“For me, the idea for Matter came from a desire to tell the stories of our members, and this special community, in an authentic and interesting way,” Laura Owens, Communications and Development Manager at Headway East London tells It’s Nice That. “Working in PR and marketing I spend a lot of my time writing about our work, however I always find the most powerful and interesting words I share are quotes that come directly from our members. Or I find that one of their artworks or poems will convey something much more powerfully than I could ever try to,” she tells us.
Laura was part of the editorial team that managed, directed and edited Matter magazine with members at Headway East London, a charity organisation that runs as an activities and therapy centre for those affected by brain injury. “This place is also just bursting with creativity; there’s always something going on! Whether that’s a dance class, music group, workshop in the art studio, a group making lunch, or just an interesting conversation in the main centre. No day is the same but there’s always a real vibrant energy that comes from being such a strong community, and I wanted to help us capture that in print,” she explains.
For Phil Chimes, a Headway East London member and contributor to Matter magazine being part of the project was, perhaps, a case of wanting “to feel part of a team”.
“Do you remember Yosser Hughes from Boys from the Blackstuff?” Phil asks us. “He’d always say ‘give us a job, I can do that’. So there’s that element of saying – yes, I can do that. I think there’s that point of not being able to do things, because of my injury, and then me saying no, I need to try, I must do it. Failure to me is never a negative. It’s a save-point. It’s a learning curve. Fail and then keep trying,” he explains, passionately. And yep, that probably is the first time Alan Bleasdale’s seminal 1982 drama Boys From the Blackstuff has been referenced on It’s Nice That.
“Most importantly,” comments Laura. “[The desire to start a magazine] also came from the members themselves. Over the past few years I’ve seen more and more people want to share their stories, artwork, writings and experiences, and we needed to find an outlet for that.” She approached some members to find out if they might like to be involved in putting together a magazine and pretty soon an editorial team started to take shape. “We went into our first meeting with no real idea of what we might end up with: we just started by talking as a group about why the project was important, what we wanted to achieve, and how we might do that. Little did we know what we had signed up for!”
Matter magazine, entirely made up of members, family and staff contributions, has gone on to be nominated for a Stack award and be stocked in the likes of MagCulture, Clerkenwell’s prominent magazine mecca. Key to its success, Laura comments, was its “collaborative process.”
“We tried very hard not to lead from the top down,” she says. “Every month we would meet as a group to discuss and share pieces we had been working on, as well as collectively looking at design drafts and commenting on what we did and didn’t like. We invited members to have as much say as they wanted; to push for their own ideas and to give honest feedback on the progress of the magazine as it went through production.”
For Phil, enjoyment was taken from being in that special editorial environment. “To sit around that group of individuals with a unique talent. Just to be there is a humbling experience. That was in itself beautiful for me. I had no idea how these things work. And I got lost in it, with how I am.”
Phil’s artwork appears in the magazine on p46. “ It came from a vision I had of Quentin Blake — his style of drawing,” he tells us. “I could just picture my characters, the boy and his nan, in this swimming outfit – doing things no one could pull off. Those images kept coming in my head. There’s foolishness in there, but I am a foolish type of guy. “
The meetings were structured like any other magazine’s editorial conferences. “Most of the pieces authored by individual members were pitched by them to the group. We also discussed as a group the aspects of Headway we would like to include in the magazine, so for example our food and garden projects. For those more general pieces, a smaller editorial team thought about ways to create a piece that could involve more members in a practical and creative way.”
“So, the Lunch Reviews example; one of our staff members sat at lunch asking people to talk about their lunch, before asking another member who works in our art studio to draw her interpretation of the meal. We are lucky that we have a rich catalogue of creative things already going on at Headway; so for example our garden feature meant merely republishing pages from a handwritten garden diary that we keep at Headway. Similarly with our Who Are You Now? story – we had run a life stories project a couple of years back, working very closely with members and their families to narrate their own long-form stories, and this was the perfect opportunity to publish one of them in print.”
The title for the magazine itself, came from the designers of the magazine — She Was Only. “They were fantastic, and really got stuck into this very unusual, unstructured approach to magazine-making. We engaged them quite early on to get a feel for our members’ work by sending examples of art, photography, handwriting and written pieces and they came back to us with Matter as a working title. We took it to the group with a list of others which had been suggested and everyone kept circling back to it – it spoke to so much of our work and then we started thinking of sub-categories such as “Dark Matter” and “No Matter” which was great fun to do, and gave a bit of structure to our huge variety of pieces.”
Those editorial meetings — from mind mapping ideas to writing, drawing and collaborating — were a clear success amongst members. “I learnt the skills of being in a meeting,” Phil explains. “Our meetings here are lovely. They are caring and gentle. There’s caring moments – there’s a structure, you nudge it into a structure. So that for me is revisiting something that I haven’t done since the injury. And with the way I am, too many words or too much noise and there’s an overload. I just appreciate being able to sit there and listen. And with my writing I’m nervous of it anyway. I still don’t feel it’s good enough. I’ve got no qualifications. It’s a punt for me.”
“I think as a group we all learnt a lot – not only about the production and editorial process, but also creatively about people’s interests, talents and practices,” Laura tells us. “One of my favourite quotes from a contributor was “I’m not one for over the top enthusiasm – I’m a cynical old git – but the more I read the magazine the more fantastic it is”. So (from my perspective anyway) if that isn’t a glowing review, I don’t know what is!”
“The editorial meetings were certainly very interesting, and it was great to hear so many perspectives around issues such as cover choice, font size, images and price point,” Laura adds. “It’s not often these decisions are shared – and whilst it was challenging at times, I was really happy we took that approach and made something that felt truly collaborative. Handing the finished magazine out to all contributors when it arrived was a really special day; sharing in that excitement and pride together.”
As for what Phil felt about the final product, we’ll leave it to him to describe: “Beautiful. I know you can’t put this but – fucking amazing. You can take the ‘fucking’ out of it and just put – amazing. It’s not equal to it, it’s not the same, but every Christmas, my mum would give me an annual. And one year I got this annual that was just totally different. It was making fun of itself, but at the same time there were things to read that were serious. And with the magazine too, there’s areas in there which are serious, but also there’s fun in there. It shouldn’t be regimental, it shouldn’t be black and white: it should be like what we are. The letters from Stuart, the horoscope – these are the small things that make you read on. That’s why it worked, because it was so diverse: like we are as human beings. We have to conform to what the system tells us to be, but really we just want to be what we want to be. And that’s what I think the magazine was.”