22 January 2011

Review: The Adventures of the Gutenberg Boys (of Edinburgh)

A good memoir is one that takes a reader into a different time and place, and in which the scribe is the least of the story, there is so much to experience and so many surprises otherwise. So it is a supreme irony that this memoir that would take its place with the best of them (and by 'the best of them', I include Era Bell Thomson's American Daughter, Adewale Maja-Pearce's In My Father's Country, and B. N. Jubal's The Smile of Herschale Handle) in my heart and physically, in my bookcase, is only able to take its place in my computer, served in a shit-on-a-shingle Kindle presentation.

(I've called it a memoir, but it never mentions the author,
he who must have been the invisible elephant in the room.)

The irony is that one must suffer the presentation (I read my Kindle edition on my PC) to find out that this book by Ian Boyter is not just a sharply focussed picture of being young and randy and working in Edinburgh in the early 1960s, an engaging story with a fine sense of humour similar to that of Bruce Robinson and J.P. Donleavy (before he imitated himself)—but a unique and detailed description of printing that would be engrossing to all lovers of books of the kind created physically by people who cared about how a letter looks on a page, and a word, and the relationship between letters, words, lines, and the white space on the page.

This book could be used as an enjoyable reference by people who love type, paper, layouts, and look back with longing at the philosophy of say, Dard Hunter. We wish that every publisher today knew what should constitute a paragraph (Adventures doesn't sin in the common Kindle way, which chokes the lily by indenting each paragraph, and spacing between them just to make sure. This is as correct as adding an extra zero in numbers of more than one integer, just to make sure.) Adventures could be loved (in this edition, through gritted teeth) by people who hate Kindle, and who wish that all publishers would own, and use references for book lovers such as Robert Bringhurst's The Elements of Typographic Style. (more about Kindle in my next post–I've got my own relationship with the devil and my books, but hypocrisy gives spice to strong opinion.)

The Adventures of the Gutenberg Boys describes the life of the men (and yes, they were men) who made those books back when type compositing was a brutally physical and a maddening finickity job, with mallets swinging and blood spurting from crushed hands, and those same hands wielding tweezers to set a 6pt Bodoni full stop, or shave the swell of a "b" from a "bugger" that someone snuck into a forme as a joke. This is a story of a time back when leading and kerning and actually reading what was in a forme—even though, to a reader not in the trade, that type would be inscrutable as a mirrored equation—gave unusual and uncelebrated levels of knowledge to the anonymous skilled specialists in a number of related trades that no longer exist.

Back when the Cuban missile crisis was a matter of a wager amongst them, the Gutenberg Boys were apprentices to a quality printer in Edinburgh, a bookish town that should rightly have a publisher that should be putting out and promoting this memoir that is as unflinchingly truthful as an illegal wiretap. This book should also be reviewed by History Today.

It's a truly rollicking read, and a visceral one. That the author isn't writing-degreed, but has juggled several careers including professional jazz and visual arts, shows in the storytelling. It's untamed, irrepressible, and fresh; and the best part is the totally unacceptable (by modern standards) faithfully recorded speech. It's probably no accident that Boyter's favourite novel is a screenplay, as this memoir would make a movie reeking with great dialogue, and wicked fun. I'd like Steve Barron to direct it as well as he did the unique and vastly under-appreciated Rat.

Here's an excerpt from The Adventures of the Gutenberg Boys.
The paper store was an enormous brick-built warehouse building on three floors descending from ground level into inky blacknesses accessible by a goods lift or by concrete stairs. It was far enough away from the main printing works buildings to provide good cover for any dubious activities you may wish to pursue out of sight and sound of the gaffer. A great place to sleep off a hangover, for instance, high up on a soft pile of paper reams. Or if you wanted to read the sports pages you could do that too. If you had a band to rehearse, well, it was made for it.

