Michael Punt


He collapsed suddenly from a mild stroke as, at the end of the day’s work, he swapped his brown apron for the jacket in his locker. He was three weeks away from retirement. It was an evolving working life, and he had responded the technological changes in the processes at the same printers for nearly forty years. He had lived through the way that printing had changed from a craft acquired through a long right of passage bring together a dozen trades to a single process that required the sorts of skills picked up on games consuls in heated bedrooms. When he was little more than a child, he got up at six and left the house with a lunch wrapped in newspaper to spend the day running up and down between the typesetting benches and the compositors’ desk carrying copy and fetching proofs.2 There were about fifteen desks in the main typesetting room, each accommodating three compositors and six type cases. They worked in silence writing stories backwards by taking individual letters from wooden trays and spacing them out in metal composing sticks held in the palm of their hands. The desks were lined up either side of, and at right angles to, the main imposition benches where their work was assembled into pages by stonemen. More typecases were stored underneath these benches and nothing but the formes were allowed to be on the top. While the compositors stood in shirtsleeves wearing brown aprons over waistcoats, he had the ill-fitting castoffs and wore a paper hat so that he could be seen over the tops of the benches. It was a good job for a fit boy. There were long hours, but there was a sense of a collective effort, a good light and reasonable heating. There was also the promise of a trade if things worked out. The apprentices looked grand to him as they carried type cases in pairs to the compositors with a bit of swagger because it was a relief from the tedious days distributing the individual letters that had been so carefully ordered by the compositors to make words, back into the wooden cases where they made no sense at all. Some of the boys, who seemed more important, helped to prepare blocks that were later cleaned and returned to a pot of hot type metal that was always ‘on the boil’.

As he progressed at the job and found his way around, he picked up the skills and pace of the work. There were new measurements, magical processes, and strangely satisfying objects to handle, and although there was much repetition, the pressure from the compositors whose daily imperative was a steady speed and the print deadline, meant that the days sped by. Speed and accuracy were the currencies of his environment, and he was soon recognized as a quick learner with a natural and economic precision. The journeymen, who were rapidly becoming outdated by hot metal typesetting were by this time paid by the page, and they got to like him as a reliable and intelligent runner who could be trusted to anticipate what would be needed next. As a consequence, his first encounter with the metal came quite soon when the apprentice who usually helped with the stereo machine was badly burnt and he was told to help while he was away. He pressed wooden blocks into hot metal and got to know that what he was doing was called dabbing.

It was no hardship. From his first day the ‘dabbing’ machine had a fascination for him in the mystery of the process: pressing wood into molten metal seemed like magic. Mostly there was only the gentle clatter of type as it was passed from case to composing stick. Like the babble in a public house, it was a noise that at a certain critical mass lost all singular identity and became a sound of its own. Aside from the occasional shout of “Boy” (which meant him and always made him jump) the sharp clicking of the dabbing machine was the only sound that was not a direct result of the interaction of man and metal. The special warmth around the machine (a comfort in winter but less welcome in the summer) promised a hint of the unusual. In an environment in which type was always on the move confirmed the unmoving pool of molten metal at its core confirmed it as an alien entity. Sitting among the levers it had the calm deep menace of a snake’s eye. Nothing worried it but when it was ready to be poured it flowed across the pan and waited and waited until it could take the impression in its grip with such effortless detail that it was there forever. In this placid state it looked like an object that had been with us for eternity, a part of reality showing no sign of its dangerous heat. Its new brightness invited the forgetful touch of even the most experienced hand (which is how the boy got burned so badly). Now it was his turn to resist the hypnotic stillness of the hot type metal.

Metal and paper dabs were undermining the craft of the compositors and so he became a little less popular than before (and his replacement was also not as quick, and this affected their bonus). But he had an honest charm and continued to be liked by most he worked with. As it turned out it was a lucky break since it placed him well for training with the emerging hot metal processes and, subsequently, phototypesetting. So, he stayed with the same printers, worked hard, made some money, and began to acquire his own clothes, even a jacket and shoes that fitted with good soles for the concrete floors, which helped him catch a girl’s eye: he lived a life as a printer. In short, after a lucky turn of fate he got his papers, married, raised a family and now he was dying.

The ambulance (of sorts) came, and a man and a woman carefully turned him onto his side, gave him some gas and an injection before gently easing him onto a stretcher. In his semi-conscious state, he remembered something from a film: a man face-down in the swimming pool Funny how gentle people get with you once you’re dead the voice said.3 Soon he was being taken through the rush-hour streets (in fact following his usual route home but faster than usual). Without warning it was suddenly quieter and the ambulance stopped moving. They must have been at the hospital. A woman who was not an ambulance driver, took over whatever was being done and he went to sleep.

