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  • Theatre and Concerts

    May20 My dear friend, Barbara, invited me to a play reading at the Roundabout Theatre Company. The play is by Greg Pierce and is entitled: The Decoys. the storyline has, as a base, the tale of the two escapees from a high-security prison some years ago. They engineered their exit with the help of electric tools supplied to them by a prison guard who was also the girl friend of one. I seem to remember that one died, somehow, shortly after the escape and the other recaptured. I do remember that the girl friend was arrested and charged. However,the main theme of the play seems to be the conflicted emotions of father and son. I found the reading, interupted by scene settings by the Director, somewhat rambling and difficult to follow. My short-term memory failed to reinforce my imagination.
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Ch 1. 26 Soldiers of Lead

Here, then, are the sketchily remembered events shaping the passage of an ordinary man who has reached the years of reflection. A man who, not so very long ago, would have been described, perhaps with some deference, as an elderly gentleman, but nowadays, has attached, the faintly amusing label, ‘senior citizen’—complete with politically correct care instructions on the reverse.

Not that this is of any moment. I mention it only as an explanation of a certain disjointedness one may find in the following narrative; of the occasional square word jimmied into an otherwise reasonably rounded sentence. We elderly are subject to an acute feeling of combined dismay and angry impotence when the mind, after years of effortless retrieval, begins, inexplicably, to draw blanks. When, having had revealed to us in a blinding flash of understanding, a universal truth, distilled like a dying star into its very essence, it slips from the grasp of memory just as it was about to be immortalized—To hover for a moment or two, tantalizing, fractionally beyond memory’s reach, before going off to play hide-and-seek among the myriad piles of dusty trivia stored in the attic—rarely to be recaptured. The problem, I have concluded, stems from an unwonted development of an over-inquiring mind at an early age. Such a mind sooner or later overloads its memory banks and whatever is selected for archiving today pushes out some other record further upstream. What is so disconcerting about the process is that it is totally beyond the control of the one in charge. Happy are the incurious.

This is what I looked like at 14 years of age

However, my difficulty with letters and words began a long time ago. It started with what, in those poetic days, were called ‘The twenty-six soldiers of lead’. It is not clear to me now who coined the phrase—one of the newspaper barons, no doubt—but it symbolized the crusading power of the printed word. The twenty-six soldiers were, of course, the lead-cast letters of the alphabet which Compositors of that era lovingly formed into words and paragraphs in their composing ‘sticks’. Shortly after my fourteenth birthday, I was apprenticed, as a Compositor, to a Mr. Handley, proprietor of Pickett Bros., a local printing company in an eastern suburb of London, near where my family was living. The title ‘Compositor’ was a relic of the typographic guilds dating back to Caxton perhaps, but even in my day, it was indicative of the jealously defended craft secrets and privileges of a craft Guild. It denoted, at once, the pride of craftsmanship and the superiority of its members in the printing trade. The term ’typesetter’ into which it later evolved, merely described the mechanization of the work– A process which quickly stripped the craft of its art and, therefore, its intrinsic value.

One only became a Compositor after seven years of practically unpaid bondage to a Master and those who had suffered through it were certainly not going to give up the mystique of initiation easily. Sadly those Compositors who refused to acknowledge that the privileges of craft had become an anachronism in our mass-consuming world, discovered, with bitterness, that the ever-increasing pace of change had by-passed the need of them–and had left them with an unmarketable skill.

I should mention, before the chronology becomes impossibly entangled, that the firm of Pickett Bros. was not the first establishment into which my father attempted to place me. Taking the advice of his peers, he found me a job in the office of a prestigious Printer situated within the one square mile limits of the City of London. His object was to have me working there in any capacity so that, on the off-chance of an apprenticeship becoming available, I would be on the spot to seize the opportunity. Alas, it was not to be. The job of work I was to perform was not exactly in the office, but in one of the corridors leading up to it. There, a table and chair had been set up for me by the side of two enormously fat and intriguing pipes. One had an opening cut into it and the other was fitted with a narrow door.

My basic work was to interleave countless sheets of black carbon paper between equally countless sheets of white letter paper—“SHINY side down and NO smudges, mind!” commanded the twenty-year old wardress. But the really important part of the job was to watch the pipes. Which I did with mounting anticipation. Sure enough, a great ‘swoosh’ and a ‘plunk’ heralded the arrival of a leather tube at the opening of the first pipe. My task at this point was to remove the tube, undo the end, take out the papers secreted therein, smooth them out and place them carefully into the tray marked “IN”. I would then have to take the papers from the tray marked “OUT”, stuff them into the tube, replace the top and, with a frisson of excitement, open the narrow door in the other pipe and pop it in. Where it went and on what mission, I know not, and, while I cannot remember being overly concerned with the condition of my memory banks at that time, I did not inquire.

