Archives and Books
For about thirty-five years I was a private press printer. I began in 1974, in Scotland, at a cottage I rented for some months in the lovely village of West Linton, about an hour south of Edinburgh. The hand-press I used was a small 5 x 8 inch Adana and my first effort was a memoir about Giovanni Mardersteig, a notable private press printer I had met in Verona, Italy, the previous year. The Adana was never meant for serious work, and the booklet I printed was poorly done. By 1975 I had moved to Francestown and built my house here. The following summer I had the good fortune to find a really fine printing press, an antique Chandler & Price 10 x 15 from the early 1900s. For much of its life it seems to have been neglected, and in fact there was no sign that anything of value had ever been printed on it. When I first saw it, it was in pieces and most of them were lying on the ground outside, exposed to the elements. Once I got it home, I spent a great deal of time cleaning and repainting each of the parts, before putting them all together. The rollers, in a sorry state, had to go out to be recovered. The electric motor was too huge to keep, and I discarded it. But that presented a problem because the drive shaft was straight and there was no treadle, so I had no way to move the press except turning the giant flywheel by hand. This set me on a search for a treadle and shaft which fit. Eventually I found them at a ‘printing junkyard’ in Massachusetts (the shaft was from a larger press and I had to take it to a local machine shop and have it put on a lathe). One final improvement was to replace the original, but heavily scarred, wooden platforms for the paper with new ones I made of mahogany.
It had always been my intention to print things of value. Not that they would be written by me—although somehow I still managed to write and publish four books of my own, plus a number of smaller works. No, what I hoped to do was find genuine authors who would be willing to work with me. The first one I encountered was Dean Lakin, a poet from Colorado, who when we met him was an artist in residence at the Macdowell Colony in nearby Peterborough, New Hampshire. We became friends and saw a great deal of each other while he was here (and later I visited him and his wife, Barbara, in Colorado, and they came to visit me in Francestown). I asked Dean if he would let me print the poems he had written at the Macdowell, and he agreed. Later we worked on, and finished, several other books together.
Another author was Alister Kershaw. Our meeting came about because I found at the Houghton Library of Harvard University eleven letters Richard Aldington had written during World War One in his training camp and on the battlefield to his friend, the Russo-American poet John Cournos. The letters struck me as being poignant: “Mostly one has no time & when one has time, often one has no heart. Wretchedness is a timid thing & fears to intrude on even the dearest friend....” I asked if I might speak to the librarian about them, and when I did, he told me that as far as he and the library were concerned, I could print them, although I should contact Aldington's literary executor for formal permission. “Do you know the name of the executor?” I asked. Yes, and he told me. So I wrote to Alister Kershaw and thus began a collaboration over many years.
Elsewhere at this website I say a lot about Alister. However, I ought to relate here at least one more story. After the Aldington book was finished, I met him in Paris where he was living and working at the time. He also had a house at Maison Sallé, near Sancerre, and some years later he ‘retired’ there, to the consternation of most of his friends who thought he could never be happy in that small village surrounded by vineyards and a world away from the seductions of Paris. But it turned out to be a heavenly place for him. As time went by, he improved the property. A splendid verandah was added. The garden flourished. Some grape vines were planted along one wall and trained by the expert neighbors to grow over a trellis that sheltered a patio. There was a large library which ran through all the rooms. On one of my visits, in 1983, more shelves had just been installed, so I offered to help move some of the books onto them. One caught my attention in particular. It was a modest paperback with yellow covers and the title, Hommage à Roy Campbell. I leafed through it. Alister noticed and said, “Take it as a gift.” “Thank you, Alister, but as it is all in French, I won't be able to read it.” “Keep it anyway. It's the only edition.” The only edition. What a moment that was! We both realised that the book had to be published in English. Thus began one of my most satisfying printing experiences. In the first place I had to contact the authors included in the book, or their agents, for permission to translate their French essays into English, or to try and get the original English ones which had been translated into French. It was all very complicated, but in this way I made contact with Lawrence Durrell, Laurie Lee, and Alan Paton. In some cases they sent different essays as replacements, or entirely new ones, such as the very personal memoir from Roy's daughter, Anna Campbell Lyle. The book was a huge labor of love for me, with 120 pages and 200 copies, plus an additional 20 which were beautifully bound by Alister's wife, Jelka.
Letterpress is laborious work. My routine, with an author's typescript in front of me, was to set lead type into a composing stick held in my hand, one letter and space at a time, to fill 4 inches of text, then to re-space the words to justify the line. I would work through the day to complete an entire page of text. After this was proofed and corrected, I would feed single sheets of paper into the press, enough for the print run, plus a few extras in the event of mishaps. When the printing was completed, I set about doing the binding. This involved folding the pages, gathering them into signatures of 16 pages, and sewing them together. I also had to cut a dozen different pieces—cloth, boards, back-strip—to create a case for each book. The final project was to put everything together: the gathered signatures were attached to end-papers and glued to the case. The bound book was put in a press overnight to dry. I did not do dust-wrappers because I felt the important thing was the text, and anyway I rather liked the varied colors of the Dutch and Japanese cloths I used.
Some years ago I began to work less and less and finally decided to part with my entire print shop—the press itself along with the many fonts of type I had bought in England and the U.S., and the cabinets which I had restored and refinished. I sold it all to a local enthusiast. It soon became apparent, though, that she was not as keen as she claimed to be. I tried to keep in touch with her, but that was unsuccessful. Presumably, my printing press has reverted to the neglected state it was in when I found it. The thought that this might be so is profoundly saddening.
