Below are a few interviews or articles written about Active that appeared over the years. The first interview was done for the Polish zine Chaos w Mojeje Glowie  which I thought I might as well make available in English. It was done in April 2017 with me alone – Jon, by email. Following that is an article I wrote for Strike magazine and following that is an article that resulted from an extensive interview with Marta and I many years ago for Maximum RocknRoll. There is some history of Active recorded on the Radical History of Hackney website too.


Hi Jon!

I am sending you the first set of questions, please give the full answers...

– Where did you grow up?

Grow up? Well depending on who you talk to maybe I haven’t much! Ok I guess doing English pun jokes is not a good idea for an interview to be translated, no more gags!  I grew up in Leicester in the Midlands. In the 1970’s Leicester had both one of the largest mixed race populations of any UK city and also one of the biggest National Front  (fascist) groups. But my upbringing was very safe, secure and middle class.

– When did you encounter for the first time with punk rock and how it happened that dragged into it? 

A TV programme called Top of the Pops showed bands like the Sex Pistols and the Damned when they sold enough records to make it in to “the charts”. That was the first introduction. But I was already looking for something different something that answered my desire to rebel against school and normality. I then discovered John Peel on the radio and used to listen to his shows on a small transistor radio in bed at night, his programme was between 10 and 12pm. The first record I bought was Rat Trap by the Boomtown Rats the second was their first Lp, the third was London Calling by the Clash. I didn’t have enough money to buy records, so I used to record them from my mates collections.

– Was there a certain point that changed your life and view of the world?

The Ruts, cemented my love of punk rock, but getting a copy of Feeding of the Five Thousand by Crass gave me the impetus to look at anarchism as an answer to my searching for a real alternative. There are a few moments that I remember as “turning points”. Such as,  Arguments with teachers at school trying to convince me that rebellion was a waste of time and the only way to change the system was to knuckle down and do well so I could change it from the inside!  Or being shopped by my parents for graffiti, spending several days in a police cell refusing to answer questions after doing some anti nuclear demos, working at Sainsburys on Saturdays and turning vegetarian.  Getting my first Poison Girls Lp and learning so much from the amazing lyrics.

– Which bands, situations or events inspired you to your own activity on DIY scene? 

The bands were CRASS, Dead Kennedys, Poison Girls, Zounds  and Omega Tribe to name the most memorable. But going on demo’s like Stop the City and marches against racists etc made me want to do stuff more direct and effective.

I remember reading Malatesta and other early anarcho punk magazines and thinking that this  idea of anarchy has been around  along time and was a lot more influential in the past that it is now regardless of how many people were dressed in black. An interview wth The Poison Girls gave me the sense that there may never be a global anarchist revolution during my life but that changing myself and as much as I can is a revolution worth itself.  From then on its been my desire to have a feeling of integrity that has kept me “fighting back” rather than the belief that we will win.


I think revolution starts with the individual realising their own potential, breaking out and then going with others to achieve things that one alone could not do – like the Cowley Club in Brighton or the defense of a squat against the forces of law and order.


Not sure what the question is here!  But lets just say that revolutions aren’t neat and tidy, but an anarchist one can’t be imposed on a population.

–  Have you been doing a fanzine or playing in a band before you started with Active Distribution?

Yeah I was involved in starting a paper called Swansea Black Sheep whilst at university. Never joined a band, I noticed early on that people  in bands tend to become self important, and their band becomes more important than anything else.


– Tell me about the beginning of ACTIVE DISTRIBUTION. What were your distribution activities at that time, what things did you spread? Was it mostly music or you rather focused on other things?

Active started when I moved to London and joined up with another small anarcho punk distro called Perjury. Before that I use to do a live gig tape distribution and some badges and stuff. Then when I was at Uni I started distributing books and pamphlets etc. at gigs and events on a small scale. I started getting records in because the CRASS bands etc were important to me and weren’t always easy to find. Later I realised I could sell records a lot cheaper than the shops did and also a record box would attract punx to a stall a lot quicker than a bunch of books!


No not really, other than historically for me personally and for my love of their records. But they ceased to exist as a band a long time ago and now those that represent them wether it be their label or Penny keep doing and saying things that make me unlikely to wear a CRASS shirt again, even one I made myself.


Maybe it is, I think the lyrics and texts they wrote at the time are amazing and still stand as inspiring. But if you find Crass records repackaged with fancy artwork rather than the art of anger with normal commercial prices on then the messages within have been seriously diluted in my opinion.

– You were growing up during the reign of Margaret Thatcher… How did it look like from your perspective? 



if Thatcher hadn’t got in the UK would have had a much bigger fascist party in the form of the National Front so lets not be too happy about her. Thatcher was the head of a greedy evil regime but I think she was reviled all the more because she was a woman and that’s something I’m not so comfortable with.

– Why do many Britons are still proud of the Thatcher? Isn’t it phenomenal?!

The UK suffers from a bad case of patriotism, which is soft nationalism, which is soft fascism.  Thatcher appealed to the same sick sentiments of greed and patriotic selfishness that UKIP do.


On the contrary I’ve been studying at Hogwarts and someday soon I’ll be sacrificing a politician or two and all will magically be cool thereafter…

Here? is there anywhere that isn’t plagued by bigotry and fear? Personally I think we need to question the foundations of society if we are to be rid of the worst aspects of it. There’s little point in being tolerant of patriotism and attacking fascism one begets the other. we need to dismantle institutions and beliefs in religion, democracy, gender and racial determinism etc etc


I’m not! In fact Active has been getting hassle from a bunch of student twerps who accuse us of being racists because our anti religion slogans are “islampphobic” . I hesitate to give these morons much of my time or energy but lets say that I have always seen religion – thats ALL religion – as inherently conservative, traditionalist, anti-rational, and more often than not, sexist, homophobic, bigoted and stupid. Active will be publishing a couple of books on the anarchist analysis of religion, in the near future. We will continue to ignore middle class students so full of privilege guilt they are desperate to prove how cool they are by attacking anyone they think is criticising their latest sacred cow!

