Steve Bell – The Birmingham Years

Steve Bell (left)

I have a tiny connection to Steve Bell (on the left above at this year’s Tory Conference in Birmingham, pic Star-one). I used to do some work with Jewellery Quarter based designer Brian Homer who has for many years pulled together the If… compilation books. I have a brief credit at the start of Chairman Blair’s Little Red Book (a Bell book co-authored with Brian) for some imaging work I did on it. I was setting the levels on some scanned artwork and Steve showed me the best settings. That’s it really, hardly a great Dave-meets-celeb story.

Steve is coming back to Brum next month, not to carry on my photoshop tutorial but for a talk at the Plus Design Expo. His time working in Birmingham in the 1970s is usually passed over (“taught art for a short time in Birmingham, but soon left” and see his wikipedia entry) but although I can’t pin down the exact dates he was actually here, he certainly left a decent footprint. Actually a bit of research not only fills in some gaps about Steve but also reminds us that Birmingham in the dank days of the 1970s and 80s had a really vibrant radical publishing scene which has some interesting lessons for the city’s emerging blogging culture.

Here’s what some brief research on Steve found – much of it sourced from the Derek Bishton papers archived on the brilliant Connecting Histories website:

  • Circa 1977 Contributed to Streetcomix produced at the Arts Lab in Gosta Green (along with Hunt Emerson and others)
  • Contributor to Birmingham Broadside 1977-79. A listings magazine that “had a more overtly political agenda, covering local union affairs, local politics, and the activities of the law, police, media….. [it] aimed to cover every area where ‘The Birmingham Post’ and the ‘Birmingham Evening Mail’ already provided an establishment viewpoint”. Steve produced a strip called ‘Maxwell the Mutuant:
  • Contributor to pilot edition of the Birmingham Equirer: “Pilot issue of newspaper launched by a co-operative of journalists as an alternative to the domination of newspapers in Birmingham by one company”
  • Worked with a co-operative of designers called ‘Sidelines’. The Bisthon archive mentions that he produced illustrations for a report into ‘The Problems of Owner-Occupation in Inner Birmingham’ for the Birmingham Community Development Project.
  • And of course since the early 1980s Brian Homer has been designing Steve’s book here in Birmingham: “We have been designing Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell’s books for 25 years, including two co-authored by Brian Homer. We work closely with Steve to realise each book – helping with editing, pagination and back board copy as well as making sure that we design the book to present the material in the best possible way.”

I suspect this is just a small part of the work Steve has done in Birmingham but if you’re seeing him at Plus then it’s worth keeping in mind that he’s part of what was an interesting time in Brum. A particularly interesting history is that of the deign agency Sidelines. It was organised as a co-operative that designed: “Newsletters; bulletins; annual reports; information leaflets; promotional material and occasional publications in the form of pamphlets and booklets designed and produced for community groups”. In its function it reminds me of the work at the recent Social Media Surgery in Birmingham. Here’s a fuller discussion, again from the Bisthon archive about Sidelines:

“The Sidelines design and publishing agency was conceived by Brian Homer as a ‘sideline’ to his editing work on the local paper ‘Birmingham Broadside’ in around 1977. Homer had become involved with producing design work for the Community Development Project in Birmingham, and for the Handsworth Law Centre, All Faiths for One Race (AFFOR) and other organisations, and when community groups began making requests to him to carry out design and production work for their publications, he went freelance from ‘Birmingham Broadside’. He separated himself from the magazine in 1978, having seen the potential for more work, and was joined on many of Sidelines original work projects by an informal network of artists, photographers and journalists, some of whom had previously worked on ‘Grapevine’ and ‘Birmingham Broadside’. They transferred the knowledge and expertise gained through this work to set up Sidelines as an alternative design and publishing agency that specialised in working for community groups, offering a professional service at affordable rates. In addition to community organisations, work was commissioned by trade union groups and produced material for May Day demonstrations, and also designed ‘Searchlight’, the international anti-fascist magazine. It began by designing for print publications, but later became involved with bigger projects.” 

It strikes me that there’s potential to reproduce a ‘Sidelines’ for the digital world. Don’t you think?

6 thoughts on “Steve Bell – The Birmingham Years

  1. Rather than a Sidelines for the digital age (there seem now to be loads of agencies – in the 70s we were about all there was – particularly for non-commercial clients) what we might benefit from is a Grapevine or a Broadside – something that brings together rather more radical ideas and news than are are currently expressed.

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