… and of the contemporary attitude toward manual labor

At around 15 years of age, as I’m sure I’ve said before, I was bound apprentice as a hand compositor; that is a tradesman who assembled in a composing stick individually cast letters, making of them readable lines of text. Each line of type had to be justified – whether it was centered, set flush left, flush right or full out – so that the stick could be turned upside down without the type spilling from it.

Once the stick was full, the lines were transferred to a galley then assembled with rules, quads, reglets and leads into pages of whatever format the job required. A proof was pulled – and before I could use the proof press I had to learn to pull proofs with a mallet, block and damp paper – corrections made and the page locked with quoins and furniture into a chase suitable for the machine on which it was to be printed. Once in the chase, the page or pages became a forme.

The founder of the small jobbing printer to which I was bound had been very active in Freemasonry and the firm kept on hand a supply of standardized stationery which was overprinted on demand to suit the requirements of every masonic lodge in Western Australia. When I was considered proficient enough to be trusted at the case, the compartmented tray which held the type, I was given the job of resetting the stock program used at masonic functions. I can still remember the thrill I felt as I carefully set the front page in 12 point Ulmara Text (F T Wimble & Son’s Australian Type Foundry), centered on 18 ems.

I can’t reproduce it correctly here, for the closest typeface (not font) I have to Ulmara has no long s, but I was shown by the tradesman responsible for my education where thorn and long s should be used – and why the “ye” was incorrect in Ye Olde Tea Shoppe – and thus was born a love affair that has raged ever since.

I also learned why the youngest apprentice was known as the Printer’s Devil, and why in shops big enough to have a trade-union representative he or she was called the Father of the Chapel.

There was another side to being the Devil. For two years, until an apprentice press operator replaced me in the pecking order, I was at everyone’s beck and call. It was my job to clean the toilets or bathrooms or dunnies or whatever you want to call them; I ran errands for the adults, delivered small parcels and, for those who didn’t bring their own, collected lunch orders from the little sandwich bar around the corner.

Every Thursday, the blade on the guillotine was changed. The dull knife, about three feet long and 20 pounds or so in weight, was bolted to a protective wooden cradle and I’d hoist it over my left shoulder and march down High Street – Fremantle’s main thoroughfare – into Dixon Street and then along the Esplanade to the saw and knife doctor. Along the way I’d be greeted and chiacked by seaman and lumpers (wharf laborers), shopkeepers and fishermen, girls from the offices, banks and other businesses and even the odd bag-swinger if it was late enough in the day.

The journey took me past 19th century limestone buildings housing firms whose names echoed Fremantle’s maritime heritage and awoke in me dreams of tall ships, blackbirders and the spice trade: Burns Philp & Co., whose schooners once plied the Pacific and South-East Asia and whose founders were involved in the nefarious blackbirding trade; Craig Mostyn, the great fruit exporters; McIlwraith McEarchan whose ships traded between Britain and Western Australia. Then there were the seafarers’ hotels: the Orient, the P & O where the drinkers were mostly ships’ officers and local businessmen along with working girls a few rungs up the social ladder from the bag-swingers – street prostitutes – in the pubs frequented by ordinary seamen and lumpers, pubs such as the Terminus and the Cleopatra where, on  Saturday nights just a few short years later I played guitar and sang to the accompaniment of a piano played by one of the prostitutes – illegally I might add, for I was not yet 21.

In hindsight, it was a strange sort of existence. Still a child, I was working in an adult world, one in which everyone older than I was Mr, Mrs or Miss until I was given permission to address them otherwise. But I learned, oh how I learned, soaking it all up like a sponge. I was taught typography right from the basics: “Slab serif for the welding shop, copperplate gothic for the architect, cursive for the hairdresser, Gill Sans for the barber”. For the almost six years I was indentured, I learned everything from the history of the trade to punctuation and grammar. It was a compositor’s responsibility to correct clients’ spelling and grammar and curb their worst excesses when they suggested unsuitable typefaces for their jobs. Even the smallest printers had a small reference library back then: an Oxford Dictionary, government style guides, both State and Federal, a Bible and, perhaps most holy of all: Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers at the University Press Oxford.

I also learned from a woman bookbinder about life in London during the blitzes, about life as a prisoner on the Burma Railway from “my” tradesman, about bombing raids over Germany from Ron, one of the partners who owned the business, and from one of my instructors at Technical College where I went once a week for trade theory. Ron’s father told me about the futility of war, a lesson he’d learned the hard way among the horrors of the trenches from 1914 to 1918, and I was told personal histories of bitter labor struggles by the lumpers and seamen who I spoke to on the docks during lunch breaks or while fishing after work.

Where am I going with this? Well, it perhaps explains why I shudder over t-shirts and tattoos with slogans rendered in Blackletter capitals; over home-produced dodgers with six lines of type, one in Chancery caps and the other five each in a different face. It’s why words like historicalness drive me to distraction, why illustrations facing outward from the page leave me cold and clammy, and it’s why I’ll never eat in any establishment offering omelets or scrambled egg’s. It’s the reason I fume over business cards with the main line out of optical center and why printed announcements lacking one of the golden four – who, what, when, where – render me speechless; well almost so.

There’s something else here, too. There’s no real apprenticeships these days, only traineeships a couple of years long and entered after graduation from high school. Eighteen is too old to begin learning a trade, you’re an adult – or think you are – and so less malleable, not to mention considering yourself above things like running errands and swabbing out toilets. By that age you’ve acquired a bit of knowledge but you haven’t learned much, and it’s probably too late to begin gaining an understanding of the value of menial labor and those who undertake it, or to begin to discover the true meaning of humility.

On the wall above my bulk – workbench – was a framed memento given to me by my tradesman, the ex-POW, when ill-health forced his retirement. It was a sheet of vegetable parchment on which was printed:

A craftsman is someone who cannot help doing what is given him to do better than others think worthwhile

That is why I care about the things of which I have written here. I was taught to do so.

Frank Povah

Frank Povah

Arriving in the USA in late 2008, Frank Povah moved to Stamping Ground, Kentucky in mid 2009. Passionate about the written and spoken word and constantly bewildered by non-verbs and neo-nouns, Frank trained as a typesetter - though he has worked at many things - and later branched out into proofreading, writing and editing. For many years he has been copy editor, consultant and columnist with a prestigious Australian quarterly along with running his own editorial and typesetting business. His other interests are many and include traditional music, especially that of the south, folklore, natural history, and pigeons.