– When you look back, don’t you think that anarcho punk movement was just another musical and fashion trend at that time? Despite the fact, did punx really influence political environment and history of UK?

As mentioned before yes for some it was just another “phase” or fashion. It still is! I still find it amusing and sad to see punks with jackets that have CRASS patches neatly produced in some Chinese sweat shop next to GBH or Deviated Instinct or some other band with sexist lyrics and songs celebrating alcohol. Having said that there are loads of political projects that came about with the impetus or support generated by punk. The 1 in 12 Club in Bradford being a prime example and AK Press being another.


Well since I saw the Sex Pistols on Top of the Pops I’ve loved that type of punk rock sound but after discovering the ideals of anarchism and DIY anarcho punk I have tried to avoid supporting such bogus revolution. Punk without politics is pop as one of the Active stickers says. I grew up hating pop culture with its sexism, money worshipping, body fascism and so when punk slips into that culture it becomes meaningless to me except for maybe as “entertainment”

So whilst I work on my distro mail order my computer plays a mix of pop lie Motorhead, ACDC, and The Damned as well as bands that really move me like The Ruts, Slime, The Gits, and The Dead Kennedys. And there are  a few bands left that I still “believe” in!! whose lyrics continue to make me question or encourage me to keep fighting. The Poison Girls, Autonomads and Slime are the only ones I can think of at the moment.

– Is contemporary anarchist movement linked with the hardcore/punk scene these days? As far as I am concerned, you are pretty critical to the punk movement now, right?

Yes, I’ve given up on the “so-called” anarcho punk scene. Too many people in bands I considered representative of the “movement” have proved to be unworthy of my support. I’m tired of watching drunk punks with CRASS shirts dribbling over my book stall fighting over girlfriends or spilt beer etc. Bands that started and gave the scene veritas and spirit are now reforming for the sake of a cheap holiday abroad and other such egotistical wank. Other bands let their record labels act like the EMI in order to protect their profits, fuck them all.  Anarcho punk is a flag I no longer wish to wave. Its good to meet young bands with enthusiasm and  revolutionary zeal. I just hope they see the dinosaurs of the anarcho punk past for what most of them are and don’t follow the same course. Anarcho punk is dead, Long live anarchist punk!


What are we if we don’t make judgements? I find the “don’t judge me” excuse as a rather pathetic attempt to avoid facing up to your own contradictions or indeed bullshit. I make no apologies for judging the scene like this, I have spent decades putting up with drunk punks messing me about. being fairly big this wasn’t always a threat but it gave me a sad insight in to how much shit women get from drunk men punk or not!  There is of course nothing wrong with having fun. Wat Tyler were the best example of that!

 – Do you still believe, that the music can change the world or crush the system?

It still has a roll, but as one band that used to have integrity said “music in itself does little other than to entertain, but if it inspire one to think and take action then it I can be more than just entertainment” or some such similar wording.

Revolutionary songs and music have been around long before Johnny Rotten and Penny Rimbaud came along. Music is  great joy and inspiration. It has helped keep me up when everything else was bringing me down and it still helps keep me motivated. It won’t “crush the system” though but it might help if its not just a safety valve for teenage rebellion and a money making exercise for big business. See The Poison Girls “State Control”


I do, though haven’t seen him for some time now.


No, Penny was always very friendly and straight with me if a little muddled at times but then again so am I! The last time we met I told him what I though of the latest CRASS goings on, we were still friends,  I guess if we meet up again we’ll test that again.


Yeah most people I’ve met from bands have been a serious disappointment when I got to know them better.  Protag from Blyth Power, Vi from the Poison Girls and Disck from the Subhumans have been notable exceptions and there are others. I once arranged a dinner for myself, Eve Libertine and Vi Subversa. It had been many years since the two had met up and I was friends with both. The evening went well and but afterwards I confessed to Eve that I had been nervous about being in such august company, she told me not to be so silly and I resolved never to let myself be intimidated or in anyway in awe of ‘my heroes” again. I had made friends with them and others easily partly because I didn’t ttreat them as special in some way, always free with my comments and criticisms. I used to laugh at the way all the anarcho punks visiting London would make the “pilgrimage” out to Epping to be blessed at Crass’s Dial House. I never went until Penny personally asked me to come visit them.  Discovering that the lyric writers of anarcho punk classics are in fact small minded, sexist, jealous, lecherous, greedy or just ignorant really took the wind out of my anarcho punk flag.

– Are you still activly co-operating with some Polish DIY punk distribution or other forms of Polish undergrond scene?

Not really.


We stopped doing music and no-one in the Poland scene is interested in getting the other stuff we do. Active used to do Polish books but its not been worth the effort.

– As the result of Poland joining the European Union in 2004, many Poles, including punx, immigrated to UK. Do you think that it got a significant impact on the UK punk scene?

It did indeed. The gigs got a lot bigger and more violent! Macho Polish male punks were more likely to get drunk and start fights at gigs which previously such things were relatively rare. Unfair? maybe but you asked and I was there! The number involved in the scene in places like London and Dublin certainly increased and good bands like Post Regiment and El Banda (I think it was them!) came over and played in squat venues. The London squatting scene really was invigorated by the invasion of Polish punks back then. The London punk and radical scene has always been wonderfully diverse with UK born members often being in the minority so it was weird to have a time when most of the scene appeared to be from one country – Poland! Thats changed now but it must have been extra different for places like Dublin and Edinburgh which were less used to such an ethnic mix. The more diverse the better I say, as long as traits like fighting and alcoholism can be dispensed with.


And a lot of the idiots went “home” or grew out of it!


Nope I detest SXE, its a stupid american cult and the world doesn’t need anymore of those no matter how good the intentions. I stopped drinking alcohol before I’d heard of Minor Threat. I want to decide my destiny as much as possible. I want to choose my death if I can. I don’t want to be one of the drunk losers I have met fucking things up for the organisers of benefit gigs, cool venues, or anyone else. If there was no history of cultural acceptance of alcohol and it was suddenly discovered today and proposed as a drink it would be universally banned as a lethal poison that has no positive effects. As it is if we could learn to shed the impositions of tradition, fear and insecurities we would have no need of alcohol to get the so called strength to face life (and ask people out on dates!).