Blackie was playing a couple of controversial chords in quick succession on his battered guitar. This piece of junk had only four strings and they were tuned C-G-D-A like a tenor banjo. He could really only play the tenor banjo, but the bandleader, Collins’s father, Davy (bass kazoo), caseroom pressman, poet and impresario of impeccable musical taste, preferred the sound of the guitar.

At the sound of the two lost chords, Clark’s Krazy Kazoo Band disintegrated with dissonant toots of rage. The band, ten strong, turned with steel in their eyes and tin kazoos in their mouths towards Blackie, the only musician in the rhythm section. The other member of the rhythm section, Murray, (washboard and thimbles) was playing brag with embezzled money in the storeroom.

“Zazzzooot, zezzeezz, zozoooot?” zooted Davy furiously. Then, remembering to remove his kazoo from his mouth, repeated: “What the hell was that, a flattened third? We’re supposed to be playing ‘In Apple Blossom Time,’ no’ ‘Scrapple from the curséd Apple!’ Forget all that new-fangled bebop, will ye Blackie? We’re rehearsin’ for the Chapel Outing, no’ the Blue Note Café. Charlie F Christian!”

The Chapel was the printing trade union operating within the printing works. These inky printers were carrying on the function of monks of earlier, pre-printing times. They didn’t have a Shop Steward; they had a Father of the Chapel. In days of yore, only the religious scribes who hand-copied holy texts in beautiful uncials and sloping italic scripts could supply the fortunate few with books. When Gutenberg invented his system of moveable, re-usable types, he mechanised the way bibles were manufactured. Mass production was born.

“It sounded more like a flattened turd to me,” chipped in Davy’s son (second soprano kazoo), “or even a demented seventh. Or maybe it was a demolished ninth.” He always had something constructive to say, and for a high-note kazoo player he certainly had a convincing grasp of musical theory.
and another:
Blackie’s heels had mysteriously sprouted spurs. It was Monday, he was on his knees, up inside the maw of a huge printing machine and he was imagining that Big Murray the dim-witted machineman would forget he was there, press the on button and pull a proof of him. The forme of type that he was kneeling on would shoot forward at hellish speed carrying him under the huge, rotating cylinder and he would be flattened and pulped right into the hot metal pages of Dante’s Inferno. When he was a message boy four years before, he had read R & R Clark’s hardback edition of Dante’s riveting best seller while waiting for the caseroom gaffer’s bell to ring. Dante’s imaginary horrors did not compare with the actual possibility of him becoming an integral part of the paperback edition.

Clark’s No 1 machineroom was an enormous factory building with opaque windows high up in the pitched roof, letting in the only daylight. Long lines of fluorescent light units hung from the roof struts, casting a harsh glare on the rows of pulsating printing machines. The light was bright so that the printers could check the tonal density of the ink as printed sheets of paper came flying on to the delivery pallet at up to ten thousand an hour. The machineroom was where the profits were made, or so Gogs Peters, the works manager said. But the compositors disagreed. Try selling books with blank pages. Scobie, the burly, bullet-headed machineroom foreman, striding up and down between the machines, officiously wielding his Biro and clipboard, ruled the room with a bully’s swagger. A compositor in his machineroom was a cowboy in Indian territory. To Frank Scobie, a compositor was no more than a necessary evil, something annoying that was preventing his precious machines from running non-stop.

“What’s the fuckin’ problem, Blackie? You’ve been half an hour in there already. Extract the digit, will ye. You and Professor Bell between ye are costin’ me money,” he shouted above the din of the machines. Blackie pretended not to hear. He was feeling less than sub-human. Breathing a foul mixture of printing ink and naphthalene fumes and picking away at the type with his tweezers, replacing bashed letters and doing the last-minute alterations to the text, he had been doggedly trying to forget that he had ever seen the two-inch single-column article in the Saturday edition of the Edinburgh Evening News two nights before. A cold dread had entered his soul. Maybe Murray should just press the start button and put him out of his misery.

Lothians and Borders Police have today issued a warning to look out for forged tickets . . .

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