This month 50 years ago saw the arrival of what some of us liked to call the greatest little newspaper in the world. We were only half joking. When Leeds Other Paper appeared in print on 20 January 1974 the country was suffering a cost-of-living crisis at the tail-end of a Tory government that was responding to a miners’ overtime ban by rationing electricity with a “three-day week”. In a dispute between trade unionists and the powers-that-be, Yorkshire’s newest alternative paper had no doubt whose side it was on, as made clear by its debut frontpage headline: “Don’t let the bastards carve us up – hit the bosses where it hurts (in their pockets)”.
LOP soon became more measured in style and content, and for two decades it focused on reporting rather than shouting. Covering workers’ struggles and community campaigns remained staple fare but an alternative take on culture was also integral. It carried free listings that went from publicising the likes of claimants’ unions and alternative bookshops in the early days to a pull-out section proclaiming itself “a guide to events and happenings in Leeds”. In those pre-internet years, this was not so much a guide as the guide.
Listings in LOP’s first full What’s On Guide in April 1977 included punk bands Generation X and Eater performing at the Fforde Grene pub, local heroes The Sneakers playing Haddon Hall, a Pocket Theatre show called Yorkshire Relish at the Swarthmore Centre, and an art exhibition at Rodley’s much-missed Breadline Gallery. Mainstream cinemas, theatres and so on were also listed, but it was for its inclusive role in covering culture on the margins that LOP is fondly remembered by many. It was a lifeline for small and occasional venues, artists and part-time promoters who didn’t get a look-in with most mainstream media back then.
Rock Against Racism benefit evenings featuring local reggae acts paired with new-wave bands were always of more interest to LOP than were corporate gigs by the Rolling Stones or Genesis. Similarly, a Red Ladder touring play about Yorkshire workers would be guaranteed more column inches than whatever was on at the Grand Theatre. However, although supportive of the grassroots cultural scene, LOP was not afraid of running critical reviews, nor of publishing the sharp letters that sometimes followed.
The paper went on to include a regular gay and lesbian section, Out in the North, that grew from listing events to become a wider forum for members of local gay and lesbian communities. It was unusual to see such things beyond the pages of the gay press at a time when the Thatcher government’s Section 28 anti-gay legislation was in full swing.
Cultural issues also formed part of LOP’s news agenda, with the paper reporting on everything from the “women’s right to cues” campaign for equal access to pool tables in social clubs to local authority funding cuts hitting community arts projects. It kept a particularly wary eye on Leeds City Council’s licensing sub-committee, which enjoyed issuing “stop notices” on popular films such as Life of Brian and Quadrophenia, preventing them being screened in local cinemas until councillors had vetted them.
Even the small ads played a role in the cultural life of the city, with the paper acting as a noticeboard for everything from arty job vacancies and studio spaces to musical tuition, via offers of rooms in shared houses and the services of right-on trades people. To borrow an idea from the philosopher Jurgen Habermas, the paper served a local alternative public sphere. As did similar papers that sprang up elsewhere across the north around the same time, including Bradford Banner, Huddersfield Hammer, Liverpool Free Press, Rochdale Alternative Paper, Sheffield Free Press and York Free Press. None lasted anywhere near as long as LOP, though.
Production of LOP was itself a form of cultural expression made possible by the labours of countless individuals. Its 820 issues - initially monthly, briefly fortnightly, mostly weekly – were created by a co-operative with no editor or proprietor and precious little capital. Funds came from sales and ads, along with income from printing and typesetting for other groups on the side. This raised enough to pay low wages to a few workers, including me, but there was always a far wider group of people putting in unpaid hours to keep it going.
One of those who responded to LOP’s open invitation to get involved was Alice Nutter (of Chumbawamba and now playwriting fame), who told me for a pamphlet telling the paper’s story: “I did a spoof review of an anti-fascist band that didn’t exist but which I thought ought to exist. They said they couldn’t use it, but asked me if I’d like to write anything else. It really encouraged people to write. Without it, I never would have written for a paper.”
As well as writers, LOP also fostered peoples’ skills as photographers, cartoonists, paste-up artists, proofreaders and crossword compilers. Friendly local film-makers joined in, helping to promote LOP with a DIY cinema advert that was screened at the Hyde Park Picture House, among other venues, in exchange for free ads in the paper. Promotion was badly needed because, although there was no shortage of contributors, there were never quite enough paying readers.
When finances and staff energies finally ran out, the greatest little newspaper in the world died a quiet death in January 1994 – 20 years to the day after its birth. By the end it called itself Northern Star in a nod to the radical paper of that name published from 1837 to 1852,and which I like to think of as the second greatest little newspaper in the world.
Tony Harcup is a freelance writer and emeritus fellow in journalism at the University of Sheffield. He is giving a talk at Leeds Central Library on 24 January to mark the 50th anniversary of Leeds Other Paper
To book a ticket CLICK HERE