Try giving up alcohol and after a bit like not smoking you begin to see those that still do it as idiots and wonder why the fuck you were ever so weak and stupid. Its been 34 years since I drank alcohol and I’ve never regretted becoming tea-total.

– We are facing Brexit… Can it also change the state of British punk scene in the future?

It could. It could fuck things up for lots of things, especially the free movement of people. This shitty country has always had fascistic tendencies in the immigration control department and that seems likely tomcat worse. I remember the days before  the EU when bands like Dezerter were refused entry to the UK. Many bands from places like South America already don’t even bother trying to tour the UK when they come to Europe fro fear of being detained and deported so thats not likely to improve. Brett was a victory for small minded xenophobic British patriots and nothing else. Maybe as this country depends into an even deeper hell of nationalist griping and bigotry there will be an increase in real resistance to the system but I for one saw Brexit as a final straw and decided to get out.


Thanx to Suzy, Ted, Cat, Emma, Sandra, Em, and James but especially Marta for helping to keep Active alive.

Follow up questions;

– You mention the influence THE POISON GIRLS and other anarcho bands had on you; how you started to question your own attitude towards sexuality, being jealous, possessive etc. Would you like to elaborate a bit on this subject? How did this affect your own life choices etc? From what I remember, you used to live in non-monogamous relationships, is that correct? Do you still continue to do so?

Ouch a lot of questions in one! I read a load of stuff that came out of the sixties and seventies anarchist scene about the need to destroy the nuclear family and its values, about the sexual revolution, about the freedom of loving without the boundaries imposed by society and the state and all these things were quite bewildering for a young shy male going through puberty in the 1970’s. The Poison Girls and books like The Women’s Room (Marilyn French) gave me a perspective on sex and gender roles that were much easier to understand and seemed more real and revolutionary than the stuff I was learning from school, mates and the media. I came to realise that no matter how much effort I put into it there is not likely to be a global let alone UK based anarchist revolution in my time. (In the 80’s we were seriously wondering if we might be able to start an anarchist society from the remnants of whatever was to be left after  nuclear war). What I did take on board is that the revolution starts with you (me) and how one behaves towards the rest of the world. So whilst we may have to bow and scrape to get by under this system we can do as much as possible to maintain our self respect and live as we would like to after the revolution, now!. This in effect means taking control of yourself and thats where debunking the shit that society has indoctrinated you with comes in. Rejecting the arguments of militarism, patriotism, specism, racism may seem easy but they often need serious self reflection and introspection to really “deal with”. Jealousy is one such issue. To me its fairly simple. Why should I have any say over what someone else does with their body just because I am in a “relationship” with them. All the reasons for monogamy and “faithfulness” come from the institutions like church, tradition, patriarchy etc that I detest. So why should I subscribe to such a “backward” notion? I don’t and never will. Anyone I am in a relationship with is well aware that they can do what they like sexually with others as long as I know whats going on. Actually dealing the reality of this “belief” is not always easy but my conviction in the idea is stronger than the stains of “straight” culture left behind from years of socialisation on my ego. For many years I lived in a relationship that was open with varying degrees of success and I am glad for having done so, I met some amazing people and had some amazing sex with some of them. I have recently given up being non monogamous myself as my present lover could not cope with it, but she is free to do as she pleases as far as I am concerned. It may be a cliche  but I believe love is not love unless it is free.

– How do you deal with jealousy, are you completely free of it or do you always have to somehow work it through, rationalize it etc?

Oops I should have read all the questions first!  Ok to be more precise, I sometimes feel the pangs of jealousy but they are completely outweighed by the pride I feel in living my life by the code I have decided upon not what society laid down for me. Its a bit like having been vegan for 30 years I can still feel a longing for a cream cake in a Parisian patisserie but I wouldn’t act upon the thought. The brain, the process of thinking things through, of realising how stupid the basis of our societies morals, rules and laws are is fundamental to anarchism. We need to be able to analyse what makes us go to war, feel racist thoughts and such shit. Then we need to work out how we as individuals do not behave in the same way, how not to replicate the patterns and continuation of the system.

– So what’s going to happen to Active after you move to Croatia? Are you going to move the distro with you or is someone else taking it over from you? 

Good question! Its a bit up in the air, in theory there is someone going to carry on with Active but it may be slimmed down a bit. And I may carry on doing the book publishing from Croatia we gotta see. I doubt I’ll disappear altogether ! even if thats what I want to do!

– Seems like you’re quite harsh on these middle class students here. But where this generalisation comes from, weren’t you both middle class and student as well? 

well yes I was born into a middle class family, my Grandad’s were both “working class” but I’m not really hung up on the relevance of this term. The point is these students epitomise the worst example of “student Power” and they have accused me directly of being racist because they have some twisted logic that criticising religion is somehow racist. So no i am not being too harsh. I was a hunt sabbing, gig organising demo going type of student annoying in my own way perhaps but not like these twits!

– And while we’re at it, what do you think about this whole cultural appropriation concept? Do you believe anyone is really entitled to feel offended just because another person (who happens to be white) has dreadlocks?

I think its like many PC ideas. it gets taken to ridiculous extremes, it becomes a dogma and becomes bollox. I think punk was interesting partly because people were unafraid to take cultural themes, music, clothes from a variety of sources and mix them together. The brotherhood of The Ruts and Misty in Roots was cool and strong and nothing to do with “stealing culture” the Ruts produced some great reggae music. My hair goes into dreadlocks when I don’t wash it for ages! Thats my personal laziness not cultural appropriation. Capitalism will exploit whatever it can. Capitalist entertainment will exploit whatever cultures it can, be it black, African, Mexican or Punk!

Does that answer the question?



An Anarchist Guide to… Distribution  (Strike Mag)

Where do you draw the line? by Jon Active

When one gets to a certain age it becomes really easy to bore the fuck out of your mates by repeating your latest fave anecdote over and over without realising. I am in danger of this with my decidedly self-congratulatory tale of last month’s excess. “April was mad, I broke my own record: I did a different anarchist bookfair every weekend, each in a different country.” This fact does, though, illustrate various themes I have been asked to pontificate upon, having been described recently as an expert on Anarchist Bookfairs, DIY and not-for-profit.