Fascinating though the job was, I wished fervently that that my fortune had been to be apprenticed to that particular printing firm. By reason of its location within the city walls, I would have been entitled to become a freeman of the City of London and in that capacity entitled to carry a sword within its boundary. The hoi polloi would have to leave theirs outside the Bar of London and would be at my mercy.

I did not own a sword at the time and, to tell the truth, did not know anyone who ever did. But I had seen the movies and knew the deportment. I imagined myself swaggering through the Underground; hand on hilt; my blade protruding from the back of my Compositor’s apron. Hearing the feminine cries of admiration and the masculine cries of something less than admiration as I wended my jaunty way through the forest of thighs and buttocks, which is mainly the view of the traveling public my short stature allowed me in those days.

Sadly, my employment with the prestigious firm came to an abrupt and ignominious end less than two weeks after it began. And, once again, fate played havoc with my less-than-towering stature.

It was the duty of all employees (some two hundred souls) to record the time of their commencing work and of their leaving it. This process was known, appropriately enough, as “clocking-on and clocking-off”. It was achieved by means of a time machine which consisted of a huge circle of numbered holes, each one sacred to one employee, and a pointer which swung from the center of the circle. Attached to the end of the pointer was a stud which fitted neatly into the holes around the perimeter. The stud emitted a satisfying ‘ding’ when pressed into one of the holes.

One would think it a trivial matter to swing the pointer round to an assigned number and press the stud into its allotted hole? Not a chance! My number was at least twelve inches beyond my outstretched fingers and there was no way I could use the clock in the overly-disciplined manner my employer had prescribed–But honour forbade I be denied my duty.

I selected holes near the bottom of the circle—not the same one each time—I didn’t want to appear discriminatory. In fact, I lightheartedly put in one or two extra “dings” on occasion just for luck and to show that I felt at one with the world.

They had no need of a detective agency to discover who it was had thrown their accounting system into complete and utter disarray. The chaos erupted immediately after I began my labours there and my assigned number was the only one free of any blemish whatsoever. My father was asked to take me away as soon as possible.

My new master, Mr. Handley, had two attributes as far as my father was concerned: He ran a unionized printing house and he was short of twenty-five quid (Pounds sterling, that is). Being “Union” was important because the indenturing of apprentices was governed by an agreement between the Federation of Master Printers and The London Society of Compositors. An agreement which not only ensured the control of labour into the work force but also ensured the adherence to established practices in the trade.

Being short of money was equally important at that time because, in spite of the Trade Agreement, which limited the intake of labour to the sons of journeyman Compositors, places were almost non-existent. Masters were allowed only one apprentice for each six journeymen employed by them and at the end of each school year, Compositor fathers began a frantic and mostly futile scramble to put into bondage their utterly mystified offspring. The sons of the unsuccessful ones did not have a trade and were left beyond the pale—perhaps, to languish for ever in a dead-end job!

A slightly unethical solution to the dilemma was for the parent to find a small printer without a quota of printers’ devils or, indeed, the slightest desire to be encumbered with one, and to persuade him, with a premium (as an under-cover bribe was known), that the short- and long-term benefits of taking on his son would be to his advantage. If successful, the lucky son would emerge seven years later with an unanticipated advantage over his rivals. For, although he would not carry the cachet of a renowned printer’s product, he would of necessity be a master of the whole trade rather than the narrow specialist which the large establishments tended to produce. As a result, he would later find himself able to exploit a much wider field than his specialized competitors. Mr. Handley was disposed to be persuaded.

For me, Mr. Handley had one remarkable and all-absorbing attribute—his teeth. He was not blessed with a full set but the ones he did have were absolutely fascinating. They hung down from his upper gum like a row of yellow-brown twiglets and, marvel of marvels; he could move them in and out at will with the tip of his yellow-brown tongue! This is what he did when he caught me staring at them in goggle-eyed, open-mouthed wonder. I remember being scared out of my youthful wits–scared of the awesome power this super-human was going to wield over me for the next seven years! I was, after all, brought up in a thoroughly British family where the most one did with one’s teeth was to put them into a glass of water at night. Upon further reflection, however, I did have an obscure uncle who played tunes on his with a pair of spoons. I do not remember, though, that he took them out or otherwise displaced them while doing so.

Mr. Handley was a tall, spare man of some five and a half feet. All men were tall in my eyes. Women too. But they were my aunts and mother and didn’t really count. The impression that I was a rare shrub, blossoming among a forest of towering trees remained with me for many years—modified only when I met the Japanese—but that was some years off yet.

