A domain name renewal notice has reminded us that today is our second birthday. BRATS was launched (via the medium of a songsheet) at the Brighton Rockers home game v Big Bucks on Saturday 17th November 2012. We catch up with MISTER ADAM for a summary of the two years that have followed…
I’m interviewing myself here, aren’t I?
Yes, but pretend you aren’t. No-one will notice.
OK. What was the inspiration behind the Rockers Songbook that launched BRATS?
The inspiration was largely Guinness, although there was also some real ale involved. Plus Jägermeister. I’d actually seen my first Rockers game over a year earlier (home to Dublin) and had been to every open door in the meantime – a couple of home games, plus trips to Gent in Belgium, Cambridge and Dublin. I was immediately hooked by the awesomeness of the sport in general, and of the Rockers in particular. I wanted to contribute something, but not in any ‘official’ sort of way. I’m a long-time football fan, having had a season ticket (on and off) for nearly thirty years at Charlton, a middling London club. One thing that seemed to be missing from roller derby was the kind of fan culture and involvement you have at football. Sure there were fan signs, cheering and so forth at derby, but something was absent. I realised it was the chants, not just for the team but also for individual players. The Songbook was an attempt, albeit a largely futile one, to remedy that. It didn’t help that my printer was playing up on the morning of the game, so we only managed to make a few dozen badly printed copies rather than the planned 150-ish. Still, the Rockers scored what remains their highest ever points haul (357) in that game, so the chants must have worked, yeah? Humour me, folks.
What was the inspiration behind expanding from a songbook into ‘Turn Left’ – the UK’s first (and possibly only) roller derby fanzine?
It’s actually not the first as some folks did a London Rollergirls fanzine called ‘Rollerama’ a few years earlier. I’m surprised you don’t know that. The idea for the fanzine also came about exactly two years ago today. I was having pre-game boozes with some mates in the Welly pub opposite the [now sadly extinct] Shoreham roller rink. Local music legend (and I use that word very wrongly) Jimmy McGee was flicking through the songbook – insofar as it’s possible to ‘flick through’ a four page document – and matter of factly said “this is going to turn into a fanzine isn’t it?”
It had never occurred me to do a Rockers fanzine until then. Which is actually pretty odd considering I spent much of my student years producing football fanzines. This was in the genre’s late 80s heyday and I did mags for several different clubs; the Aston Villa one was one of the best selling fanzines in the country (hitting 3,500 copies an issue). I actually did my degree in the Social History of Football, a large chunk of which was about fan culture and fanzines. So why the hell had I done a Rockers songbook rather than Rockers fanzine in the first place? D’oh! The mag seems to have been well received, and not just locally. We’ve done eight issues now, all of which can be found online at issuu.com with a few physical back issues knocking around in the Evening Star pub. In fact we’re just one issue away from being the second longest running roller derby publication in the country. Woo!
Moving on to this website, how come most of the game reports are 5,000 words of largely nonsense. Wouldn’t 500 nicely edited AND ACTUALLY RELEVANT words be better?
Probably. Thing is I really hate the internet as a publishing medium. My background is print – cobbling together my own fanzines as a teenager, then writing for High Street video games mags, computer mags, lifestyle mags etc. I love printed publications and I can’t understand why anyone would want to read anything on a screen. Kindle books? Bollocks to that. The only benefit I can see of the web as a publishing medium is one of space. The word count of our fanzine is dictated by the font size and page count, with everything that goes in there having been cut down (good stuff lost in the process) to fit. An average issue of ‘Turn Left’ contains interviews with more than half a dozen players, features, columns, statistics etc, and the whole thing comes in at around 6,000 words. If we want more we need to add another four pages which adds £35-ish to our print bill. Unless we can find more advertising to cover (most of) that – and we can’t – the extra pages are simply not viable. On the website, however, we can happily write 6,000 words about a single jam and it doesn’t cost us a penny more. So that’s what we do. Sorry.
What have been the highlights of the first two years of BRATS?
There have been loads. Becoming the first fans’ group to be accepted as contributors to the National Museum of Roller Derby was a really big thing for us. It’s probably less of an achievement than it sounds – it just involved exchanging a couple of e-mails and sending a package to Glasgow – but we’re well chuffed about it. We’ve yet to visit the museum itself as it was moving buildings when we were in Glasgow for the Rockers game. The London Rockin’ Rollers recently did a blog piece on the museum’s touring exhibition in Northampton though, and one of the photos showed a couple of ‘Turn Left’s and a BRATS baseball cap in a display case, so we have documentary evidence that we really are in a museum. Yay!
Other highlights include various things we’ve commissioned or made happen. In our May fanzine, which tied in with the Brighton Festival, we had a top local poet write a poem about the Rockers, together with some original art. We also commissioned renowned cartoonist Paul Stapleton to create a dress-up Laserhammer doll for the most recent issue. Oh, and a board game (ZomBN1) was launched yesterday in which we fixed it for a zombie version of Shambolic – replete in boots, pads and Rockers T-shirt – to appear as one of the characters. We suggest a house rule where she moves twice as fast as the other zombies but you have to roll 1d6 when she does and on a 1-2 she’s removed from the board. Track cut penalty, yeah?
Has fan culture, at Brighton and in UK derby generally, developed the way you expected it to over these two years?
