In the past I’ve written about some of my days at the former Nottingham Trent Polytechnic as a young apprentice compositor in the print trade. Those days were bitter-sweet in many ways but as is often the case with these things, the pleasant and funny memories tends to shine through of good friends and times, rather than the tension and worry that accompanied and often characterised that era.
Very much the flip side of that period were the days spent in my regular job as an apprentice compositor at the small jobbing printing company where I was gainfully employed for six or seven years.
As a school leaver I had little clue and even less instruction in how to begin a career. I recall having vague dreams about being a journalist, working with words, but that was about it. That faint notion was dashed on the rocks of indifference emanating from school and my own parents. For the best part of my first year in employment I somehow became very happily employed at Trent Bridge Cricket Ground on the ground staff – a job I loved and enjoyed – but which sadly died in a round of job cuts for the then-stricken Notts County Cricket Club as Christmas approached. What followed was probably the worst three weeks of employment in my life at a gents outfitters in Nottingham named Horne Brothers.
As an extremely shy young teenager I was ill-placed for the job of trainee salesman afforded me in the slightly up-market city centre store. I died a death or two in there and remember vividly, counting every single quarter hour chimed out through the days by the Nottingham Council House clock, ‘Little John’. What a relief it was when I was informed that my services were no longer required after my third Saturday in the job which had seemed to last at least four days alone.
Shortly afterwards, a break came along in the form of an apprenticeship offer in the print trade and being opportunistic by nature and relishing the idea of ‘working with words’ I grasped the chance and in May 1976 began the long road towards being a journeyman compositor. It was not an auspicious start however.
My very first task on my nervous first morning was to unravel a huge mountain of page cord – special twine that was used to tie loose lead type characters together. This was certainly not what I had expected and I seem to recall this task lasting several days into my first week. What a huge disappointment it all seemed after all the talk of operating industrial cameras, developing film and all the other interesting aspects of the job I had been promised. I was very quickly about to learn what the term ‘paying your dues’ was all about.
The weeks went on with many of the worst and dirty jobs being given to me, the new apprentice. One classic was sweeping the floors and separating the lead type which had been dropped on the floor, from the vast amount of cigarette ends, so that it could be re-melted in the Monotype Caster machine molten pot or sent off in sacks to be weighed in for credit. The last task was set as a punishment for not complying with a senior work colleague’s command for me to set the type for his ‘foreigners’ – illicit private jobs which were carried out on the side by certain workers for their own profit.
It wasn’t all maudlin and grief though. There were some great and very funny moments when looking back at what was a fairly bizarre working environment at times. During the 1970s everything ‘went’ at work and the working days were often interspersed with many a wicked practical joke and just general moments of sheer lunacy. I recall one day walking into work at 8.15am and seeing two printers operating small Multilith printing machines dressed in full bear outfits, the remnant of last night’s fancy dress disco. At lunch time we marched down to the main road shops with them in our midst and stopped the incredulous traffic so that the bears could go for their fish and chips ‘picnic’.
The characters were many. In the machine room was a foreman who was clearly still living during WWII. I recall a fellow apprentice being instructed in the finer arts of bayonet use up against the canteen wall with the aid of a pool cue by ‘Lenny’, his thin, cruel moustache all a-bristle in a serious ‘Dad’s Army’ parody. They don’t like it up ‘em son.
Another employee, a guillotine operator, who as anyone with a faint knowledge of the print trade knows are the industrial equivalent of the goalkeeper or wicket keeper (a hint of madness being present) owned the world’s largest collection of pornography which he jealously guarded. He also appeared to own the global record for the most consecutive days use of a work shirt without troubling the laundry load, though I did come across others contenders for this dubious crown in subsequent years unfortunately.
Another character was in the habit of including two hard boiled eggs in his lunchbox each day. The same exact daily routine would occur of the eggs emerging and him cracking them open lustily on his knees simultaneously. That was until ‘someone’ replaced them with two raw eggs one day…
I have dear memories of Neil and Albert, the only two other names I shall mention here. Neil had been the apprentice compositor just prior to me and was a great mate, a good help during my early floundering and a superb footballer who I appeared to share an almost telepathic understanding with during lunchtime games of football in the car park. Albert was quite something else and I often still think back to his wisdom and the things he taught me. No longer with us, I owe him a lot for he taught me the right way to do things and passed on years of expert knowledge and mastery of the trade and life in general which not all journeymen did in those long ago days.