In the meantime, my new Master’s first obligation was to assign me a ‘frame’. A frame was a wooden structure built to accommodate about twenty ‘cases’ on runners within its carcass. Cases were shallow trays, the width of the frame, divided into forty or more boxes in which to accommodate the letters of the alphabet, punctuation marks, spaces and accents of a single font. The boxes varied in size according the frequency of appearance of a character in the printed page. In addition, the boxes containing the most frequently used characters were placed nearest the compositor’s hand. The “e” box was the largest and enjoyed pride of place, top dead centre. Cases could be slid out to reveal the glittering twenty-six soldiers of lead in all their wondrous designs–But it had to be done very carefully! Otherwise, the weight of the lead might be too much for young hands and would result in the horrified inquirer contemplating a mountain of hopelessly mixed-up, and possibly damaged, type at his feet. And, worse, to add to his excruciating embarrassment, the noise of the disaster would bring, rushing, a ring of jeering apprentices and lower-class machine minders to watch the Master reprove the culprit. My cases contained the most exotic of type faces—the ones least used, but, to me, the most beautiful.

My frame, like the others, was surmounted, at suitable working angles, by a ‘lower case’ (at my eye level) and an ‘upper case’ (completely beyond my reach). The Master was a perceptive man. He saw at a glance that his new bondsman was not to be the productive profit center that he had hoped without some immediate modification of the environment. With puckered brow and incisors at right-angles, he studied my diminutive frame and the wooden one before me. Then, with an imperious wave of his arm and several flourishes of his teeth, he commanded a small dais to be constructed. One which allowed me to stand, feet apart and firmly planted, with elbows at the optimum position: level with the edge of the lower case.

I loved that frame. Tucked away at the back of the composing room as it was—rejected by the journeymen because of inadequate lighting—I made it my home from home; away from beck and call and from prying eyes. It was there that I hung the badge of office, my yet pristine apron, at the close of the working day, and also the hand-me-down composing stick given to me by my father who had, in his turn, been given it by his father. Behind the upper case I kept my own cocoa mug with its small chip on the edge–given to me my mother. And between the top cases, I secreted the tuppenny comic books that she forbade me to read at home. Many are the happy lunch breaks I spent behind my frame, sitting on my upturned box, with my sandwiches and cocoa carefully set out on one of the type cases higher up, reading proscribed comics. For every-day use, I would pull out the twenty-four point Gill Sans Outline, but for special occasions like my birthday or Christmas Eve, I would grace my repast with an Imperial Script or, perhaps, Perpetua Shadow. What freedom! My very first taste of independence. If I had had any hand in the framing of the “Declaration of Independence” I would certainly have included the inalienable right to read tuppenny comics while washing the down the midday sandwiches with cocoa!

It would not be too difficult, with our current understanding, to diagnose a form of dyslexia as the cause, but, at that period I could not, for the very life of me, distinguish p’s from q’s or b’s from d’s. To add to my difficulty, compositors were required by the mirror-image nature of their work, to set and read words upside-down and back–to-front; thus confounding an already fearful problem. I did not want to appear to be different from other mortals (although I was sure I was) so I kept the knowledge to myself. In retrospect, I find it extraordinary that my father was not aware of the problem. Otherwise, a compositor son would surely have been the last venture upon which to have risked his twenty-five Pounds sterling? I did make some inquiries of the more junior journeymen but they seemed to be quite confident: “In the setting stick” they said “the strokes go to the left or right and the rounds go to the north or south according to whether it’s a ‘d’, ‘b’, ‘p’ or ‘q’”. Another thing I had kept to myself was that concepts such as ‘left’ and ‘right’, ‘north’ and ‘south” as well as a.m. and p.m. were giving me almost as much trouble as the ‘p’s and ‘q’s.

I am, of course, writing of the time when type was composed one letter at a time, the so-called ‘hot-metal’ era. Laymen would be forgiven for thinking that compositors spent most of their time bent over their cases setting type. Not so. At least for the junior ones. Cases, both of the upper and lower variety, had limited capacity and, if the Chapel (compositors of the printing house) was maintaining the standard of good craftsmanship—setting clean copy at the rate of one thousand characters per hour—the boxes in the cases soon became too sparsely occupied for efficient typesetting. Skilled fingers could more easily separate a character, simultaneously turning the identifying nick outwards, from a pile of type than they could from scraping on the bottom of the box among the lead dust. Thus, the boxes needed to be constantly replenished. This was accomplished by a process called ‘dissing’—short for ‘distributing’. It follows that one who ‘dissed’ in those days was not a ‘disrespector’ but a ‘disser’.

