HE was one of the last of the old tramp compositors-cum-linotype operators-cum printers. Once upon a time they were a numerous tribe; today they are as outdated as movable type in newspaper headings.
Unerringly he approached the traditional enemy of his kind. "You want a compositor," he said, telling the printer, rather than asking him. "We've got one." "You want a machinist," he demanded. "We've got one." "Then," he asserted, with the desperation of one who simply must have work, however lowly, "d'you want an editor?
That story has raised many a laugh where newspaper types gather and inevitably talk shop. It is not apocryphal. It was an actual happening in a small newspaper office in the back country of New South Wales and was told to me by one of the nomadic tribe of compositors who after worldwide experience became one of the Weekly News staff.
… marveled at the shower of flashing brass matrices which fell and assembled at such wizard fingering as they had never dreamed of
THESE old tramps would walk into print shops or newspaper offices with a quiet confidence - almost an arrogance - born from the knowledge that they were journeymen in every sense of the word, that they were as good at their craft as man could be.
They took offence easily, many of them; they were as proud of their skills as hawks. And they could drink. Indeed yes …
One such character appeared before the printer of the Weekly News one morning, not long after the turn of the century. He wore a shirt, pants and shoes without socks. He and the demon drink were obviously bedfellows. The bloom of the hop blossoms was apparent on his cheeks and nose.
He said he was a linotype operator. Such a linotype operator as never was seen setting type in all the colonies. In other words, he was good.
He has come ashore from the San Francisco mail packet a few days previously, nattily attired, with money in his pocket, had fallen into bad company, been "rolled" of money and clothes by his drinking companions, missed his boat to Australia, and he needed a job. He talked himself into one.
And while all the nine other operators who comprised the total mechanical typesetting staff of the Weekly News of the time peered round corners and marveled at the shower of flashing brass matrices which fell and assembled at such wizard fingering as they had never dreamed of, no one thought it even passing strange that the copy which was being set into type by the tramp was the weekly sermon, without which no respectable paper ever went to press, or that the subject of this particular sermon dealt with the "Evils of Alcoholic Liquor."
Actually he committed one of the cardinal sins of journalism - he had not checked the story. But he still ran it. And while he may not have been one half of a duel the next morning, he was threatened with a horse-whipping, one of the more favoured forms of public humiliation in the State, and it was demanded by the irate and very-much-alive object of the obituary notice, that a retraction of the news and an apology be published in the next week's issue.
The editor was adamant. The published word can never be retracted, he said. Nor would he admit that his journal had made a mistake. But with a buggy-whip being flourished within inches of his imperial purple nose he agreed that the paper would make some form of amends. It did.
A week later, beneath the heading "Births and Deaths" there appeared the following: "Strathcombe, Ezra Jacob. Died October 2, 1901; reborn October 9, 1901."
On being given a job on the Weekly News of those days this character has achieved something which previously was thought to be impossible without the aid of dynamite. With maybe one exception, the staff had learned their trade from the journeymen before them and they were jealous of their reputations as craftsmen and of the reputation of the paper on which they worked.
Windowsills deep in dust, dead bugs and occasional old letters of type.TO have been a journeyman on the Weekly News was to have entree to any paper in the world, it was said. And the old-timers believed that, just as they believed that their paper was published every Wednesday and come hell or high water, their paper would be on the streets because the public, the subscribers, believed it would be on the streets every Wednesday.
These were men who, like generations before them, had been indentured apprentices to the craft of typesetting by hand - before Ottmar Mergenthaler produced his first linotype, the mechanical typesetter which revolutionised the newspaper industry.
As apprentices they were taught the "trade and business; they were provided with good and sufficient diet, lodging, washing, medicine and all other necessaries fit for an apprentice" and they were even paid a few shillings a week. In return they worked 48 hours a week, contracting not to enter (presumably the greatest of all evils) "matrimony, nor embezzle, waste or lend, or play at cards or other unlawful games or bet or haunt or frequent public houses or taverns but in all things demean himself as a good and faithful apprentice ought to do."
A boy's first confusing weeks in a newspaper office. The cases of type - the Bodonis, the Goudy, the Scripts, the Gothics, the Caslons, the infinite varieties of the Cheltenham workhorses. The very terms: the quoins, the footsticks, the quadrants. And the smell! Ink, paper, that witches' brew lye, and above all, dirt. Windowsills deep in dust, dead bugs and occasional old letters of type. Many a printer's devil believed that purgatory could never be so grim as a composing room.
Until comparatively recent times the Weekly News employed three apprentices. And three only. They held copy for the readers, they swept floors, they cleaned lavatories, they gave cheek, they were clipped on the ears (sometimes over the other end), they thought the journeymen were next to God, they learned that the printer was God.
And gradually they also learned "the case," that jigsaw contraption in which movable type was contained, by "dissing," or distributing used types. Inevitably as "devils'' they made the acquaintance of the "hell box," that satin-inspired punishment for unruly boys, wherein was thrown every ill-assorted letter, space, rule, every adjunct of a compositor's craft which had strayed from its case into the "hell box" awaiting distribution.