Changes Start with... THE SPARK "at the heart of the alternative west country"

John Dawson - Founder of The Spark

For our 50th issue we thought it was about time we told you a little more about John Dawson – The Spark’s founder, publisher and former editor. He is also a Speaking Circles facilitator and proud beard-wearer. He lives in Congresbury with his wife Clare.


Q: What’s the best thing about living in the South West?

A: I’ve just come back from a weekend on the Dorset coast, where I swam in the sea and sang around a campfire, so I’d have to say the countryside and the gorgeous stuff that’s around this area. And there are so many people here doing lots of things that are really interesting. When I first moved to Bristol 25 years ago, I was a bit lost and needed a sense of community – I found that here.


What do you want to see more of?

Better provisions for cyclists. I know we’ve got Sustrans here, so we’re lucky really, but having been to Holland where the priority is to cyclists and pedestrians rather than cars, I’d love to see that culture change in Bristol.


How did The Spark come about?

The fundamental pulse for creating the magazine was my mum’s illness (she was a legal tranquiliser addict) and her eventual suicide, which happened in my final year at university. I went to the doctor just after my mum died, and the doctor, knowing the history of my family, offered me tranquilisers to get over my mum’s death. I couldn’t believe it. I’m not a violent man but I very nearly thumped him.

That whole mono/chemical approach to my mum’s illness was something that had really frustrated me and now I was being offered the same. I’m not saying you shouldn’t use appropriate medication, but where was the counselling, where was the thought, where was the love in that approach?

So, although it was quite a few years later that The Spark started, that was the original impetus, that was what planted the seed of “Bloody hell, there has got to be other choices out there, there has to be a possibility that we can have more control over our lives”.

Then, on a practical level, I later compiled The Avon Health Directory, which attempted to bring together and list both complementary and orthodox medicine locally available. At the same time I also did a course on group facilitation which meant I had to go into therapy so the healing had started for me and I was in the middle of the personal growth world in a big way. And that was very exciting.

I liked the idea of bringing together a community of people who want to change things, be it themselves or be it the world. Back then there wasn’t really a voice for that, or a way of connecting people – there was no in-house magazine for that basically. So, I decided to start one!


What did the first Spark look like?

It looked like some strange religious magazine because we didn’t pay any attention to the cover really and it was very thin. It took way too long to get out, about a year. I knew it was a great idea and I thought everyone would really get what we were trying to do – not enough people did at that time and so we lost money. I went into a depressed state of “I haven’t got any money left, I’m lost, what am I going to do?”. Then a group of people came together and said “Look it is a good idea and we’ll help you” and that was a real gift. If there hadn’t been a whole bunch of people on the second edition it would have folded.


What’s been your biggest achievement?

The Spark is the obvious one – being able to move from very dark days to a place where we are, as a magazine, helping people to change. The other thing I’m very pleased with is the culture we’ve created here at the office. Having worked at some pretty grotty places before, it was really important for me to apply the principles of the magazine and show that the possibility of change also works at the business/work level.


Biggest mistake?

Not taking certain risks that we probably should have taken. Having lost money once I was always slightly scared of expansion. We’ve done some fairly big cock ups too – printing the previous autumn’s adverts in the spring issue, that kind of thing. But we’ve been good at holding our hands up and saying “Look, we’ve messed up and are really sorry” – in fact, one of our apology letters has been used by a corporate advisor as a perfect example of how to handle business mistakes!


How do you relax?

I like laughing! I go on lots of walks – I will quite often spend a long time walking with my camera looking for photographs and that slowing down and being aware of what’s around you is slightly meditative and very refreshing.


What drives you mad?

The total i-Podery that seems to be the norm these days. You see people walking along wearing baseball caps, sunglasses on, i-Pods in their ears, using their phone and I think to myself “Where is your part in being an active citizen on the street? Where is you part in making the street safer?” Also, dangerous driving makes me angry. I’ve very nearly gotten into fights about selfishness on the road.


What gets you into trouble?

The above! I’ll sometimes have a hot rush when I see people throw litter out of their cars, I just think “How dare you!” and I have been known to go over and put it back into their vehicle.


What was the last cultural event you enjoyed?

I went to see Golden Door at the Watershed last week. It’s a film about immigration from Sicily to Ellis island in New York and is beautifully shot. Glad I’m not a peasant though.


What’s your favourite book?

The book I love showing people when they come to my house – and I do a lot of that I’m afraid – is called The Power of Ten. It’s about the science and structure of the universe and it zooms from the enormous to the miniscule, so you get photos of the galaxies and the Milky Way, right down to an atom in someone’s hand. It makes you think “Bloody hell we are lucky to be alive given that most of the universe doesn’t support life”. We’ve got this fleeting, tiny bit of life and that’s staggering – what are we going to do with this gift?


What will issue 100 of The Spark look like?

Well, who knows - more web-based of course. But we are working on our new web stuff already. And fairly soon I guess we need to welcome the next “beardwearer” to buy The Spark, and take it on to who knows where, but to be sure it will be exciting


What has life taught you?

That, on the whole, we have a choice about how we live our lives. There’s a Milton quote isn’t there, something about “The mind can make it heaven or hell” and I agree with that. I’m not saying that it’s true for everybody, but generally we do have a choice about how we view things and what we do about it – we can make it grim or we can decide to change and try and make it better.


What do you want your readers to take away from The Spark?

The idea that there is always the possibility for change and that you don’t have to be stuck. So many people just get trapped and live a life of quiet desperation – there’s something stopping them living their life to the full. The Spark is not about telling people what to do, but hopefully it is about opening up all kinds of possibilities for making the changes you need to make. My dad died recently and it made me realise all over again that life is short, it’s a gift, let’s try to use it well…



Interview by Fiona McClymont

First published issue 50 (Autumn 2007)


Disclaimer – details were correct at time of going to press, but may now have changed. Please make your own checks.


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