 There was an LP released many years ago by a bunch of ageing radical rockers called Where Do We Draw The Line? The music was not noisey and the lyrics were concerned with the dilemmas and compromises that artist activists trying to be true to their ideals come up against. The DIY scene that I have operated in for the last quarter of a century is nothing to do with flat pack furniture or elementary plumbing, but is the spirit of how and why many punx and revolutionaries try to operate. One early slogan of the anarcho-punk movement says much rather succinctly: DIY NOT EMI! The Buzzcocks famously set up their own record label rather than sign up with an established one in order to have complete control over what they could do. This idea was developed further by anarcho punk labels like CRASS, who added the concept of being actively against the music business, refusing to play the media’s games, releasing their records as cheaply as possible and, along with many other bands, notably Chumbawamba, attacking EMI and other major labels for being part of corporations with investments in the arms trade etc.

 Where one draws the line of radical DIY purity versus capitalist compromise is a never-ending argument. Never-ending, one might say, because idealist young bands almost always get old and tired and greedy, and end up seeing the bottom line of financial security as more important than a less remunerative hard core political stance. I remember reading a statement from Chumba’s when they left the independent label Southern for the larger One Little Indian (originally an anarcho punk label), who had recently done deals with major labels to secure ‘better’ distribution. The crux of their argument was that all capitalism is capitalism whether it’s small or large, so they saw no merit in staying with a small label when they wanted to get their message out there. A form of ‘the ends justify the means’ argument, with the unstated side-benefits of wealth and fame.

 This concept smacks at the whole problem with an alternative culture that tries to survive and support radicals within capitalism. Can it be done with any sincerity? Is it credible? Does business success mean it is no longer anti-capitalist?

 These questions were very live in the punk and H/C (hard core) scene when I started Active back in 1988. There were distros and fanzine writers who would get apoplectic about ‘sell outs’ who charged people for postage costs rather than soaping their stamps. We were pretty dedicated to the concept of non-profit and that is how I have stayed.

 The most obvious direct comparison between DIY distribution models within the anarcho-punk scene is AK Press and Active Distribution. Both started with the same concept: to distribute radical, primarily anarchist, literature. The methods were and are similar: we both do stalls at events, produce catalogues, run a mail-order service, supply others at wholesale rates, blah blah.

Ramsay, who started AK, and I would meet at Freedom and Housmans bookshop (back in the day when hippy Malcolm ran its basement like an Aladdin’s cave of anarchy.). But even our chosen transport methods showed the difference between the two distros: Ramsay would take the train down from Stirling and I would hitchhike from Swansea. Where AK sold books at full price, I’d knock them out as cheaply as I could afford. Subsequently, AK became an international book publisher with offices and warehouses in both Edinburgh and California – Active stayed within the scope of my spare bedroom. As a workers co-op, AK employs and pays a bunch of people; it does not seek to make the workers rich, but it does pay them a living wage. Active will cover the cost of food from Veggies food stall when people work at a bookfair and that’s about it.

 AK has also succeeded in publishing and distributing many wonderful books and I hope they continue to do so. In order to do enough business to do this and to spread the word as widely as possible, AK has crossed many lines so that many would say it has become another capitalist business.

 Active decided it did not want to grow up or do-it-properly, and continued to hitch-hike our way through life, begging and borrowing, stealing and scamming, and ultimately putting in a lot of effort ‘for the sake of it’. We don’t worry about costs or bills as AK and other ‘real’ businesses do: we add a small margin to cover costs but we don’t worry if that doesn’t always happen. Margins and profit lines are what business is all about.

 The problem with capitalism is that ultimately businesses are only interested in their profit margins. When a publisher prices a book, it will mark the cover price anything from 3 to 7 times the cost price of producing the book. Distributors of books get between 50 and 60% of the cover price of a book, so they can supply shops who take 30-40% of the cover price. Active ignores these rules and adds the smallest percentage possible to keep us going. We specialise in supplying other distributors and infoshops with stock cheaply. What money we do make goes into our publishing projects (The Bottled Wasp etc), and to cover for the costs of stock that never sold.

 I started my radical journey as a pacifist heavily steeped in the ideal that we should act in the manner that we want the revolution be. I think Ghandi put it better – and I like the irony that the anarcho-insurrectionists have a similar view about life and revolution, despite being on the other side of the anarchist milieu to Ghandi.

 So last month’s record breaking (and carbon huge-boot-print inducing) bookfair attendance by Active was done not by the larger and more famous distributer/publisher AK Press but by the two-bit, part timer Active. How come? Well, Active didn’t need to judge the bookfairs by their likelihood of being ‘financially viable’, which any profit orientated business needs to do. AK might attend quiet, non-money-making events and consider them good publicity, or even ‘acts of solidarity’ but they can only do this on a limited scale. Active stalls get to bookfairs using ‘punk-post’ and maximizing airline baggage allowances; the travel costs are paid by the individuals who see the events not as work but as an act of support (and maybe a holiday too). This isn’t so difficult when you consider that the first three bookfairs in April were Zagreb, Gent and Prague (and I am a self confessed vegan tourist always happy to try out new cruelty free food outlets). But our book stall probably had the biggest selection of books at all four bookfairs.

 Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking AK or PM or any of the other ‘big’ anarchist publishers; Active has a good comradely working relationship with them all. And although we have different priorities, sometimes these differences work to our mutual benefit. For instance, when a new punk squat bookshop suddenly appears asking for books on credit, AK groans inwardly with the weight of a history of unpaid and unrecoverable debts. Active, having being (relatively) unworried about cash up front or 30 days credit limits, is able to supply places that others would find uneconomical (it must be said we are owed a fortune in unpaid book sales.)