Meanwhile, the sight of a small pile of type metal ingots, barely covered by his apron in his open locker, encouraged a fellow compositor to close the door and snap the lock. The ingots of metal had a token value when a short-lived bonus scheme was introduced 20 years ago, but since they could not be taken out of the works, they had become a worthless inconvenience concealed in the personal lockers of the printers.4 They were hostages to the binary of paid work stuck in limbo. The men did not need them to boost their notional output any longer, but the accountants could not acknowledge them in the balance-sheet. For a moment they were in plain sight and the imperative to conceal them to maintain the illusion of a secret trumped all decency and the lock was snapped. The rest of the contents comprising intimate items including a spare jacket, street shoes, a thermos flask and some odd bits of type were locked up with them.

He had spent his life in one place and the funeral at the Catholic church in which he had been confirmed, had married, and had christened his children, was reasonably well attended. Materials were in still in short supply and his coffin was made of cloth covered secondhand pine. A few cars ferried the family, but most mourners walked or came by bus. All wore black with the exception of a woman with faded red hair who wore a slightly unfashionable dark green ‘swagger’ coat. The pews filled up in sequence as groups arrived which produced a natural spacing. Couples sat together more closely than perhaps was usual for them in a sort of orthographic ligature against death. Those who were recently bereaved managed an asymmetrical spacing as though leaving a partial gap for the absent partner on one side or the other, while singletons, like the stranger in the green coat, radiated a confident dominion equidistant between their neighbours. He would have enjoyed that variety in the spacing as the bodies spaced themselves to neatly fill a line to the end. He would also have preferred a cremation and a Latin Mass. The cleric, who knew the family well (and also would have preferred something more traditional) spoke of a devoted father, husband who was popular with his workmates and respected in the community. There was no recognizable distinction and no mention of his son whose death in in the snow had broken his heart.5 It was all fairly straight forward except when the cortege was obliged to stop at the level crossing gates for a steam train pulling empty flat wagons to cross the high street. For some reason the wait seemed interminable as though either something had gone wrong with the funeral or that his life had been badly timed.

In time the printers he had worked for became too old fashioned to carry on and was declared insolvent. A combination of changing taste, technological possibilities, and a general tendency for the past to be adumbrated by the present made it easier to close the business. The few men (and two women) who had worked there for many years simply did not turn up one day. Its assets were auctioned off to specialist concerns and retro-designers. Fonts that had served for a century were sent for scrap, while the type cases took on another life as chic accessories for clubs and bars along with the marble imposition benches and high stools. The dabbing machine whose deceptively malevolent stereotypes had been the cause of his lucky break was lifted into a skip along with everything else that did not fit the new context that this alien technology found itself in. Finally, when all the technical apparatus had been cleared, the furniture and fittings were stripped by dealers who could make a profit reselling well-used office chairs and desks to start-ups in the railway arches. Everything that did not attract a bid was taken away by government surplus dealers. In this final erasure of the past, the forty or so lockers in the cloakroom were eventually transported to a vast leaking concrete shed. Somehow this dilapidated building which was once a ‘state of the art’ miners shower block supported a profitable business. There they were opened and the contents of newspapers, memos, pinups, pay-slips, holiday postcards and love letters with stolen kisses, notebooks, aprons, and other clothing were taken into the yard and tipped into a fire in an oil-drum that seemed to be the eternal flame of the salvage company. The extra weight of his locker and its rusting padlock excited some curiosity and it stayed outside the shed for some weeks before eventually the bolt-cutters were found. The ingots were greeted with a sly welcome as an unexpected bonus payment (not shared with the others) and were spirited away to be used (at long last): cast into weights for anglers to be sold in pubs for cash. The apron that he had not managed to quite hang up was thrown on the fire. Some shoes and some papers on the top shelf went the same way. There was a buff envelope in which there were some lines of cast type. They were shaken out into an open palm, but they made no sense to those not used to the reversal of the text. They were test stereos he had made from time to time at the same dabbing machine from which he had started his journey. One spelled the name of his wife (including her maiden name) others the full names of his children and their birthdate. There were also two double line castings; the shorter one carried the names of his parents who had both died on the same day and another, in 24pt German Blackletter. It was the only type that had been inked. These too were cast into the eternal brazier in a single skillful movement by someone used to weighing the net worth of anything in a single glance.

This is the German term for a print process in which a carved woodblock was pressed into molten type-metal to produce a matrix. This later became known as ‘dabbing’ in English and Polytype or Cliché in French. Both these names refer to the sound that was made by the ‘dabbing’ machines as the process became mechanized.

2 He had left School at twelve and worked at odd jobs. A distant uncle, who worked at the printers, arranged for him to join them as an extra hand. Apprentices were treated badly and known as ‘printer’s devils’.

3 This was in fact the last film that he ever saw in the cinema. His daughter took him because she had read about it and thought he might enjoy seeing some stars from the silent era, but he slept through most of it after the opening credits. She held his hand from time to time to stop him snoring as he slept.

4 The compositors in this company were paid by the page but as Linotype machines were introduced there was, for a brief period, a scheme to pay by the amount of metal used. This put manual typesetters out of pocket, so they hid the ingots to maintain their pay. This was an open secret that somehow was never acknowledged.

5 The priest was a good man and knew the story and the lifelong heartbreak but although he was deeply compassionate, he lacked empathy and had no experience of grief as a physical condition.