Sadly not. The primary thing needed for fan culture to grow is for fan numbers to grow – in fact the opposite has been happening. People aren’t exactly shouting this from the rooftops (less a case of “don’t tell the children” as “don’t tell the freshies”) but crowds are down right across UK derby. Brighton’s have roughly halved – from 400 to 200 – in the time BRATS has been in existence. We’d get paranoid about that being our fault were it not being replicated across the country. Even the top events, such as LRG’s Anarchy tournament, have gone from selling out Guildford Spectrum to hitting maybe 70% of capacity. There are a few exceptions, such as LRG v Gotham or England v America, both of which sold out in minutes, but these are very rare. There are plenty of theories as to why the support is falling, from a perception of novelty (roller derby being something to watch just once, to tick it off as an experience) to inevitable cannibalisation (the crowds are dropping because everyone’s playing rather than watching derby now).
It’s frustrating, but if I was to suggest one thing that could reverse the trend and start building the sport the kind of fan base it deserves, it would be a national league structure. That’s exactly what is happening next year with the launch of British Championships: 70 teams in a league pyramid with a year long fixture list. That’s a world away from the current set-up of hastily arranged friendlies. A lot of derby fans work in service industry jobs (pubs, shops, restaurants etc) where it’s hard to get Saturdays off at short notice. A fixture list plotted months in advance remedies that. Also supporters will have a more concrete idea of how their team is doing, climbing or dropping the table and so forth. If Champs doesn’t ‘rescue’ UK derby as a spectator sport, I don’t know what will…
What advice would you give to anyone out there looking to set up a fan club dedicated to the roller derby league they support?
Just do it. Even if it’s another Brighton one – we’ve always said BRATS is just a placeholder until someone comes up with a better (less slapdash) group. The more the merrier. Don’t worry about logistics, there are none. Don’t expect people who offer to help out to actually do so, eg seven people said they’d contribute songs to our songbook and in the end only one did. If they do that’s wonderful, but be prepared to carry the whole thing yourself if not. Once you have a name for the group, snap up that name on Twitter, Facebook and WordPress – the toughest part of the whole thing is finding a name that is still available on all of those and as a dot.com. In the internet age perception is 95% of everything and all you need to exist as a group is a Twitter and Facebook. So now you exist and it hasn’t cost a penny. If you want a dot.com address to redirect to your WordPress that will cost maybe £25 a year.
Write some game reports and previews, get in touch with the league and see if anyone wants to be interviewed – chances are they’ll be so chuffed at having a fan club they’ll give you everything you need (although it may take some chasing, derby folks are some of the busiest task-juggling folks on the planet). If you want to progress to a fanzine, the first thing you need is advertisers. The era of free daily newspapers and listing magazines means you’re better off giving the mag away rather than charging for it. That means sourcing enough ad revenue to cover the print bill, unless you have sneaky access to fancy printing equipment at work or whatever. We found having lots of mates who run pubs quite handy re advertising at the outset, with derby related businesses and league sponsors following in due course. As that dude in the film about baseball said: If you build it they will come.
Is there anyone you’d like to thank here?
No. I mean: Yes, loads. People at derby leagues across the country who have responded to our requests for quotes, even for games that don’t involve them. I mentioned it can sometimes take a while to get replies from people, but conversely some folk reply to e-mails practically before we send them; the likes of Livid Doll (Leeds) and Raw Heidi (LRG) spring to mind here. Derby photographers have been fantastic (with one exception) at letting us use their pictures and getting hi-res images to us super fast. Sussex based togs John Hesse and Rebecca Cornford get pretty inundated with requests from us but are always quick and happy to respond, and there’s a couple of dozen other photographers, from across not just the UK but the continent, who have supplied us with images.
I’ve already mentioned the importance of advertisers so big love to folk like fashionistas Dig For Victory (whose Jimmy McGee suggested us doing a fanzine in the first place), the Cornish derby duo at Meadow Yurts, awesome holemakers Punktured, leggings legends Hoodlum Fang, the Evening Star, Downlands Brewery and the cult of Mr Séamus. As for Brighton Rockers folks, whip-cracking interview wrangler Mistress has been our go-to person for much of the two years, as has the equally awesome and inimitable Racey with the likes of Dr Whooligan, Kapow and others also proving incredibly helpful contacts. So far more than twenty different Rockers players, coaches and refs have kindly provided interview responses for the fanzine and website, along with maybe double that from other (UK, US and Euro) leagues.
We have a new feature in the fanzine next year; ‘My Derby Hero’ where a Rocker details the three or four players that most inspire them. Sports fan clubs wouldn’t exist without the awesome athletes that play the sport in question. As the most exciting sport on the planet, roller derby has more than its fair share of those. So here’s a personal ‘derby hero’ cap-doffing to the likes of Paris Rollergirls’ Hooligan, Team England and LRG (née Tiger Bay) star Kid Block, and of course to Bash and Rose and all the other legends in cyan and black. If I had to pick just one derby hero it would be Swann, who I first encountered when trying to get a documentary about the sport off the ground. She’s the first point of call when we want any kind of information about roller derby, from a rule clarification to a question about some obscure European team. She’s a walking encyclopaedia and probably the biggest derby fan out there – two Best Jammer awards in her first three Brighton games suggest she’s not a bad player either!
Finally, where the hell is the write-up of Portsmouth away? That game was like weeks ago.
I wasn’t expecting this interview to be quite so hostile. Erm, some might think we’re being slack with our website updates. In fact, this was a deliberate plan to save stuff up for… Birthday Week Bonanza! The next few days will see us putting up the Portsmouth game report, a preview of this Saturday’s away game at Manchester Roller Derby PLUS an exclusive first interview with new Rockers recruit Gin Atomic. Oh yes indeed. It’s Birthday Week Bonanza not Panickedly Catching Up On Stuff Week Whatever. No siree Bob.
[Photos by John Hesse & BRATS]