 At bookfairs abroad, Active specialises in leaving all unsold stock with the local bookshop or anarchist distro with the promise to settle up at next years bookfair. If Active were under pressure to pay the rent or justify the expenditure of leaving books in Barcelona for a year after we have already paid for them, without a guarantee that they we will indeed sell, this attitude would be unfeasible. But this non-commercial attitude is an essential element for me. I don’t want to run a business, I want to propagate anarchist ideas and culture. I don’t want to profit from the words, deeds, writings or ideas of anarchists who have fought in battles far worse than I have ever seen. I don’t want to sully the beauty of the ideas of the likes Emma Goldman or Kropotkin with the percentages of mercantile profit motivations. No, I want to give this stuff away, I want it to be as free as the ideal itself. When I hit the reality of printing costs, postage and fuel costs I make as small an addition to the cost price as I can and hope that the bargain price will inspire people to buy a book rather than just a badge.  Even better, they might get two books and pass one on to someone else. And I have profited over the years by doing Active: it has brought me many friends, some lovers, quite a few books and CD’s, but most of all it has helped keep my belief in an alternative, not profit-based, way of dealing with other people alive.

It was reading the likes of Malatesta, the Freedom Paper, Poison Girls and CRASS lyrics that helped me find my voice and set me free, and that is why I have a passion to continue the work of distributing such ideas. I bought those texts from a long gone radical bookshop; nowadays,  the internet allows us to find such literature wherever we are but I don’t want people to have to compromise themselves by giving profit to the likes of Amazon. So please: support your local radical literature outlet.

 Jon Active runs Active Distribution, a DIY, Not for Profit distributor of all things anarchist. Active was born out of the legendary Lee House squat in Hackney circa 1988 though Jon was doing his own distribution before this whilst at Swansea Uni as part of the local Hunt Saboteur and Black Sheep groups.

Staying Active (Maximum RocknRoll Magazine)

By Noah Eber-Schmid 

         Fierce independence and a do-it-yourself ethic are the core values of any punk endeavor. They are the key ingredients for the perfectly punk band, artist, or writer and they spring from an idealism that seeks to nourish the individual as a unique person. But along with the multitudes of creative individuals and perspectives that emerged from punk, there has always been the problem of how to share the products and perspectives of punk rock creativity. So alongside the DIY approach to music, art, and literature, there evolved a DIY approach to the dark and dreary “business” end of distribution in the punk rock realm. Sometimes, the often-overlooked job of distribution has as much of the idealism, romance, and thirst for change as that which witnessed in bands and artists who speak of change and hope for a better tomorrow. But staying punk and sticking to punk ethics can be a difficult task for an inherently business operation.

         “We provide information, that’s why what we do is so important to us. We do the punk thing but we’re about spreading alternative ideas. So many kids today don’t read and don’t ask questions and that’s why what we do is so simple and so beautiful.” The high-rise flat in Hackney is overstuffed with cardboard boxes full of merchandise: badges, CDs, books, pamphlets, stickers, posters, placards, and other assorted paraphernalia. The walls are showcases where a multitude of concert posters, album promotions, and souvenirs of political activism cover the halls and hide the standard apartment complex veneer beneath a pictorial history of radical politics and punk music.

         Walking down the crowded hallway (fighting for space between a couple of bikes and a trail of boxes that frames the path), I notice that there is a room off to the left, dark, but the contents edge their way out into the hall, clearly making their presence known. I move toward the end of the flat and there is a small ubiquitous compact apartment kitchen and an open room with a lofted shelf, couch, computer, and windowed nook that looks out over the backdrop of North London. It is in this cluttered apartment (which doubles as a storage facility) where Jon and Marta Active reside, each composing one-half of the devoted workforce of Active Distribution, a small but well-known grass-roots and not-for-profit punk music and radical literature distributor based out of London. From their high-rise fortress, a towering apartment complex, Jon and Marta run their distro (that delicious bit of cut-down punk parlance for distributor.) It is there, amongst the stickers, CDs, piles of punk magazines, and mountains of books that they spend a tremendous amount of time sorting, packaging, labeling, filing, and accounting for this plethora of material that makes up their inventory—actions in-keeping with their purpose of fertilizing the already sown seeds of discontent.

         Jon Active is a lanky man with long tattered hair and pasty-white British skin. Perpetually casual, he has a preference for black trousers and sleeveless t-shirts with band logos scrawled across the front. It’s doubtful that Active is his true surname, but if nothing else it serves as a more than adequate description of his life for the last twenty-something years. When he was young, the Cold War and the grey skies over Britain did little to hide the ever-looming threat of total nuclear annihilation. These happy thoughts raged through the mind of the young English schoolboy who read too much and had too many opinions: “I started getting leaflets and badges from the local CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) contact. Back then we were all pretty sure we were about to get blown up by the evil Americans and Russians who were talking about having a tactical nuclear war to decide who was going to rule the world, and that meant us getting blown to smithereens. Mutually assured destruction meant mutually assured European destruction.” For Jon, the possibility of perishing in the blaze of a nuclear holocaust provided more than enough impetus to engage in political discourse, even if it landed him in hot water in school and at home. The heat could be scalding at times, like when his loving parents readily turned him in for his participation in a painstakingly detailed guerilla campaign of political graffiti. It was the looming threat of destruction that launched him into a life of politics, literature, and punk music. “I got into the political stuff by reading books and coming across all sorts of literature and new ideas. Even when I started listening to punk music, I had already started by reading books. The music was like ‘Wow, these guys are fucking angry’, but it was reading the sleeve notes and what they were singing about that ‘called to me,’ that recognition of someone vocalizing and writing what you’re feeling, that’s very powerful and that’s what punk did for me.”

         In 1985 when he started attending University at Swansea in Wales, Jon began the first incarnation of the distro that would come to consume his life. At school he became involved with establishing an animal rights group, Swansea Hunt Saboteurs. The group would organize to oppose the controversial English tradition of fox hunting and advocate a general program of animal rights campaigning. At the same time, Jon, a major in anthropology, became more and more involved with the politics of anarchism, starting an anarchist group at school and eventually opening a traveling bookstore under the Swansea Hunt Saboteur name.  At the time, Swansea lacked an outlet where hungry minds turning to the Left could go to digest dense radical anarchist theory or find books with alternative historical and contemporary perspectives. Having nowhere to turn to get a Left-wing fix, Jon took it upon himself to find the books and spread the word, so just like when he was fifteen, he started handing out flyers and getting into trouble.

