On being a letterpress printer

William CaxtonFor some reason, I decided I wanted to be a letterpress printer in the mid 1970s.  Being a letterpress printer, autodidactically, is a baptism of fire.

OK, you got the press, you got the forme, you got the reglets, you got the type, you got the text. Surely all you do is assemble the type, use the quoins to put it into the forme with bits of wood and that, apply the ink and press, press and press again.  No such luck. My first attempt was a disaster.

Quel catastrophe. I learned how to put the letters of the alphabet, all made of a lead alloy, upside down into the instrument of mass journalistic destruction, five lines at a time, separated by lead for the lines and lead as spacers, all beautiful fonts designed by Plantin, Gill and the rest.  And came up against a huge dilemma. The fonts are “type high”. That’s a type lie.

Apart from the fact that unless you had a Linotype machine you were condemned to buy more and more fonts, again and again and again, letterpress printing on a small press, at least,  is not a matter of pure pressure. As the rollers turned and the form with a page of lead in hit the press, it took hours, days to get the print to print regularly. Basically, you made an impression, and then got little bits of paper to make sure the so-called standard bits of lead delivered the right impression.

My first impression was really not very good at all. I printed an edition of 200 copies and sold them all, but I was very dissatisfied. These days you can buy Khephra Press books at a considerable premium.  Even a SOTHiS postcard costs £20. The Wild Ass is £23. One of my better attempts at hand letterpress printing.

Over the next two years, my technique improved but as I was  a solo letterpress printer, another problem presented itself to this solo printer. I could not afford the fonts. In those days, in the mid 1970s, you could actually go down to Fleet Street and buy whole trays full of the fonts you needed. But as I had a cash flow probbo at Khephra Press, I swiftly realised there was only one thing I could do. After I had printed two pages, and put them on drying lines, I had to carefully disassemble those carefully made pages in the form with the reglets and that, and start all over again. Then there was the paper that you had to choose carefully – and the pagination. The printed sheets had to dry before you could print and print again. That gave you time to disassemble the forme and start filling the quoin again.

In this way, at the Khephra Press, I think I put together eight or nine books – a labour of love. Or perhaps just a labour.

Being a letterpress printer is being like a top notch bricklayer – every piece has to fit together – if it doesn’t work out right, you have to disassemble the whole lot.

I do not regret one single bit of putting together a book bit by bit. It taught me patience. Although I should have had more sense.

The first book I created was Aleister Crowley’s Leah Sublime. The edition was my first experiment, so much so that I created a second edition which built on the first.  Meantimes, David Hall, Jan Bailey and myself were creating a magazine, SOTHiS which is still remembered. And produced using offset litho and then rather modern techniques of printing… and then there was SOGAT, NALGO and the National Union of Journalists (NUJ).

I flogged my books to the bookshops interested in the sort of books I was printing. One of these was The Equinox bookshop, owned by Jimmy Page. The big problem I had – as I hinted before – was that you had to buy all the materials up front and then wait for the bookshops to pay up. This sometimes took some time. The Equinox, once, rather than paying, invited me to take the value of my invoice in books.  The Equinox also took multiple copies of SOTHiS magazine and produced editions of occult books.  A negative review of one of these books led to the chap running the bookshop cutting out the pages with the negative review before putting them on the shelves for sale.

In this way I managed to get hold of Sir John Woodroffe’s English digest of the Tantrarajatantra.  This, I guess, was 1976 or so.  I am still struggling to translate the Tantrarajatantra, nearly over 40 years later. It is written in beautiful Sanskrit and I am only any good at ugly Sanskrit.

This text has been, for me, one of the most important in my development.  It is a fusion of Indian jyotisha and severely impressive practical spiritual values – it is so shakta that even your dad is a form of the goddess. I’ve explored some of these ideas on www.shivashakti.com. I was still a member of Kenneth Grant’s OTO at the time – but in 1974 I had had a spiritual experience that jolted me so much that my being was yearning towards India.

