The adage of recent years is that comedy is suffering because life is simply too ridiculous. With clowns in office and nonsense all around, our socio-political reality is so bleak and unmoored from logic that it’s beyond parody. There is no situation you could fabricate, or character you could invent, that would be more ridiculous than what’s already happening. The people who believe that, though, obviously haven’t read The Paper.
An independent magazine founded by three friends from South Wales, Oliver Gabe, Owen Davies and Erin Mathias, The Paper (Y Papur) is a brilliantly weird publication that aims to capture the “confusing, hopeless but hilarious” state of life in contemporary Wales. Or, in the team’s own words: it’s “one hundred-something pages of pictures and words by short, fat, genetically worse-off people.”
Brought to life via a Kickstarter campaign, which had the “ridiculous luck” of Michael Sheen donating almost the exact amount they needed to get it over the line, their first issue uses the concept of brain drain – people leaving Wales to seek other opportunities and never coming back – as a jumping off point. It seeks to examine life in a place where the public services are knackered and the politicians are either hilariously checked out or woefully deferential to England, but at the same time is also, arguably, the best nation on earth. A host of writers articulate this complex feeling through pieces ranging from conflicted home-for-Christmas experiences, to abject dispatches from an Arriva carriage, to straight interviews with award-winning restaurant owner Janet Wei and anarchist publisher Ian Bone.
Some parts of the magazine nod to the more deranged corners of local news, where you’ll find headlines like ‘man punches seagull for stealing chips’ or, a favourite of Erin’s, ‘does anyone know the naked truth of the feral man?’ (courtesy of the Western Telegraph). Elsewhere, it takes a sideways look at the kinds of ‘top 10 things to do in X city before you die’ lists regularly published on platforms who would not have the temerity to award #1 place to the Warhammer shop. In other aspects, such as the cover, which chaotically advertises every single feature alongside a bunch of non-existent stories (“beheaded for eating crisps”) and a cut-out-and-keep of BBC presenter Huw Edwards, it’s so idiosyncratic it can only be compared to the spirit of Wales itself – sometimes scathing, often absurd and, printed on A2 paper, deliberately annoying to navigate.
For all its surrealist comedy, though, the stories are as everyday as they come. It's having a kebab on the train, fancying someone in the chippy and trying to get on the right antidepressants. This natural balance of humour and affection is one reason why The Paper has resonated at home and beyond (it’s currently stocked in shops in London, Bristol and New York), and at a time when the role of the media in a difficult process of renegotiation, Erin notes that “the weirdest thing about The Paper is how normal it is.” Mostly, though, it resonates because it’s a good laugh and a daring example of what can happen when you begin every thought process with ‘wouldn’t it be funny if…’ – and then actually follow through.
As they look ahead to their next issue, we caught up with Oliver, Owen and Erin to talk about capturing the madness of the mundane, preserving the conversational voice of South Wales, and why they thought it would be “hilarious” to make something ten times the size of Take A Break.
Could you tell me a bit about when and how the idea for The Paper first came about?
Oliver: Initially I was going to do it with my mate Dan [Evans, Desolation Radio host]. We were living in a strange abandoned house, which belonged to a prominent member of the Communist Party of Britain, and we both had time on our hands during Covid. I’d worked on some magazines before and I’d always wanted to try doing one myself. Initially it started as a way for us to expand the podcast – but basically we spoke about it for almost an entire year and produced absolutely nothing. So me and Dan decided it was never going to happen between us – he’s got a great article about blowing a gasket on Twitter in Issue 1 though. I was doing film stuff with Owen anyway so he came on board, and when we spoke to Erin about doing an article she gave us about nine ideas and we wanted to do them all, so we asked if she wouldn’t mind becoming an editor of the whole thing as well.
Do you have a manifesto or an editorial agenda per se?
Oliver: I don’t think we had any idea, to be honest with you. Somebody asked us on a podcast if we had a business plan and we just laughed our heads off.
Owen: We do keep saying that the goal of the magazine is to ‘save Wales.’