         Hiking up the road and hitching rides along the motorway, Jon would journey north to London with empty bags and small wads of cash. There, he’d make his way to Freedom Books and a few other shops and buy up boxes of the sorts of books he wanted to read and share with co-conspirators and inquiring minds in Swansea. Once his pockets were empty and his bags filled to the brim, he’d head back to the motor-way and hitchhike all the way down to Swansea, hopefully in time for class the next day. Out of boxes in his room, much like today, Jon started distributing heaps of literature to inquiring minds. It was in 1989 after finishing school that he found himself living in London and still distributing books. That year he met up with a punk woman from Italy who had been running her own distribution catalogue called Perjury from a squatted house in North London, distributing punk rock records and t-shirts out of boxes in her room. Though the relationship only lasted a year, it gave birth to Active Distribution which has now been around for more than fifteen years.  “She was very strong on the whole Do-It-Yourself punk ethic and I had just been doing the literature thing and not making any money.  It took a long time to sync everything but it all blended together—the literature and the punk element.” From its humble beginnings out of bedrooms in a dormitory and a squatted home, Active Distribution is the product of hard work and the marriage of literature and punk rock.

         “I’ve always felt that it’s better to affect the mind of one person, to open up one person to different ways of thinking and looking at things…The revolution might not come in my lifetime, you might not be able to change the world, but if you’ve shown someone something new and different and good, then I’ve done my job.” For Jon, since day one, it has always been about the books. Active is primarily known to its customers as a foremost distributor of punk rock wares and as a notoriously anti-capitalist oriented non-profit organization. But for Jon, as much as he obviously loves punk music (“I don’t know where I would be without my punk rock tunes” he readily admits in mocking tones), the punk stuff, the pins, the badges, the t-shirts, CDs, etc. are more of a tool to attract the attention of people to the books, books that might change the way someone looks at the world, like they did and continue to do for him: “The way I look at it, you have to attack on all fronts and one of the most important fronts is in the mind. Your own consciousness, and your own abilities to think for yourself…to act in a way that is revolutionary.” Amidst the black clothing, anti-capitalist rhetoric, and cynical punk rock veneer, one can find a man of subtle tones. Jon loves to talk and his subjects are legion: the astute political observer decries the barbarism and horrors of war in Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq, the philosopher preaches the illegitimacy of the State and the capitalist system, the hippy sings of animal rights and protection of the environment, and the punk just sneers, spits, and wages a daily war against any authority in his path. But, all these thoughts unite under his love of literature. When he talks about books, he shows a child-like awe in his eyes as he throws up his arms and raises his brow, ‘wow’s abounding in his speech.

           When I walk through the door of the apartment headquarters of Active Distribution, Jon’s arms reach out to invite me in and he continues down the hall to set down some boxes and offer me a drink. Peering around the corner I find Marta hard at work and hovering close to the wall of the apartment’s home made storage room reading off an inventory list in the dim light. Copies of classic texts from the anarchist cannon by Peter Kropotkin and Mikhail Bakunin take up shelf space with the latest sociopolitical releases from AK Press (an international collectively run anarchist publishing group and a main supplier to Active Distribution), while books on animal rights and revolutionary struggle are scattered on the floor.  Marta looks up from the lists and checks the writing to the bookshelves that line the walls and the center of the room (shelves Jon makes himself, a display of his own brand of rugged individualism). “Sometimes it’s hard to separate the personal space from the office, from Active.  This flat is basically a storage space where we live,” Marta explains in a tired tone, exhausted from packing with hours still to go. Jon emerges from the kitchen with the courteous glass of water in hand, typically English, he also offers tea (and in England, sometimes even the punks offer “a spot of tea.”) Tonight is a quiet Thursday evening, which John jokingly laments, “Thursday night in most houses; go to a movie, no. Go out for dinner, no. Play a game of chess, no. Here at the Active household, we’re taking inventory and preparing shipments” all in the hope of nourishing the skeptic minds of obstinate punk youths the world over. Tonight, Jon and Marta are busily packing and counting in order to get a shipment of CDs and books ready to be picked up and transported via Punk Post, a term Jon mockingly takes credit for. “It’s simple really; bands crisscross all over the world on tours and a lot of them are willing to help out and support the punk community, so basically the idea is that bands and people whenever they travel take a shipment and drop it off wherever they’re going where someone will pick it up.”

         In some sense, the Punk Post sounds like an ingeniously childish and clever attempt at cutting costs and doing business, but for Jon and Marta, this endeavor is a genuine example of the ethics and purpose of Active Distribution. For them, the Punk Post is an expression of the punk ethic of Do-It-Yourself—the closest thing resembling a code that guides the work of Active Distribution. On the most basic level Do-It-Yourself (DIY) is about problem solving. Good ole’ rugged individualism comes into the mix when people choose to directly solve a problem or endeavor to satisfy a need themselves without shifting responsibility for the solution to other people. Most of the time the reasoning behind choosing to do something yourself  stems from a cost-benefit analysis where its more efficient to do something yourself than to mete out the task to other parties. But DIY as a punk ethic (though not uniquely punk) is more about philosophy than it is about building your own shelves to save a little bit of pocket change. DIY as a choice can be out of necessity or efficiency, but as punk ethic, DIY is about self-empowerment and a vehement rejection of authority, a “don’t worry about me, I’ll take care of it” attitude. The basic point of the DIY punk ethic is the notion of taking control of your own life and having a direct impact on decisions that affect you and your community. DIY is a rebellious spirit of democracy in action and it’s an ethic that’s been guiding the Actives and punks around the world for years.

