Wednesday, May 25, 2016


This is one of the only times I have been interviewed by the national press. In this case by Lisa Markwell for a piece for the short-lived Sunday Correspondent , which first appeared on 17th September 1989 and closed on 25th November 1990. Photo by Anne-Katrin Purkiss. The text of the piece, which was published on 17th December 1989, reads as follows:

GREENPEACE Books was set up four years ago by ex-journalist John May, at a time when public interest in the environment was beginning to flourish after Chernobyl. In a half-timbered room overshadowed by a Norman church in Lewes, Sussex, May has been quietly producing such titles as The Greenpeace Book of Antarctica, The Greenpeace Story and the newly published Greenpeace Book of the Nuclear Age. Yet in those four years, May has never been interviewed, nor his books reviewed in the national press. 

However his Antarctica has become the definitive work on this isolated but endangered area. The British Antarctic Survey keeps it on its ships and the New Zealand government bought 2,000 copies for distribution to its personnel. To May's dismay, though, it has been described as a "coffee table" book, a term he finds incomprehensible. 

On the other hand, he is visibly excited by having The Greenpeace Story in a children's book club brochure alongside the Kylie and Jason annuals. "Every book is an action" runs the official slogan of Greenpeace Publishing- and every teenager who buys a book is another potential activist. 

For an environmental activist, May is, by his own admission, more of a journalist than a campaigner. He smokes incessantly, and his office is littered with magazines like The Face and Fame. He reads "a hell of a lot of newspapers and magazines", which he clips assiduously for reference, but he gives no more than a cursory glance to the new batch of green publications, dismissing most as "rubbish" both in aesthetic terms and subject matter. 

The British press has been unable to absorb the changes in the public's conception of green issues, he says. "They're either very lazy or unable to overcome a series of stereotypes that they themselves have established. They think that environmentist (I hate that term anyway) still means sandals and beads." 

John May was a journalist for 15 years before he established Greenpeace Books., His first book, An Index of Possibilities, published in 1973, was a fore-runner of today's "New Age" magazines - a British answer to the American Whole Earth Catalogue. He went on to collate a book of "curious facts", one of scientific photography and, in a link to his work at Greenpeace, two books on animals, Weird and Wonderful Wildlife and The Book of Beasts

Rather than simply capitalise on the media preoccupation with the green tag, May is leading Greenpeace Books in a different direction. "One of the areas we're getting into is comics because comics are going to be a major form of communication in the next 10 years - as they already are in Japan and Latin America." May read a report which claimed that students at Harvard don't read books any more. He surmised that most people have no time to read - and that subjects like new legislation and economic policies need to be made less convoluted for the public. "Comics are one of the ways to do that. I think its going to be an enormous growth area." 

To compile The Greenpeace Book Of The Nuclear Age, May was obliged to call on expert help to interpret the "ancient gobbledegook" that both military and civil reports use. A catalogue of nuclear accidents from the 1940s to the present day, it makes fascinating, if alarming, reading. 

The book's launch in November was, fortuitous, as May explains: "We joked that something might happen to coincide with the launch, but the announcement that Britain would be putting a freeze on building nuclear power stations was rather more than we'd anticipated." 

The Greenpeace Story is sold in seven countries, and Antarctica, published last year, has sold over 150,000 copies in 11 countries and is now reprinting in every one. "I think this is a new area of publishing, a growing one and we are exploring the possibilities. As far as I can see, there's no end to them." 

With Greenpeace already up and running in Russia, and getting   an office in East Berlin, prospects look good. "Britain is very irritating. It's a useful country to be. based in because of systems and connections. At the same time it's politically barbaric, socially inept, culturally weak, inward looking, nostalgic and sexually repressed . . . one could go on and on. I think what we need in this country is glasnost and perestroika UK." 

May adds a disclaimer to his brusque comments: "None of the things I've said should be taken as representing Greenpeace's official line. They allow me to be something of a free-thinking soul within the framework, and in the books there is a section which presents Greenpeace's particular official position. I haven't disagreed so far . . May is currently researching a book on dolphins - a project which already has 15 interested international, publishers, but which is also one that may find him back on the coffee tables.'

footnote: We never did publish any Greenpeace Comics but we did get Dave Gibbons the illustrator/letterer of Watchmen to do a cover and centrefold for a Greenpeace Record that was released in Russia and then around the world

Here are two environmental comics from THE GENERALIST ARCHIVE: 

Net Profit (1974) by Michael J. Becker and Shelby Simpson.. produced by ECOMIX for PROJECT JONAH - a Non-Profit International Effort to Save the Whales and Dolphins.

Concrete Celebrates EARTH DAY 1990: with stories by Moebius, Charles Vess & Paul Chadwick. Published by Dark Horse Comics in Milwaukie, Oregon

I'd been turned onto the new wave of comics and graphic novels by meeting Alan Moore  and Art Spiegelman in London in 1987.

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