I am often asked why a technology hack – that’s me –  is interested in India. It’s too hard to explain so I fall back on the excuse that my Uncle Mac, in Ballater, used to run the railways in the Bombay Presidency. His house was jam packed with Indian curios.  My dad’s Hindustani was more than passable and he told me this  story once. When he was in the RAF in India, on sentry duty, a sadhu came walking in his direction. “Halt! Who goes there”. The sadhu explained that this was an ancient track that he and his kind also took, but my dad, with bayonet drawn, refused to let him pass.  The sadhu cursed him and said that because he refused to let him pass, his second son would become a sadhu.  I haven’t written about Dadaji yet.  Life is interesting.

Still, I found the craft of putting books together most interesting and satisfying, if not financially rewarding. I did a great deal of jobbing printing too.  Now that a font does not consist of a collection of “type high” alphanumeric characters, you can tote them all around on your iMad or your PC.  The fonts I still have require really heavy lifting, a relic of the past dot com.

5 responses to “On being a letterpress printer

  1. I feel really lucky to have learnt letter press when I was at school, a few of us who go down to Shinners Bridge and learnt printing. I remember having to slowly lay up text upside down and back to front out of these hugs cases, carefully using: those thin strips of lead, to balance the line etc.
    I was terrible, I was so slow, being so mentally ill that I thought that Marvin the android was lucky probably didn’t help. I just wish I had done what Jasper had done and learnt how to do hand stitched book binding, the problem with learning now is – who is there still around that teaches it?

    On Sanskrit, did you know about the work at Oxford to automate translation of Sanskrit, and the uploading of numerous Sanskrit texts. I hope I have that right, I was talking to someone about it at Combibos, (IMHO the finest purveyors of the bean in Oxford) http://www.combibos.co.uk/ , a couple of years ago, so I may have got the translation bit wrong?

    Btw do you ever go to the digital editions meet up on the 2nd Friday lunchtime at the Maddening Crowd? Its been a while since I was last there, so I could have missed you, but I love going as its nice to talk shop with digital publication specialists from various parts of the University, Google etc.

    OK I not a Journalist or work in publishing but the complexities of preservation of knowledge is, in itself, interesting, especially if we are going to avoid a digital black hole about our time is a 100 years or so – as Charlie Stross has blogged about in various spaces

    As ever still loving the writing, thank you for taking me back to Shinners Bridge, I wonder if when the hackspace is bigger I can find someone to teach a course in hand stitched book binding….

    best wishes
    Big Kate

  2. PS Or perhaps some people might be interested in learning letter press at the Hackspace?

    PPSI suppose we could go on and learn to use and fix Gestetner’s, which IFAIK still cheaper to repo than on than lasers, I just wish I knew my old one was? I used to use it back in the days of APA’s, big heavy beasts they were for all their small size. And I can remember getting these purple pages of notes from my teachers when I was at school.

  3. I had a Gestetner, Big Kate. And also still the family if it can be called a family has, in Harrow, an AB Dick litho printer. Also I got fonts too heavy to carry. Great to hear from you. Jan Magee is/was an expert silk screen printer.

  4. last time I was here I forgot to leave the signup page for the digital editions listserv – it has a very low frequency of mailings


    this weeks session has been moved back to 1.30pm because of
    > What: Stories from the Desktop *(aka The Dog Ate My Homework):
    > **editing /Reviews in History/*
    > Who: *Danny Millum* (Institute of Historical Research
    > , School of Advanced Study
    > at the University of London
    > ) is the Deputy Editor of /Reviews in
    > History /.
    > When: *12 noon, Friday 14 March, 2014*
    > Where: *Conference Room, Oxford eResearch Centre
    > , 7 Keble Road, Oxford OX1 3QG*

  5. I just found a few Khephra Press titles (The Wild Ass #5/150 & The Yezidis) on ABEBOOKS and ordered them. I would love to find a full set of SOTHiS at a price I can afford.

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