         From the romantic idealism that pours from his mouth, it is obvious that Jon looks at Active Distribution as a small part in a revolutionary struggle to affect the minds of individuals and masses alike. But ask him outright what the point of Active Distribution is and a more muddled uncertainty comes through. Regardless, the closest approximation to the purpose of Active Distribution is simply to distribute radical literature and punk culture to as many people as possible. But aside from the standard online and mail catalogues, Active Distribution also helps build up other small, independent, and DIY distribution groups across the globe. The Punk Post grew out of a necessity to reach small groups and individuals willing to put in the time and energy necessary to run a distro, without falling into the traps and pitfalls of everyday small-businesses. For those of us who didn’t study economics, a basic explanation: Active Distribution buys radical sociopolitical and punk rock literature, CDs, etc. at cheaper wholesale rates, then sells them for little to no mark up (usually between five to ten pence or ten to twenty US cents) to customers. It is a non-profit take on basic capitalism, except in capitalism, the goal is to make a profit off of the selling of commodities in order to increase the capital invested to purchase products and continue the cycle (polemical blahs and intricacies aside). With Active, the goals are to keep prices as low as possible, make absolutely no money, hope to break even, and help in getting progressive and radical books and music out across the world to people who might have no other way to get their hands on it. “We only mark up the wholesale prices in order to cover shipping, boxes, and other expenses.  We take no money from what we sell and remain a truly volunteer run non-profit organization” Jon proudly proclaims. From the beginning, Jon, and now with the help of Marta, have endeavored to keep the prices of everything Active sells low, all for the purpose of getting the literature and material Active distributes out, not for passive consumption, but active meditation and inspiration. “We’re not here to make money, but even though we don’t make a profit off of anything, we’re still constrained by money; we may not like capitalism but we still have to pay for things.”

         I’m sitting atop a makeshift chair in the nook of their crowded room; there are noticeable rows and piles of unmarked silver bags strewn about the floor all around me. Some of the bags are packed neatly in a pile of large boxes, which Jon continues to add to in a seemingly endless stream of cardboard and coffee. The squared silver bags are just another part of the political activism and pseudo-consumerism engaged in by Active Distribution. Tightly packed in each air-tight silver package are two-hundred and fifty grams of the finest ground coffee beans, direct from autonomous coffee growing collectives in the Chiapas region of Mexico, home to coffee, bananas, and indigenous insurrection. With a small pile of the unmarked silver coffee bags in her lap, Marta sits on the couch carefully and attentively placing colorful labels that portray scenes of indigenous Mexican life or cartoon depictions of Emiliano Zapata on each of the silver bags that grace her hands. Sunday afternoons in this Hackney household are reserved for catching up on the nitty-gritty of the home-grown distro. Without a workforce and almost exclusively maintained by Jon and Marta, the workload of Active Distribution, from accounting and technical issues to the act of assembling, falls entirely on the shoulders of these two committed people. Today (and everyday), the task of unpacking, shipping, and labeling each of the silver bags of ground organic “fair trade” coffee (coffee beans certified to meet relatively higher standards of equitable wages and prices paid to third world producers) is the work of both Jon and Marta on a quiet Sunday afternoon.

         Selling coffee might not be politically en vogue this revolutionary season, but as Jon (and any Third World Latin American or African activist) would be right to point out, coffee, next to oil, is one of the world’s most traded commodities. The coffee distributed by Active Distribution is no ordinary bag of chic organic fair-trade coffee.  Rather, these beans trace their direct lineage to the insurrectionary region of Chiapas, Mexico, and are produced by autonomous collectives of coffee growers in conjunction with the social and community projects of the well-known Zapatista Army of National Liberation, or Zapatistas (EZLN). Active Distribution began selling the coffee in support of the Zapatista movement, picking up the distribution after an anarchist group, The Wombles, left off. Their website proudly proclaims their support for the Zapatista insurrection: “We have supported the EZLN indigenous struggle in Mexico ever since hearing about it on the BBC World Service on day one…We have no doubts about the value this coffee plays in supporting the revolutionary struggle both in Mexico and worldwide.”  But Jon’s coffee comments also betray a softly awed opinion: “I don’t actually drink coffee. My personal interest isn’t that strong. But the coffee is something really cool and I feel really good that I can be involved with this project and help out. The Zapatistas were and are a really strong source of inspiration for me ever since they sprang out of the jungle and began issuing communiqués to the world.”

         In many ways, Active Distribution is like any other distributor, replete with the normal ups and downs of an average entrepreneurial business venture. “There have been disagreements about keeping prices low and how to keep the thing [Active Distribution] going,” Jon comments. But while the everyday business does indeed mimic that of any other business, the organization is fiercely “anti-business,” a home-grown not-for-profit venture meant to contribute to the promotion of radical, progressive, and alternative viewpoints on culture, politics, and the world. Such a tightrope walk between practical business and punk ethic hasn’t always been the easiest course, and Marta can effortlessly call to mind the day-to-day problems: “The main problem is space. It limits us to the biggest degree. We’ve had various people help us over the years but there’s never been long term help; it’s basically just the two of us. Just making everything happen and trying to make everything as efficient as you can is the major problem; it’s too much for two people as it is.”

         Marta is a diminutive woman with delicate features accompanied by an intellectual learning curve of self-education (an admirable proficiency in self-taught English and a childhood literary repertoire founded on early readings of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy) and a history of involvement with punk in Poland. She came to the United Kingdom at the end of nineteen ninety-eight and moved in with Jon.  The loving relationship resulted in romance and an intimate involvement with the distro. “When I moved in and we started going out together, I think Jon spent all his time doing Active and if I wanted a bit more time with Jon to go to the movies or whatever, I had to help him out.” But Marta’s initially coy involvement with the entity that would come to take an enormous amount of her time is more of a logical continuation of her prior activities in Poland. In Poland, Marta helped to run a small distro named Malaria that sold punk records and t-shirts from mail order catalogues and stalls she would set up all across the country wherever punks were having shows. Her experience with Malaria made her an incredible asset to the development of Active Distribution but has also brought in some controversy. “In Poland I did this for a living, just scraping by, I never imagined it as a business, but I didn’t see anything wrong with putting all your time in and charging enough to pay for your living expenses. Jon and I have never agreed on this, I don’t see a problem living off this. Making a living out of doing what you’re already doing. The way I see it, on the other hand, when what you do doesn’t provide for you, you have to do something else. Jon and I both have jobs in addition to this job. If your revolutionary job or your punk rock job doesn’t pay the rent, you have to get a job for ‘The Man.’ I don’t see anything wrong with charging a bit more so I can devote even more time to this job and not have to work the other job.  I’m not talking big money, just enough to get by. I don’t mind doing this voluntarily but I see both sides and I can argue it from both ways because I’ve done both. When I did this in Poland working with Malaria [the distro not the disease], the prices we had were not rip off prices, they were normal prices, and we worked so hard and traveled all over setting up stalls at shows so we were able to pay our expenses. Jon has a different point of view, not that I’m arguing that I should get more out of it. But it’s a constant fight about the prices and a struggle. I think the prices should be ten to fifteen pence more, I think people would pay it and Active could use a bit of generated income. I think we’re losing money and I don’t want to lose money.”