The office cat and I shared approximately the same position in the management hierarchy at that time and, as befitting, I was the disser of very first resort. Everybody hated the job. Unlike setting type—a noble pursuit, at once satisfying in its timely accomplishment and educational to boot (one read as one typeset)– dissing was a slow and messy process giving rise to much negative thinking about Masters and the owning classes. The unfortunate disser received the type after it had been used for printing, most often covered with black ink left there by a disgruntled machine minder angry at the twist of fate which had cast him inferior to us compositors. The process of preparing the type for dissing began with the vigorous use of a stiff brush liberally charged with paraffin oil (Kerosene). This brought the type face up like new. Shiny and bright and a pleasure to read again. While achieving this desirable result, however, the black carbon ink, now suspended in copious draughts of paraffin oil, redistributed itself in spots of assorted sizes over many square yards surrounding the place of operation. The nearer the center of activity, the greater the concentration. The disser was, of course, dead centre.

Tears welled into my ink-bespattered eyes when I saw what had befallen my pristine apron. Not so much because of the desecration wreaked upon the virgin cloth, as the thought of what my mother would do to me when she saw it. I resolved, upon reflection, never to take it home to be washed. After all, it served most of its purpose, inky or not, which was to hold in its front pocket, the tools of my trade, my inky handkerchief and, on occasion, a toffee or two to which I had treated myself from my hard-earned pocket money. After a few weeks the apron became rigid enough to stand up by itself. Thereafter, I wore it only when the outside of my working clothes was less grubby than the inside of the apron.

Having prepared the type, I was ready for dissing. An expert disser lifted several lines of type from the galley on a brass rule the width of the column, and balanced them on the thumb and first two fingers of the left hand (The more expert, the more lines). From the uppermost line he gingerly removed seven or eight characters, depending upon the sizes of type and thumb. These he dropped off one at a time into the appropriate box, having first memorized the layout of the case. The layout of the case followed the aforementioned general rule: The more frequently used the character, the larger and nearer to hand the box. The ‘e’ box was largest and was in the center of the case. The ‘d’ box was considerably smaller and the ’b’ and ‘p’ boxes were half its size. The ‘q’ box was only half the size of these and was tucked away in a remote corner.

Expert, I was not–even with the diagram of the layout pinned in front of me by my attentive Master. This inescapable fact was brought home to me with something of a shock when I saw the diminutive ‘q’ box overflowing into the surrounding characters while the ‘d’ box languished with only a character or two in its much vaster space. Even the ‘p’ and ‘b’ boxes appeared strangely anemic. I was puzzled by this at first. Had Caxton got it wrong? Perhaps there were more ‘q’s in the English language than he had thought? One word sprang immediately to mind—‘queue’. A word which played a large role in my life of servitude then—there was no ‘p’ or ‘d’ in that word I felt sure! But doubt began to assail my confidence. I examined the overflowing ‘q’s more carefully. North, south, left and right. Who could tell? These directions seemed to change with every turn of the type in my fingers. Caution and my sense of uniqueness prevailed. In the interest of good order, I sprinkled the overflow equably among the other characters, giving a nicely balanced look to the whole case which I then replaced in its rack.

I, as indeed, did the rest of the workforce, became aware of something seriously amiss when a great roar of anger emanated from the frame of the Father of the Chapel (The senior compositor). It seemed that his fast and faultless typesetting had produced nothing but strings of mindless invective! I shrank behind my comforting frame, for the invective appearing in his setting stick was nothing compared to the pithy epithets exploding from his mouth. And they were all aimed in my direction!

This event took place when psychiatry was still a working-class joke (‘anyone who went to a psychiatrist needed his head examined!’) and I knew I would not be able to plead a broken home. Summoning my resources, I pondered my options; whether to quickly don my apron and so put an extra layer between my tender behind and any boot about to connect with it, or, slip out the back door to give reason time to prevail. I opted for the latter, but resolved that my uniqueness had better not include the confusing of ‘p’s, ‘q’s, ‘b’s and ‘d’s in the future.

I was not alone among apprentices in my distaste for dissing. It is said that an island which appeared just below Blackfriars Bridge was made of lead type–thrown there secretly by students hurrying home from The London School of Printing which was housed just south of the river Thames at that time.

But soon, setting words into type and composing them into pages became my passion. My fingers were nimble in spite of a nail-biting habit which, I was convinced, was inherited from my mother’s side of the family. Very shortly, I built up a speed of accurate typesetting and began to take a great joy in drilling the twenty-six soldiers into ideas and information. I began to compose advertisements in ever-inventive ways so that the Father of the Chapel (FOC) himself began to require that I assist him on the cream of the Chapel’s work which was his privilege. The advent of cheap, mechanically set type and layout specialists were shortly to put an end to the Compositor’s craft but, in our small printing firm, we hung on to it longer than most.

