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issue 4
Issue 4

The homeless distributed art mag

Lewis Parker meets Nervemeter Magazine, the Big Issue's cooler, bolder little sister

Homeless-distributed London art magazine Nervemeter strikes a nerve! Picking up and reading a copy of the magazine from one of its destitute vendors on the streets of London for the first time, it is hard not to be taken aback by how different it is from any other magazine currently available, including – and especially – the Big Issue.

Founded by writer/editor Ian Allison and designer Kieron Livingstone, the Nervemeter is both low resolution and high concept. Forty-four pages long with no advertising, each issue addresses a prescient social theme. The third issue, and the best to date, explored the notion of artistry in relation to the society’s shifting conceptions of madness.

We’re trying to be original and experimental without being pretentious or obtuse

The last issue (#4) took aim at the issue of vagrancy through historical quotations and archive images meticulously compiled by Allison and Livingstone. The next is to be about finance, money and greed – submissions and donations are welcome.

“We’re trying to be original and experimental without being pretentious or obtuse,” says Ian. “I think including things like history and aesthetics – these are just maligned in this day and age. You don’t find this stuff so often in magazines nowadays, especially not sold by guys that are on the street. They think it’s quite cool selling something like that.”

Before they hatched the Nervemeter, Allison and Livingstone put together the literary fanzine Full Moon Empty Sports Bag, which was distributed around pubs in London, eventually hitting a circulation of 10,000 before folding. Their next project was a financial paper (Allison is a former financial journalist) which never got off the ground called the London Poor, which was to be distributed by beggars. The Nervemeter takes off where the London Poor never started, by relishing juxtaposition and confrontation, but on a broader scale. For instance, the second issue of the mag compared the spectacle of the 2012 Olympic Games with the spectacular uprising of the London riots just a year before. In a culture where commentary is free and fast, the Nervemeter is one of the rare magazines you not only want to read slowly and relish, but to keep and then return to, because you know that unlike 99% of the babble that zooms past our faces, it is worth the cover price.  

Nevertheless, there is a real danger that the Nervemeter’s content will be overshadowed by criticism of its distribution methods. Anyone who needs the money and has resorted to begging can sell the Nervemeter. About two-thirds of the vendors are hostel dwellers, the others rough sleepers, mostly in east and north London, although the first edition was also translated into Polish and sold on the streets of Wroclaw. The vendors don’t have to pay for the magazines and they keep all the money. (Minimum donation £3.) There is no bureaucracy or red tape. A phone number is printed in the front of the mag for anyone to call to arrange a delivery, which happens by Allison and Livingstone schlepping the pulp across town in a wheelie bag. The last issue had a print run of 5,000, which is the equivalent of £15,000 being recycled back onto the streets. Cynics would say that a good deal of which will end up in drug dealers’ pockets – a criticism they are ready to answer.

“We’re not actually just giving people money to buy drugs,” says Kieron. “People will do it anyway.”

“In the end,” says Ian, “our prerogative is to give them some magazines to sell. That’s phase one, let’s say. They can come back for more and we’ll give them more. But if they’re interested we’ll take them to an N.A. meeting. We’ll buy a printing press and let them finish their own magazine. We’re willing to do that. We’re trying to ideologically be on the right side of this addiction thing. Addiction is a problem that’s not very well understood by society anyway. Those guys that are in the street begging, they don’t need any more bad press. They need help.”

The next issue – due in September or October, depending on how quickly £3,500 can be raised for printing – will have a run of 10,000. “There is a growing distribution network as people get made homeless,” says Ian. “Getting rid of them isn’t a problem. We thought it may be a problem at first, but it’s not.”

The inaugural meeting of the Nervemeter Council takes place on 31st August at Studio Voltaire in Clapham. Free entry, all welcome.