Erin: Yeah, we had completely unrealistic and stupid goals and hardly any real, practical goals. I suppose, because there’s so little going on in Wales, we could have basically done anything and it would have been new.
Oliver: I don’t think we were ever like, ‘it’s going to look like this,’ but we spoke to loads of potential contributors – our mates, basically – and you could just tell the ones who got it straight away. I don’t know what there was to get, but I remember when we spoke to Lowri [Luxton] we came away thinking ‘she understands the paper’ without us ever verbalising or conceptualising what it is. More of a feeling.
Erin: Retaining people’s voices was really important, and not over-editing people to the point where they all sounded the same. But that stuff didn’t really come until later.
Owen: We did have examples to start with, too. Erin’s account of [Wales’s Deputy Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism] Dawn Bowden’s Sunday morning was just something she’d already tweeted that me and Ol thought was really funny. We saw it as the voice of the magazine, almost. But there were very few pre-existing things that typified what we were going for.
It does feel like Wales, and working class culture in the UK in general, is always presented through a lens that’s either quite patronising or totally abject. I remember reading this BBC report once on poverty in Blaenau Gwent and it was like “even weeds don’t grow here.” The Paper doesn’t ignore things being shit where that’s the case, but almost everything is comical one way or another. Why do you think humour is such a big coping mechanism for Welsh people, and how do you balance humour when doing more straight-forward reporting?
Owen: I think for us, and for most of our contributors, [humour] isn’t a conscious thing. In the editing process we have made a lot of the pieces… not less funny, but less silly, because it was almost like everyone's natural instinct was just to take the piss.
Oliver: I think I’m too close to it to know whether there’s something inherently Welsh about that [sense of humour], but generally it’s just people writing about what’s actually around them. The people who are involved at the moment are basically all our mates and our mates’ mates, so no one’s written anything outside of their universe. The humour is difficult to talk about but it is a fine line. We want to be funny without being seen as a joke, although we probably are by a lot of people’s estimations.
Owen: It’s always a surprise when people do seem to take us seriously, especially outside of Wales.
I saw you’ve got it stocked at magazine shops in London, New York – how do you think it translates outside of a Welsh context?
Erin: All the feedback has been focused on the fact that it’s very funny and very Welsh, but I’m like, how do you know what that is? What’s your frame of reference to understand this? There must be something about the way we’ve pieced together all these bits and bobs that’s given the overall picture of humour and life in Wales.
Oliver: I think it’s that thing where the more specific you make something, the more universal it becomes. We’ve had a lot of people comment on how ‘different’ the magazine is but actually, if you look at it, a lot of it is just about people's everyday experiences – playing Minecraft, walking around the woods, being sad when you go back home for Christmas, that kind of thing. But you don't usually get that with magazines because the format is always geared towards the idea of celebrity. We just treat our mates like celebrities, I suppose.
Owen: I think part of it was that we didn’t tell anyone what to do, we just kind of said, ‘write whatever you want,’ and that translated into people writing the most subjective things that they could. I think that’s one of the things that’s really nice about it.
You’ve said before that the weirdest thing about The Paper is how normal it is. Could you talk a bit more about that?
Erin: It’s that idea of the madness of the mundane. We’re playing on the idea that Wales is “boring.” Obviously we don’t think it’s boring, because we’ve made a whole magazine about it, but the mundane can be mad and it can also drive you mad.
Oliver: The two reactions we get are ‘what the fuck is this and why is it so big’ or it sums up something they’ve felt or thought about their entire lives.
Owen: A lot of the decision making – and the size is a perfect example – has basically been: ‘wouldn’t it be funny if we did this.’ Then, suddenly, we’re printing industrial quantities of a giant A3 magazine.
It wasn’t until I read it cover to cover that I deeped how this way of speaking is totally non-existent in the media and creative industries. I take it for granted because this is how I speak, and how most of my friends and family speak, but that South Wales voice is almost like an oral tradition now. You don’t really encounter it outside of conversation. London-based nationals are constantly publishing 800w essays about the joy of having a cup of tea or whatever, and The Paper feels like: what if that was coming from a funny and really specific experience.