         When Marta talks about the conflict over money, it’s a genuinely sincere conversation. When she speaks about price differences and just compensation for time and energy, it’s more reminiscent of the all-American dream of stable finances then a rapacious pursuit of capital and wealth. “I just think that my time is being wasted if I pour all this energy and effort into something if it’s losing money; I’m tired of losing money.” It’s conversations like these when commitment and interpretation of ethics comes to the forefront; Jon’s eyebrows raise and his jaw drops quickly, turning to a smile as he tosses his arms up; “But that’s inherently wrong.  The romantic idealist is making his rounds.

         Marta sometimes feels pushed to explain what she means: “The money isn’t wasted, that’s not what I meant. What if we go bankrupt because someone we trusted couldn’t pay?”

         But Jon doesn’t quit; “It’s not about the money in any way. We’re not going bankrupt; we’re not big enough to be going bankrupt.  All the money in and out of Active is separate from anything else.  We’re not loosing money.”

         “Well what about when we owe people money, what if we don’t have it in the Active Account…”

         “Then we find a way to pay it just like I’ve always done.” The fight is a lover’s quarrel and the idealism comes through, but beyond being a sign that the revolutionary Active couple is as ordinary as every other, the other meaning is clear;  Active Distribution is a personal labor and a true commitment without monetary considerations, and if that means paying out of pocket to get books out to people that will read them then that’s a price well paid. “The DIY ethic is not just about doing it yourself.  It’s about doing it yourself with an attitude that is anti-capitalist, anti-profit, an attitude that is ‘I do what I’m doing because I believe in what I’m doing,’ it can’t be about making money.”

         There have been times when Active Distribution has indeed lost money, and as you read this piece, there are outstanding debts owed to Jon and Marta that will never be paid. “We try and help a lot of people out and sometimes it just doesn’t work” Jon mentions, as he recalls the tale of a young Croat who turned up at a show in France looking to start his own version of Active Distribution that could reach the contingents of Croatian punks. “A guy from Croatia contacted me and one day he met us at a stall we were doing in Dijon. This guy had hitchhiked form Croatia and he had a red old school army jacket on. He came with empty bags to get stuff and I thought ‘this was great’ and I gave him a lot of stuff without taking any money. I was basking in his youthful enthusiasm and the next time he hitch hiked over to London and took back even more stuff. He told us how he sold quite a lot if not most of our stuff and even started a record label, one that failed. He used the stuff from us to sell and fund another project that failed and to this day he owes us about two and a half grand. I actually met him in Croatia and he tried to give us some of the money but he just couldn’t.” The sour story isn’t lost on Marta, “The bottom line is that he spent our money on something else and we had to take the loss. We’ve often been there to help people set up stalls without having to pay for it up front. That [being able to pay up front] can be an issue for some people, the problem is when people rip us off, sometimes intentionally and sometime unintentionally. Not just small people but others like an anarchist collective in Majorca. It’s just the two of us carrying on, and some people have made it really difficult.”

         The music and image of punk rock took the world by storm in the late seventies, flaring up and dying out like a free book of matches pocketed from a cheap restaurant. In the same amount of time it took to throw together a catchy three-chord song, punk as an expression of popular culture was dead and gone, but punk as a subculture and a community seems very much alive in rented back rooms and bedroom distros. Punk as a movement persists as kids come and go, and old punks stay devoted to the community that’s offered them so much. If you meet Jon on an overcast day at 56A, the south London anarchist bookshop he volunteers at every Saturday, you might mistake him for a lost cause, the kind of clichéd aging revolutionary sans the beret, but talk to him for a minute about what he does for “the revolution” and a surprisingly realistic romantic takes the stage.  “One of the things that’s so crucial to me is learning lessons from the past…I don’t expect things to just happen like that, things take time and ideas take time…we haven’t managed to have the revolution yet and so some people give up, but it takes a long time and when you start reading the past you learn that things take time. That’s when I realized that for me, I’m not going to be unrealistic.  I’m not going to be the one at the front of the revolution, but I can keep helping out. Some demonstrations, some actions, they don’t all change the world, but they are steps. From a punk rock perspective, it might be great to see a smashed McDonald’s window but to others it just looks like vandalism.”  You can see it in their eyes that Jon and Marta both have a soft spot for militancy and direct action of the occasional brick through the McDonald’s window, but talking to two people who devote almost all of their time to spreading literature as well as directly anti-capitalist action acquaints you with the more intellectual and concerned propagandist side of punk.

            “We try to stay independent, getting the books and the ideas out there so people can strengthen their own knowledge and deepen their understanding. That’s as relevant or more important than many other types of revolutionary actions” Jon notes as Marta fights a word in. “The ideas and the self-analysis has to come first, you need to ask yourself why you’re acting the way you are in the first place before you can really have a grip on what you’re doing and what you think should be done and why… We don’t expect too much from the kids consuming what we sell them, we just hope that some of them will come to a better understanding instead of just getting into a mode or fashion…you can’t avoid that trend, there will always be people who just buy things or do things because it’s fashionable.  You just hope that one out of ten get something out of it. It’s up to them.” They have no delusions of directly igniting the revolution through revolutionary prose and voluminous literature, but as long as they can physically do it, Jon and Marta Active will keep pushing the books, spreading the word, and well, staying Active.