Craftsmanship is not a word which could have described the tasks required of me during the beginning years of my apprenticeship. In the early days, I swept the shop floor clear of dust and paper

cuttings, cleaned the type cases, fed paper into the hand presses and, indignity of indignities, made deliveries to local customers on a bicycle fitted with a great wicker basket over the front wheel–Something I hated as passionately as dissing—most especially those trips to the electric light bulb factory. For there, I was required to deliver newly printed cartons directly to the bulb packers at their benches. These workers were nearly all elderly women of eighteen or so years of age. Experienced and brash, their language fell upon my innocent ears like a load of jagged rocks. Their descriptions of the private parts of my body, which I thought they were not supposed to know about, had me blushing from head to foot and the swagger I affected as I wheeled the bicycle through the factory gate turned into an embarrassed shuffling before them. I swore they deliberately asked the Master to send me on their down days so that they could have their fun at my expense and add cheer to their dreary lives. I was not too embarrassed notice, though, that while the packets of cartons I distributed were of different designs and blazoned with different brand names, the packers seemed not to be able to tell the difference—they packed the same bulb into whatever brand of carton I left in front of them. I wondered about this for many years thereafter.

As the months went by, I gradually got the upper hand of the packers. I came to realize that I had a powerful weapon in my grubby little hand—the printed word! A weapon which had brought down many a haughty lord or lady in their day. In truth, it was not so much the actual words which I enlisted for my defense as the condition of the ink in which they were printed–I learned that by giving the wettest cartons to the sauciest women I soon had them all vying for favours. They hated, more than anything, to get their manicured fingers begrimed with the stuff which, to me, had become life’s essence. They would mouth their appeal to me: “dry ones?” And upon my nod, would indicate with a glance their offering. Many’s the toffee or cream bun I came away with later on. But it was still a chore I was glad to pass on to the junior apprentice. Being very careful, in doing so, not to explain about the ink.

There was one job, however, which excited me a great deal and my heart leapt for joy when Mr. Handley first ordered me to perform it (and, later, left it up to me to repeat it as necessary). It should be understood that the equipment of the grossly under-funded Pickett Bros. was far from the cutting edge. In those days, I hardly knew one kind of factory from another, but I had been taken on a visit to the Ford motor car factory in Dagenham, Essex, when I was still at school–I think that the idea was to get the next generation of factory fodder used to the idea of the mindless automation which was beginning to be developed by big industry. And, by comparison, I gathered the impression that Pickett Bros.‘ equipment was downright Dickensian. I would not have mentioned it to anyone, other than my father, perhaps. I was too proud of my indentures (Contract of Apprenticeship) and my printing office was better than anyone’s!

All the firm’s hand-fed printing machines were placed in a single row along the back wall of the building. This format was necessary because they were each driven by a continuous leather belt running around a long shaft, situated above them, and the drums attached to their driving shafts. The long shaft ran the length of the wall and was driven by a large electric motor. The shaft and the motor were permanently coupled by a wide leather belt so that the shaft was always turning when the electric motor was switched on. The drums on the individual machines, however, were split—half fixed to the driving shaft and the other half free to idle. A fork-like gadget fixed above the drums allowed the running belt to be coaxed from the idling drum to the fixed one when one wanted the machine to operate and vice versa to stop it. Each machine was fitted with a heavy flywheel, commensurate with its size, to even out the speed of operation. The momentum of the flywheel kept a machine running for some time after the power was removed so that the larger ones needed to be braked with a lever and leather pad running against the edge of the flywheel. For the smaller machines, a calloused hand on the flywheel would suffice. The unevenness of the power supply was largely caused by the leather belts misbehaving in some way. They would stretch or tighten according to the humidity in the atmosphere, or would just plain tire and lose their grip. They would whine and squeal and often snap themselves in two and leave their machine powerless.

The cure for all this nonsense was a measured dose of treacle. I don’t think it was treacle, although that’s what my Master called it. It might have contained some molasses but there certainly was included some natural oils and soaps to replace those lost by the leather in its hot run around the shafts and to help it regain its suppleness. As soon as I heard the squealing, my job was to run to the ‘treacle’ tub, dip the dolly stick into it and apply a liberal dose of the sticky stuff to the offending belt. It could only be applied to the ‘up’ belt, mind! If, by accident, the dolly touched the down belt, the belt would grab it out of your hand and chew it up between the drum and itself. The result of this would be a broken belt whiplashing everything in sight and the possibility of a severe injury. But not to worry, I had become a master trainer of belts and brooked no bad behaviour on my watch. What was fascinating to me was the pattern of the sticky sound, which was not unlike that of modern Velcro when it is ripped apart. One could alter the sound by daubing smaller or larger amounts of the substance at smaller or greater intervals. The first daub was silent until it reached the upper shaft which picked up diminishing amounts around its diameter and transferred them to the ‘down’ belt. A pattern of ripping sounds delighted the ear as the ‘down’ belt began to transfer its daub pattern to the lower drum. But music was not the objective as Mr. Handley so often pointed out. Saving the belt from breaking, was–so I continued my daubing until the sound was continuous and even.