Owen: Osei’s article about the 'Top 10 Things to Do in Cardiff’ was just like: what if a normal person was writing one of those articles. Well, he’s not a normal person [laughs] but: what if someone who isn’t a journalist was writing one of those articles? It would just be really conversational, written as you would talk rather than that weird journalistic voice.
Oliver: His write-up of the launch party is one of the best things I’ve read about The Paper. It was really profound, it shit me up. He goes ‘the most enduring memory of the launch-night was a mad feeling of sharedness. The knowledge that everyone in this room was as strange as you were.’
Erin: I think that idea of an oral history or an oral narrative is something that, again, we haven’t spoken about consciously, but have come at it like: if you can’t write just send us a voice note and we’ll write it up, to retain that voice. That approach seeped through into the editing and the conversational style of most of the pieces.
Oliver: We’ll accept writing in any form. Lowri wrote her piece in her phone notes when she was on the train, which is why it’s written and set out like it is. Initially we edited it like a standard article, with punctuation, and she hated it.
Erin: There was something about the finality of the full stops that she didn't like. They made it seem way more serious than what she wanted to be, and on reflection she was completely right. So we just changed it back.
Oliver: Some people have been like, I’ve got a funny story or my mate’s got a funny story that I’d love to tell but I’m not a writer, so we’ve just hopped on the phone with them, typed it up and sent it back to them. Then they’ve been like ‘I wouldn’t say that, I’d say it like this,’ and we’ve worked on it collaboratively. We’ve tried to have the least amount of barriers possible in place for people who weren’t already writers. It’s made more work for us, but hopefully it’s better because of it.
Erin: True collaboration is hard, right? It would probably be way easier to just be like, send us this and you have no say in what happens to it afterwards, but we don't want it to be like that at all. You’ve got to be happy to put your name to something, haven’t you.
Were there any publications, past or present, that you were reacting against or modelling yourself after? Like you interviewed Ian Bone who started the anarchist mag ALARM! in Swansea in the 80s, which had a lot of satirical rage and was also hand-distributed – which you did when it came to delivering copies of The Paper to local addresses. Was that an influence?
Erin: The only magazines I used to read when I was younger were Take A Break and Chat and all those kinds of magazines – and VICE, because it was free.
Oliver: I do quite like magazines because I’m a nerd, but there was no one direct influence on The Paper. That’s funny you mention the Ian thing, because I’d never even thought about us hand delivering them and how he hand delivered ALARM. We just did it to save money! ALARM only works because of the way [Ian] was living. He’d spend days going through council meeting notes and stuff. He’s a mad and brilliant man.
Owen: We went to his house to scan all the copies [of ALARM] but the only scanner we had was my girlfriend’s giant old printer. So we carted it to London on the Megabus and sat on his living room floor just chatting to him – and we’d gone out the night before for our friend’s birthday, so I just remember being sat in his living room scanning these things feeling so disgustingly hungover.
Oliver: While he was ripping into us like ‘you two are fucking useless, look at you.’
Owen: He’d email us from time to time being like ‘where the fuck is this magazine, what are you even doing?’ It’s worth bearing in mind that at one point, ALARM was hand-delivering 6,000 copies a week.
Oliver: I saw him recently, actually. He’s still busy organising a simultaneous worldwide anarchist revolution. Legend.
I hear the launch party was a massive laugh. What can you tell me about that?
Owen: We threw a variety show. All the contributors did a little act. We had Welsh hymns on a tin whistle, a live Wales v England World Cup Final on Football Manager with commentary (Wales won something like 142-0), a motivational speech, someone played the nose trumpet topless, a hot dog eating race, and a performance from Cuban exile Ricardo Bullion.
Erin: The ceiling of the venue was ripped down before we’d even got going which set the tone of the night.
Oliver: Me and Owen took so long on the hot dog race that we managed to turn the entire room – which had my whole extended family in it – from pleasant cheery support to blood boiling rage.
Owen: The variety show was as good as the magazine itself.
Erin: We’ll be doing another for Issue 2.
What’s the theme for Issue 2?