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Setting Words With Honour

The writer and the printing press

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

Each summer I run a month-long school of creative writing for St Andrews University. When the young students prepare assignments, I ask them to consider the typeface or font they will be using. Times New Roman, the default on many computers, was designed to enable plenty of words to be packed clearly into narrow newspaper columns, I suggest. It was never meant for books, and appears ugly and cramped on the page. Please, I say, look at Garamond, look at Caslon; please look not just at the words you write but the letters that carry those words. For my part, I cannot conceive of wanting to write well without thinking how the text will appear on the page. I would as soon serve malt whisky in a styrofoam cup.

I’ve thought this way since I was old enough to pull books from my parents’ shelves. My family owns two volumes of Milton’s poems printed by Emery Walker circa 1905, in the unique font designed for his Doves Press. They are exquisite books in which every letter has been placed upon the page with honour — although the font had a startling end when the owner of the press, T.J. Cobden-Sanderson, threw the letters into the Thames in a rage. Some were recovered by divers in February 2015.

Walker and Cobden-Sanderson’s style of typography was exceptionally clear and uncluttered; Milton’s words shine off the heavy paper with no more decoration than large red capitals for the headings. My father, seeing my interest, gave me another book, an unusual edition of the Gospels printed in Dordrecht in 1665; it has parallel text, one column in Anglo-Saxon, the other in Gothic, the latter using possibly the first Gothic font ever cut. I have it on my desk today.

I began to wonder if I should be a printer. In the 1970s, as a student at Cambridge, I was shown round the Rampant Lions Press of Will and Sebastian Carter, father and son, who were at that time among the finest letterpress printers in the UK. In their cramped but impeccably tidy rooms, with the massive hand-pulled presses gleaming black and a smell of spirit lye everywhere, large sheets of printed work were hung overhead to dry. ‘Look,’ they said, ‘here is print that has been done on dry paper. It is clear and crisp, but you see that the letters sit upon the face of the paper. Now look at this sheet: the paper has been gently damped before printing and, as it dries, the ink is drawn slightly into the body of the paper, to become part of it. That is fine work.’

I left Cambridge and in 1978 went to work as a VSO in Java, in the mountain city of Bandung, for a local publishing company. They were printers also, and in the basement printing hall was an offset litho machine — that is, it used not metal letters but broad metal sheets carrying both text and images. But this was the only modern presence. Under Dutch rule, this had been the First Bandung Steam Printing Company, and there was a row of small upright presses using hand-set metal letters, formerly powered by an overhead shaft driven by steam. More spectacular were two massive Heidelberg flatbed presses dating from the 1920s. On these, the company printed school textbooks on large sheets of cheap paper, sixteen pages at a time.

The broad iron bed packed with heavy metal type lay out in front of the machine. It would slither on a greased track back under a roller the size of a tree trunk which carried the paper, before the mechanism slammed into reverse and the type-bed reappeared at the front. The press must have weighed a ton or more, and the sheer momentum of the type-bed heaving in and out was visibly inefficient, a colossal waste of energy but glorious to watch. The Heidelberg was fixed to the concrete floor with hefty bolts but it looked as though it must tear itself from its mounts at every pass. The Javanese staff called it the Dukun — the Witch.

The print hall reeked of hot electric motors, oil, inks, cleaning lye, and glue. The company’s cheaper publications were bound with hot glue, but others were hand-stitched in a back room by half a dozen demure ladies in long batik skirts, gossiping in low voices. Typesetters worked at the keyboards of rattling pre-WW2 Linotypes producing strips of hot metal text for the Witch, but for small jobs there were wooden cases of old Dutch cold-metal type; it is possible that some of these fonts were rare, manufactured in the famous type foundries of Holland but long since extinct in the homeland. Elderly Javanese gentlemen with spectacles and black caps shuffled in leather slippers through the printing hall or worked at high benches setting type in hand-held trays; remembering the Rampant Lions Press in Cambridge, I asked if they would teach me. Can you be serious? their faces said — a young, so-modern westerner wanting to learn our obsolete skills…

Indeed I was serious. For much of my two years there, I would go in of a Sunday morning and spend an hour or two setting type – poetry, usually – before attempting to print my work on the small platen presses. I was very bad at it, and the courteous old gentlemen would indicate patiently that my letters were upside down, or that I was creating blots by over-inking. Or I would print 50 sheets painstakingly, spread them out to dry, and then smear the lot by sweeping them up too soon, not understanding how slowly ink dried in the tropical humidity of Java. But what a lovely, and calming, occupation it was; so much so that, four decades on, the memory is as clear as a line of Garamond print. In 1980 I wrote from Java to the Rampant Lions Press in Cambridge asking if they ever took on apprentices; they told me to go to college.

Just then, as a young author, I was looking for subjects for fiction. The history of twentieth-century Indonesia is a tale of violence, not of calm, and the owner of the print and publishing firm had played shadowy roles during the War of Independence and later. One evening at his house I found myself dining with another courteous old gentleman in a batik shirt, but this time an army general who had been a key figure in the failed coup and the bloodbaths of 1965.

It was, however, a different real-life figure who finally caught my imagination; Poncke Princen was a Dutch soldier who, during the Independence struggle, switched sides and fought for the nationalists. In my fictionalised version, he stays on in Java and learns to print, just as I had done, in a basement works full of crashing Heidelberg presses. With four novels commercially published previously, I had good hopes for this, but perhaps a story of revolutionaries and printing in Java was over-taxing the British readership. Finding a publisher proved awkward, and I almost gave up.

Then, four years ago, with my family, I went on a barge-and-bicycle holiday through the Netherlands and Belgium. In Antwerp one day I took myself off to visit the Plantin-Moretus Museum — the home and workshops of Christophe Plantin, sixteenth-century master printer, in whose honour the 1913 Plantin typeface is named. Between an austere courtyard and sombre chambers whose walls are lined with tooled leather there are Plantin’s print shops, with wooden flatbed presses of the same design he and his labourers used. These were tiny, slow machines compared to the iron Witch in Java; for Plantin’s men the working day was long and hard. And as I peered at these presses, a solution to my problem presented itself.

Will Hill is a typographer and teacher in Cambridge; I’ve known him since boarding school fifty years ago. He had once foolishly said that he would design a book for me, by way of exercising his craft. So I took him up on it. In February 2015 we saw the result, a novel called The White Porcupine, and yes, it concerns printing and terrorists in Java and Holland. It is hardback, with a lovely cover design based on batik fabric, and the text is set in Spectrum, a typeface designed by the Dutch typographer Jan van Krimpen between 1941 and 1943. We have had 150 copies printed for private distribution, signed and numbered by the author and/or the designer.

I’ve no idea what became of the firm in Java. Even while I was there it was in trouble; the owner died, and his property was fought over by his two wives to the point of paralysing the company. Salaries (already meagre) went unpaid, and staff drifted away. I expect that, in the years since, the Witch has been dismantled and sold, and the cases of antique Dutch type probably discarded, perhaps even thrown in the Cikapundung river. In the pages of the novel at least, the ancient gentlemen work on in silence.

Jonathan Falla is an English writer based in Scotland, the author of four published novels, as well as ethnography, essays, short stories and plays.

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