The printing machines fascinated me too. Although it was unthinkable that I would become a “machine-minder” (synonymous with “lower class” in the printing trade), the Master had no compunction but to use me in any capacity he thought I might manage. As a result, I spent more time in the machine room in the early years of my apprenticeship than I did in the Composing Room, which, by the way, was situated along the opposite wall of the building and separated, in part, by the boss’s office, which was a wood and glass structure rather like a gazebo on stilts. The later gave the Master a superior 360 degree view of the work going on in the place. But, conversely, it gave us young printers’ devils the ability to know when he was out of the office and could safely continue our war with the ‘machine’ side. For ammunition, we used torn up pieces of old inking rollers, preferably still carrying their coating of sticky black ink. Great wars we had, dodging behind frame and machine!. But only pride, aprons and overalls suffered because the rollers were made of a soft and resilient material. It became my job to re-cover the worn out ones.

Each of the platen machines both the hand-fed and the two automatic ones was equipped with a spare shaft for its inking rollers, no two alike. In addition, the manufacturers supplied a bronze tube the diameter and length of the roller required by the machine. Under the scrutiny of the Master, I would centre the shaft in the tube, melt some blocks of a hide-glue and oil concoction and pour it into the tube. When the substance had solidified, I would slip the newly minted roller out of the tube and present it to the appropriate machine-minder, hoping that all had gone well. If the shaft was only a tiny fraction out of centre, the roller would quickly disintegrate in use and unpleasant consequences would ensue. The job of the ink roller was to pick up a supply of ink from the ink duct, transfer it to the ink plate and spread it with an even coating. The ink plate rotated or reciprocated with each pass to facilitate this task. When the ink plate was evenly coated, the machine-minder would lock the machine ‘chase’ in place and the inked roller would ink the type ready for the impression cycle. In theory!–Owing to the very cautious nature of the Master, I was not allowed to use 100% new material to re-cover the rollers. Instead, I was to augment it with cleaned up pieces of used rollers. These had a different melting point from the virgin material and hardened at a different speed, resulting, often, in ugly, indented rollers which hardly rolled at all! Far from the ideally smooth-skinned ones which routinely produced a clean printed page, they left patches of un-inked type and their useful life got shorter and shorter the more often the old material was used in their making.

The ink rollers of the one flatbed machine the firm owned were far too large for amateur re-covering and were sent away at intervals to a printer’s supply shop to be done. This machine was a lumbering ‘quad-crown’ monster. It could print a sheet of paper up to 30 x 40 inches in size and as many as 32 pages at one pass! It was the first machine in the row, next to the drive motor and its belt was wider than all the others. Its flywheel must have weighed several hundred lbs. and the rumble of its operation as its massive cast iron bed moved backward and forwards, followed by its five foot wide inking plate, was awe-inspiring. It was not used all that often because Pickett Bros. had already begun to specialize in carton printing for gas mantles and electric light bulbs and smaller advertising work rather than booklets and magazines. But we did have a contract with the local cinemas and the machine was ideal for short runs of posters. This was another source of joy for me because I was allowed to compose the great wood-letter types for overprinting the film titles and dates when the film would be showing. I used a 20 inch long wooden stick for this work and was encouraged to use my imagination so that succeeding posters didn’t become a bore to read. Some of these wonderful wood-letters were ten inches tall; some fat; some thin; some ornately carved with squiggles and dots; some morose; some light-hearted. But all malleable to my idea of the mood of the film which was to be shown the following week. I loved manipulating them. I could put spacing material between them to emphasize freedom of spirit or squeeze the narrow ones together for tension—when I was working with wood-letter I felt nearer to Caxton than I ever did with the single nicked machine-cast type that the Master was beginning to out-source!

But I digress. The flatbed machine could print paper or board at more than 1,500 sheets an hour, but output was limited by the skill of the feeder. A ream of paper would be placed on a flat board at the end of the machine. From the edge of the flat board, a feeding board sloped down to the bottom of the impression cylinder and it was the feeder’s job to waft a sheet accurately down to the front lays (Protruding guides) before each impression cycle. If the feeder was not satisfied with the lay of the sheet, she could depress a pedal and the impression cycle would be aborted. If a sheet was not placed accurately at the front lays and the grippers of the impression cylinder grabbed it out of line, it would be creased on its way round at the very least. Worse, it might be mangled on the type and cause an unscheduled cleanup by an offended machine-minder.

I say ‘she’, because feeding was a delicate job and it was though that only females could master it. Feeders equipped themselves with coveralls to ward off the paper dust and rubber thimbles to ensure a grip on the stock; they would fuss over the ream before starting to feed the machine. Making sure the edges were properly broken after being cut to size and, ever so slightly, bending the nearest corners upwards so that the air needed to waft the sheets down to the lays would flow underneath them as each was lifted. When the feeder had found her rhythm, the sheets would flow effortlessly and match the rhythm of the machine.

