We were somewhere outside Shoreditch Town Hall when Little Jay turned up with a stash of this quarter’s Nervemeter magazine. I’d read it already but bought a copy and gave it to my friend. We then sat down next to a portable pissoir in Hoxton Square to have a read.
“This is a true story,” begins the preface. “It has been rewritten only so far as was necessary to conceal personalities. It is a terrible story, but it is also a story of hope and of beauty.”
The text is actually from a book by nineteenth-century poet, painter, magician and occultist Aleister Crowley, who may or may not have signed his name with a cartoon cock ’n’ balls for an ‘A’ as he does on the first page of the Nervemeter.
It’s a high-risk strategy for page three. You teeter along the razor-sharp crag that leads to proper page four engagement with the publication, fighting huge pressure to shriek “twats!” and tear the magazine to pieces, stuffing them into the nearest possible portable pissoir.
Page four is interesting though, and not just for its facsimile of a temperance pledge. At the bottom of the page you can find out how to go into business alongside Little Jay:
“If you are begging on the streets then you qualify to sell Nervemeter magazine,” it says. “The minimum suggested donation is £3: all of that money stays with the vendor.”
Which is how it works. The two men chiefly responsible for the Nervemeter – Ian Allison, who looks after the words, and Kieron Livingstone, who does the pictures – carry boxes of it across London, dropping them at shelters or personally delivering them to homeless vendors with whom they’ve had relationships for years. The vendors go out and sell the magazines, and keep the proceeds.
There are a few outposts in central and west London, with a heartland in the east.
“We’ve got a guy outside Highbury tube, we’ve got a guy on Broadway Market, we’ve got Bob on Shoreditch High Street, Little Jay in Shoreditch. Over the whole time it’s probably about 50 or 60 people who’ve sold the magazine,” says Edinburgh-born Allison.
The Nervemeter started as the information organ the London Poor, which was Allison and Livingstone’s plot to cause Starbucks to collapse, along the lines suggested by the anti-financier Max Kaiser.
“He was into bringing down Coca Cola and Starbucks through short-selling, and boycotts,” says Allison, who works as a financial journalist in Canary Wharf.
“He had this list of the most bloated companies, that if you could wobble with the share price you’d have activist hedgefunds just slamming into them.”
The idea of the London Poor was to start the boycott and publish news of the tumbling share price.
“It was a financial paper,” is Livingstone’s description of the 2004 project. “The London Poor Starbucks Share Price Experiment – catchy.”
The homeless distributors were part of the plan from the start, says Allison. “It was always going to be distributed by poor people, or sold by poor people.
“We were sort of sickened by the number of free magazines everywhere, the Metro and everything, and we thought it would be good to have something that’s got value, that’s sold by poor people.
“We liked the irony of having a poor person selling you financial advice as well.”
“It was a conceptual art piece originally,” adds Livingstone. “The poor, the London Poor, the Victoriana, Starbucks, and the poor selling the rich financial advice – this was all in our heads.
“We put all of this stuff into the first issue and it’s sort of developed from there into what it is now.”
Allison thinks the Nervemeter’s become “a lot more shoddy” since then. Its production values have been enhanced, but its close concentration on a particular theme has bolted into a more freely flowing montage of text and images.
Previous issues have covered the Olympics, financial markets and benefits cuts. The current issue explores thinking around addiction, including quotations from psychiatric journals, addicts, advocates and temperance men – all culled by Allison from the British Library.
Other highlights include the prize-draw word-search at the back – “Hurry! Closes midnight tomorrow!” – and an image of David Cameron’s face spliced with the arms of a man injecting heroin.
It can get caustic. “The first one we did included alternative ways of making money if your benefits get stopped or something,” says Allison. “We predicted the riots in that one! It was the start of 2011 and we said in the editorial ‘you know, if your benefits have been stopped, we wouldn’t normally blame people for just rioting,’ but we wanted to advocate an alternative approach and say have you thought about, like, heroin dealing, or prostitution, or dog-farming, or money laundering on a really small scale?”
According to Livingstone, at the time they saw this less as satire and more like a kind of documentary. “It was more like, these are jobs you can get if your benefits have been stopped, this is what you’ll be left with.”
Livingstone was homeless himself for part of the 1990s, and now makes a living as an artist and designer. Neither he nor Allison think the magazine is necessarily about people finding routes out of homelessness.
“We’re not social services,” says Allison. “We’d like to encourage anyone who’s interested in getting more involved with our project to do so. And anyone who’s got a problem with drink or drugs, we would encourage them to go and get help.
“There are guys you know who you meet in a doorway, and I’ve had them round my flat for a bath or whatever, but there’s only so much you can do.”
Livingstone says selling the magazine gives the vendors a measure of dignity and freedom.
“You are giving people the freedom to earn a bit of money, and it’s not patronising. Anyone who’s selling it usually has an understanding of it; the ones who keep coming back love it, and they’re the best sellers because they understand it.”
The Nervemeter comes out whenever Allison and Livingstone can afford to print it. The latest print-run was 7,500 copies, printed with proceeds from a benefit gig featuring Fat White Family, the Stallions and the Phobophobes with accompanying art show in May at the Red Gallery in Rivington Street.
Their next plan is to buy their own printing press, and another fundraiser is in the works.
Interested artists can find out more at www.nervemeter.co.uk.