I can use it, it must be easy," so I set up an account and... we are ten years later.

I hope you'll raise a glass and join me as I try to figure out what the hell I'm going to write for post number 3,798.


Mikeodee said...

Congratulations,Steve....a thoroughly enjoyable blog, long may it continue!

Standby4action said...

Many many congratulations Steve.

Brad Brooks said...

My heartiest congratulations Steve, what an achievement! Here's to the next 10 and beyond!

Ken said...

Fantastic reading. Thanks for all your effort in putting Bear Alley out Steve.