The rhythm of the machine was echoed in the movement of the feeding board which rose to the grippers and fell on each impression cycle. The weighty feeding board needed to be removed on occasion, when, for instance, the minder wished to examine the type below it. To facilitate this, the board was equipped with four phallic handles, two on each side. It follows that the foremost handles moved up and down with the rhythm of the machine. The Journeymen, ever delighted to see me blush, were quick to point out that the feeder always stood in a strategic position when the machine was running smoothly. After all, there were no I-Phones to divert the ladies in those days!

The next machines in the row were four or five platen machines of various sizes. A platen machine has an upright type-bed of cast iron and a padded platen hinged along the bottom so that it can close up and press the padding lightly against the type at each impression cycle. The movement is called “clam shell”, but the machine, when it is running, looks more like a gasping fish. All the apprentices were trained to print customers’ leaflets and cards on these machines. First, one would take an impression of the type form on the padding in order to see its position, then insert three bent pins into the padding so that the paper would be centered over the type. In operation, the machine opened during the inking cycle allowing time to remove the printed copy with the left hand while, simultaneously placing a fresh sheet up to the pins. Before printing, however, the platen had to be dusted with talcum powder so that the impression on the platen would not be repeated on the backs of the copies. I found this job exciting. It wasn’t in any way creative but it did have an element of danger. The machine operated at about 1,000 impressions per hour and every time the platen closed, a bar would rise smartly from its top edge to displace any fingers which might be lingering there. But there was always the temptation to rescue an errant sheet and many’s the time a wrist or finger has been trapped between the safety bar and the top of the platen on its downward journey.

The last hand-fed platen in the row had its own power—a treadle. It was the smallest and not only sported a finger guard but a toe guard as well. The only limit to the output of this machine was the stamina of the treadler. I often worked it up to manic speeds with no hope of stopping it in time if things went awry. Ah! The foolhardiness of youth.

Next to the treadle platen were the two automatic machines. They were of little interest to me because they were jealously guarded by their minders and I was not allowed near them. I was intrigued by the mechanics of the ‘Kobold’ automatic, though. It used a kind of windmill feeding system. Rows of suction pads on one arm lifted a blank and held it high, ready to plunge it into the platen when it opened, while the other arm retrieved the printed copy. It was used mostly to overprint the pre-printed and pre-shaped cartons. Die-stamping had filled the crevasses of the cardboard with paper dust, and faulty creasing often allowed ends to flap. This machine could produce at a rate of 5,000 per hour in the ordinary way but this stock required frequent stops and must have been a nightmare for the minder. Fascinating to watch, though.

Last in the line was the guillotine. Placed along the end wall, at right-angle to the other machines–it needed space all around it. I feared it more than any of the other machines. Its maw was five feet wide and a great razor-sharp blade was locked into it with a row of wedge-headed bolts. I always had the feeling that this system of securing the blade was intrinsically unreliable and that there was a good chance of the massive blade dropping out and chopping off my hands the moment I put them into the maw to place or retrieve a ream of paper. Fortunately, the Master rarely trusted anyone but himself to cut stock to size. It was too valuable to risk careless trimming—most customers were quite satisfied with perfectly square work. Few, preferred the quadrilateral shapes that the lighthearted work of the apprentices so often produced. The guillotine had its own source of power and, at that time, it was me! I transferred the power of my bulging muscles to the flywheel by means of a handle attached to a point near its outer edge. It reminded me of my mother’s wringer and the time when she trapped one of my fingers between the rollers–scarred, both physically and emotionally for life. But that is part of another story. When the Master was satisfied with his placing of the paper, he would lower the great clamp by means of a threaded stock surmounted by an iron bar with a heavy iron ball at each end. The purpose of these weights was to give the clamp momentum when it was lowering so as to pin the paper piles tightly between it and the machine. When he gave the word, I would apply myself to the handle with such gusto that in short order, I could feel the flywheel getting ahead of me and pulling me around. Once, the out-of-control handle caught in my apron and tossed me clean over into the cuttings pile! During the waiting times I would often daydream. I associated the guillotine with the French revolution, not just because of the name but also because I was avidly reading Dickens at the time and “The Tale of Two Cities’ affected my youthful emotions immensely. When the squeal of the sharp blade sliced through the innocent paper, I imagined, instead, a row of heads dropping to the floor!

