Peter Coleman: Melbourne auction brings flood of memories

Don't get me started on printing history. The catalogue of this month's Melbourne Museum of Printing auction draws memories like adrenalin.

Not that I go back to when Gutenberg and Caxton were boys.

I grew up in a print shop; the family archive includes a picture of a schoolboy me standing beside a Heidelberg platen, and I hasten to explain that the substantial bandage on my finger had anything to do with the busy little press.

Not that it wasn't a dangerous place to be: I spent school holidays casting headlines on a 'mickey mouse' device my father and a colleague had created from a stripped-down Model 4 Linotype, and was selling to neighbouring newspapers; get the mats in the composing stick in anything but perfect sequence and you were in line for a spray... of molten lead. Four parts of tin, 11 of antimony (or was it the other way around?) to harden and expand characters... and painfully hot.

And lead, bringing its own poisonous risks.

Ottmar Merganthaler's Linotype was a brilliant device, replete with springs and cams and levers that combined to assemble, cast and distribute a line of type (line-o-type, get it?) but it wasn't perfect. As witness the splatter of lead on the ceiling, 3.7 metres above some of the linos, presumably shot there when the pot plunger came down to cast a line.

When I returned to the family business some years after my father's death, it took a while for it to dawn on me why the occasional sad small mouse one saw warming itself near the 4.5-tonne pot of the Pony Autoplate wasn't prospering. And to question the office practice of gathering there to drink tea, sometimes stirred with a slug of type.

But let's start at the beginning, wherever that was. My dad had a print shop when I was still or three or four, with a stop-cylinder letterpress machine on which he was printing a local guide he had written. I don't remember much about it, other than my school was really grateful for all the spoils we were able to donate to the art class; and that we left town after a disastrous fire burned the inadequately-insured place down.

So let's start in Sheerness, UK, instead, where my father took a job as manager of the local newspaper, soon discovering that the London publisher which owned it planned to sell or close the outpost. He managed an asset-swapping deal which needed five legal beagles around the table, but delivered my parents the newspaper while requiring that we move out of the shop-and-flat which was being sold to a national radio and cycles retailer who was a growth trajectory after the introduction of TV.

Which meant the jobbing printing and bindery kit had to go, at least that part not being taken over by a local printer. There were hand platens and other gear, much like the stuff being sold from the Melbourne Museum; some of it driven by huge belts which curled over a lineshaft running in bearings high on the wall. I don't know what happened to them, other than that a Linotype or two got new individual electric motors - such luxury!

For my shame, I still remember burning boxes and boxes of woodletter in the back garden of our home.

The rest of the newspaper - offices, composing room and presses - had to squeeze into a two-storey building down an alley between the shop and the adjacent Woolworths variety store.

The linos went upstairs, literally, and had to be taken apart for that purpose, and a steel pillar - five shillings (25p or A$0.47) if I could climb to the top (but only the first time!) - installed to keep the floor up. I felt a special connection when a rare new Linotype Fleet 54 - with all the options including paper tape reader and weighing two tonnes - arrived on my birthday... and its ignominy in being taken apart to go upstairs the same way.

The machined steel 'stones' on which letterpress newspaper pages were made up, were also upstairs, and with the press downstairs, you can guess the calamity if a forme broke or was dropped on the way down.

Before the sophistication of electric ones, the metal pots on the linos were heated by gas. That meant a clever system with a converted clock face, in which a weighted arm fell at the appointed time to light the flame.

Great if the pilot hadn't blown out during the night, and also if hot, airless weather didn't mean the lino ops were fainting all over the place... as happened once for my distraught mother when my father was away.

Gas had been a feature of production in the pressroom too, but an old Wharfedale like the ones you see in museums but driven by a gas engine, was soon headed out of the door. That left us dependent on an only slightly newer L&M Centurette, which had a habit of throwing parts at the wall on press days, the local welder on standby to put it back together. And a Cundall folder on which the twice-printed sheets were folded before being hand-collated, at least partly, before being sent out to newsagents.

I've written extensively about the significance of the Cossar web-fed flatbed press which simplified this process for neighbours such as the Kentish Gazette, where comp-turned-systems-salesman David Page (who now lives an hour away from me on Queensland's Sunshine Coast) recalls taking fully-collated papers off the fly.

Two of the last half-dozen Cossars in the world are in New Zealand, and GXpress has been campaigning for a home to be found for them.

Our own advance on the printing front was to come later, when my parents bought a 1930s rotary letterpress from the Evening Post in Bristol. I have been looking for the drawing books in which my father drew detailed illustrations of each unit and part, before taking them apart and having them trucked to Sheerness.

Except that a heart attack meant he couldn't help unload the 60 tonnes of cast steel which had been despatched... something which was left for my mother to attend to.

My only role in the subsequent assembly was to clean and paint steel bedplates on which the press stood, its feet like a gangster's victim, cast in concrete.

It was still there when I came back to help my mum after school and a couple of years working as a journalist at a daily newspaper in Portsmouth. Some things hadn't changed: lead plates, minimal pictures - which had to be driven to a neighbouring town for engraving, the plates sent back by bus in time for press runs - and the little grey mice I mentioned earlier.

We tackled pictures with a Polaroid Land camera, and later had a second attempt at making a go of the Fairchild Scan-a-Graver, which etched halftones on highly-flammable blue plastic which we them stuck with double-sided tape directly onto the press stereos. Like the little girl with the curl, the electro-mechanical system had its moments.

But teamed with the Polaroid camera, it meant we could shoot and print a picture in minutes... leading to the great joy of publishing pictures of the winners of the local baby show - sponsored by the rival newspaper - almost a week before they could!

Offcuts and failures went into a treadle bin, half filled with water, and every so often we would take its content to my mother's house - which adjoined the village cricket ground - for "disposal". Which meant burning it on the inevitable bonfire.

On one occasion, loading too many bits onto the pile caused a pillar of white smoke which would have put Lot's Wife to shame... and was followed by a roaring flame which, as I recall, interrupted the practice match which was taking place next door.

Around us, the industry was changing, so when contract print customer Export Times wanted an 'all-Times' typographic dress, we were able to pick up the lino founts for a song at the clearance auction of a rival who had switched to offset.

These days you'd have looked to Ebay or Gumtree to find headline type, but without the budget for Ludlow or Nebitype founts, we tried using loose type (crushed under the mangle) and engraving Scan-a-Graver plates from proofs of the headlines, an unsatisfactory arrangement which led to us losing the job.

And by degrees, to our switch to offset ourselves. Which is a story for another day.

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Members Opinions:
November 14, 2019 at 4:34pm
And that's part of the problem with nostalgia. It's not only not what it once was but there's so much of it. When you get started you can't get back to where it all began.
I spoke with Michael Isaachson in Melbourne this week
and couldn't help but feeling he's paid too high a price for saving the past.
I look forward to further installments of the Peter Coleman story.
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