Being a compositor in those days was an exacting business. I recall inquiring of Albert, who was probably as accomplished a ‘comp’ as it was possible to be, one day, whether I would be able to ‘get away’ with a shortcut or two on a job I was typesetting by hand. His answer? ‘There is only one standard, Stuart’. His meaning was clear, that there should be an uncompromising attitude towards the work and that to learn to do things exactly correct with excellence was the way forward. It was an invaluable lesson for me as a seventeen-year old and one that I’ve remembered ever since. This was but one recognisable interchange but there were so many over the years.
The owner of the business himself was something of a madcap character though looking back, a very decent man. Imagine someone with an overwhelming case of ADHD and wearing a huge voluminous dress shirt and expensive but ill-fitting pin-striped suit that buried his thin frame. He also wore those bracelets on his upper arms that hold the sleeves of one’s shirt up, something I’d never seen nor have since. His father had been the chairman of one of the local professional football clubs in Nottingham and was chiefly famous for signing a world class England centre forward in ~Tommy Lawton for the then lowly team. Interestingly some of the fifties artifacts of that amazing deal were to be found stashed away in draws in the factory.
Many of my early days in the job were blighted by being banished to the caster room to operate the Monotype Caster machine. This piece of fairly remarkable engineering was over a hundred years old at the time and was subsequently to find a home in a museum in Wales as newer technology rapidly came in. In the next door office was the equally extraordinary Monotype Keyboard which ran on compressed air and needed the muscles of a weightlifter to punch the keys on the multiple alphabets on display. In a piece of justified type matter, every single line end would require a reading from a spinning drum to be made and a calculation submitted to share the correct amount of space out between each word. Just think about that when you’re next using Microsoft Word.
The end product from the keyboard was a scroll of perforated tape which would then be submitted manually to the caster. The caster would then ‘read’ the configuration of the perforations and via about four million moving bits, turn a pot of molten metal into lines of type made up of individual letter characters. Looking back it really was a tremendous piece of early technology which had at the time replaced veritable armies of compositors setting type letter by individual letter. Although very satisfying, I hated the job, mainly because of the conditions. The room was tiny and made of drab breeze blocks with a tiny slit of daylight coming through a window which looked onto some drab and lifeless flats. The huge cacophony of noise from the caster would reverberate around the brick walls and sear into my brain, in spite of the large ear protectors I uncomfortably wore in the oppressive heat. Due to the great noise created by the machine, the door to the tiny room always had to be closed in order not to disturb other worker’s concentration. This would play on my claustrophobia and add to my private hell.
There were legions of stories about caster machines and most of these were of what we called ‘splashes’. If you can imagine molten lead being hurled at your bare skin you can begin to understand how fearsome this could be. Most of these incidents caused minor burns but stories were many of caster operators emerging dazed and disoriented from the vicinity of a caster covered in ‘suits of armour’ from a wildly spinning caster with molten lead, antimony and tin flying several feet in every direction.
Some light relief was added with the very welcome lunchtime football games in the car park which would invariably be set up as ‘Comps v The Rest’ and using upturned wooden pallets for goals. Scores, tables and leading scorers would be kept and it was all a fairly serious business. So serious was it that I managed to have the guillotine operator sent to hospital with dislocated fingers because of a crash landing on tarmac after a particularly physical body check by yours truly. Nobody seemed to mind, including importantly, the guillotine operator it was all part of the fierce rivalry.
Time moved on and so did the print trade. The little company began to see lesser days and it was time for a few people to leave, myself included. The redundancy call came as something of a shock but of course it was the right thing, it was time to move on. Occasionally I receive a brief reminder of those days by bumping into an old work colleague. This always gives me a warm feeling. Another more curious occasional reminder is when I see lead type, setting sticks and cases of type on display at craft and book fairs and museums. It really does seem like another world to me these days but nevertheless brings some pleasant memories hurtling back.