The building Pickett Bros. leased was not the most suitable one for a Printing Office. It was part of an old livery establishment and we occupied the space that had originally housed the horses. The floor was cobbled and sloped downwards from each long wall to a runnel the length of the building. This was bad enough for the Compositors who had to make sure that their frames and ‘Stones’ (Flat cast-iron tables) were reasonably level and secure, and had access to ‘chase furniture’ and ‘quoins’ (Wooden wedges) to correct the levels in their domain. But the machines had to be treated seriously. If their bases were not anchored to a level surface, the vibration they generated would soon have them shifting their weight dangerously. In fact, I was astounded, one day, to see one of the automatic machines, a Heidelberg self-feeding platen, lose its automatic feeder completely. The feeder could be swung away from the platen half of the machine on a very substantial cast iron hinge at the back of the machine and a steel ball-bearing wheel at the front. The wheel ran on a semi-circular channel attached to the floor and bore the weight of the freed feeder. Vibration and the uneven floor caused the channel to slip lower so that, when the minder threw back the feeder to change type, the cast-iron hinge snapped like a carrot under the weight and the feeder continued its way down the shop damaging itself and everything in its path.

I was growing up. No longer the butt of the Journeymen, I became the senior apprentice and was producing stylish work. My life outside the office was changing, too. My trusty Raleigh bicycle was proving a vehicle of independence. It allowed me to start camping away from home on the weekends and even, to my mother’s horror, at Christmas time! I joined a cycle Club, The Hackney Wheelers’ I think it was called and, on Club outings, sported the uniform of black shorts and red and black striped socks. A uniform which made me look younger than I already was and once shocked Mr. Handley when I had to cycle to work directly from one of the outings. He said he was afraid of being accused by the authorities of employing an under-aged child! Places like Southend-on-Sea, a cockles and mussels resort at the mouth of the river Thames, and Epping Forest, where my camping friends and I could practice our Robin Hood skills, were within easy reach. Incidentally, there was (still is, maybe) a pub in Epping forest called “The Robin Hood” much frequented in those days by professional boxers. Many of them famous, but my memory doesn’t recall any of their names, I’m afraid. And at sixteen, I had a girlfriend—here is a photo of us together at Ramsgate, a sea-side resort on the east coast.

Her name was Peggy. How we met and parted I have no idea.

Mr. Handley was falling upon hard times. His management style of delivering a small portion of a customer’s order, collecting the charge for the whole job, then spending the proceeds on the paper and electricity necessary to complete other customers’ work was pioneer pyramid accounting. It endeared him to fewer and fewer customers. The Electricity authority discontinued his credit service and installed pay-as-you-use meters for the machinery and lighting circuits.

I was nearing eighteen, wise in the ways of electric light bulb packers and Father of the Chapel lording it over two junior apprentices. For the Master had gradually to let all the journeymen seek employment elsewhere. War was looming and I had joined the Territorial Army. The end was nigh for Mr. Handley’s Pickett. Bros. In the dead of winter, we remaining employees were huddled dispiritedly around the single stove, feeding it with pieces of rubber cut with a hack-saw from discarded car tyres—tyres filched from the garage next door. There was an order to be to be worked upon and paper enough to complete a fair portion of it. We had hoped that the Master would be able to wheedle a substantial advance upon it so that we would be paid our meagre wages, but gloom pervaded all. With lamentable timing, the shilling in the machinery meter had run out and the press was forlornly silent. Mr. Handley had, by this time, lost his fearsome authority and most of his remaining dentures. He could still wiggle a tooth or two but the result was no longer awe-inspiring and hardly worth the effort. As had become his customary ploy in such circumstances, he whispered in the ear of each of us in turn to enquire whether he could borrow a shilling until he went to his bank. We watched as this played out—knowing full well the outcome. We had not only become wise to the ways of light-bulb packers but also to the Master’s empty promises to pay back his debts. Disappointed, he had gone off to tap an unsuspecting victim among his acquaintances.

Our first indication of impending trouble came as the winter’s early darkness fell. The strident bells of multiple fire engines came nearer and nearer and now were at our very entrance! We threw back the sliding door and, to our utter dismay, there faced us, an array of determined firemen, hatchets drawn and hoses at the ready. Beyond them the atmosphere was black with an impenetrable oily smoke which, we were led to understand by the outraged firemen, covered the greater part of the township. Explanations were short—we were merely trying to keep ourselves warm. But the threats of official retribution against us and the firm for safety violations were very loud and, perhaps, real? About this time Mr. Handley returned, his face a contradiction of triumph and hurt. His hand held up a triumphant shilling but how could we land him in a soup so thick that it might take all the shillings in the world to extricate himself from it? His troubles were only just beginning.

He was placated somewhat when we told him that we would work overtime for no extra pay for as long as it took to complete the order in hand. This was not unadulterated altruism—we wanted our wages. With humour restored, we slipped the shilling into the meter and the press began to purr, preparing to get on with its job. Joy marked each anticipating face, master and servant alike, as the first copies of our wages provider came off the press. The joy was short-lived—the shilling in the light meter ran out!

Pickett Bros. of Ilford, Essex was sold for its debts; I was called up by the Armed Forces; I never saw Mr. Handley again!


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