In any event, what remains is the archives of my work. These consist of file folders filled with the correspondence between my authors and myself, the latter being carbon copies of the letters I wrote. The folders also include the original type-scripts from which I worked. They are interesting to look at now because I recorded every change I made, even the most insignificant ones, such as the addition of a comma. In many cases the revisions were extensive, to the extent that I actually rewrote the work. Generally I did this without comment, although sometimes I added a Preface or Afterword which I signed. Most of the authors said little or nothing about it. Once, however, the author objected to my removal of several small jokes which seemed to me in bad taste. Afterwards we went our separate ways, only completing one book together.
Another time there was a completely different dénouement. It happened with Alister Kershaw during one of my visits. Just before that I had finished printing another of his books, a collection of his poetry, and so I was able to take the first copy with me and present it to him. Shortly after my arrival as we were sitting and chatting, I gave him the book. He opened it and immediately became absorbed in reading it. But he stopped, looked over at me and said, “There's a word wrong here.” “Where is it?” I asked. He showed me. “Oh yes, sorry Alister, I remember that. I couldn't read the word on the photocopy you sent me, so I took a wild guess.” He read the lines to himself again: “I think it has improved the poem,” he conceded.
In going through the archives, I come across things which make me smile now. Here is what I wrote to one author on 20 December 1990. I had begun printing his book, but: “As I have gone along I have made little adjustments here and there. If you can picture it, I sit here setting each letter, punctuation mark, and space, so that gives me a lot of time to weigh up every word, phrase, sentence, and paragraph. In the process, sometimes, certain things strike me, and I am inclined to exercise the editorial initiative. In general, I don't think you will find I have strayed too far, but I have taken some liberties. I don't like the passive voice, for example. . . Other times I drop things that are repetitive, or re-arrange them to help the story read better.”
I explained my limitations to each of the authors, the most important being that I had only enough type to set one page at a time, therefore I could not send proofs in the normal way. They all seemed to understand and were accepting. This meant it was up to me to find mistakes and correct them. An author's were generally easy enough; it was my own that were the bugbear. To try to see them, I took a tack that was somewhat unusual: I counted words and punctuation marks in both the type-script and my proofs, to be sure they tallied. This often worked, but it was not fool-proof because something overlooked in the former could be cancelled by something missing in the latter. I also read backwards which was occasionally helpful. I took one proof to deal with the major corrections, then subsequent proofs to be sure they actually had been made. Frequently I would have to reset lines, and even paragraphs because I had forgotten a word. There were plenty of other challenges too, although over the years I developed a systematic approach which served me fairly well. Usually, I managed to do a page a day, that is I would begin type-setting in the early morning and try to do as much as possible by lunch time, then finish it in the afternoon. The actual printing of the page was done after dinner.
I said the authors' mistakes were easy to find. But not always. I remember one case which was an anthology of poetry in French, German, Spanish, and Italian, with the originals on the left facing the translations on the right. I did not have the actual poems to compare to, only the translator's copy of them. After the volume was printed and bound, he went through it carefully and found about fourteen errors, some by him in transcribing the poems and some by me in printing them. I duly did an errata sheet which I inserted in the booklet. Later a bookshop in Boston, well-known as a specialist in poetry, bought a number of copies but returned them because of the errors which were deemed by them to be unacceptable. I doubted, though, that they would have known the difference if I had not included the errata sheet. Afterwards I generally gave up pointing out my own mistakes. Instead I left it as a nice challenge for readers to find them—if they could!
Another, although infrequent, issue was an author's lack of prudence. In some cases old resentments were recalled. Here is what I told one of them: “I can add that it is possible to attack the veracity of [someone] without saying so directly. . . The ways to do this are several, and they depend on the nature of the accusation. I do not know the facts so I can not advise. But the two most obvious ways are to run through the facts and allow them to trip him up, or use satire. However, before you can pull off this sort of thing, you must absolutely have the sympathy of the reader. But by simply asserting that [someone] is a liar you have lost that precious sympathy. In fact, saying he is a liar tells much more about you than it ever does about him.”
In looking through the archives now, I am reminded that occasionally I had to turn down a project which for one reason or another was not suitable. To explain why to an author was difficult for me. I could have written a tactful, if anodyne, letter of rejection. Yet I felt it was my duty to explain my reaction, so that at least he understood I had taken his work seriously. But as might have been expected, this was sometimes not received very well. There was one instance I remember where the author was writing about the Italian composer Palestrina. Among the many disconcerting things he did was to shift the focus back and forth from the 16th to the 20th Centuries. Once in mentioning a town Palestrina had known, he remarked that “the air force bombed it”. He also had a tendency to use grating modern clichés, such as “squeaky-cleanliness” and “soft pedalled.” There was one metaphor which read: “drowning in a sea . . . clinging as to a lifebelt.” And so on. Another author submitted an anemic article on Count Potocki. I asked for a revision, and here is what he told me: “...what I was interested in conveying was the unravelling of the story, the way in which events developed and flowed in an often serendipitous fashion.” Privately, I was amused that something which was unravelling could also flow. The truth is there was no arguing with people like these. What remains of these controversies are a few folders with brief exchanges of letters and abandoned proposals.
It is embarrassing to look at these now, and I suppose anyone who reads the correspondence will be too. I've wondered if I should throw out the folders. But then I thought perhaps warts and all should be preserved, even if they reveal my own lack of discretion. It has to be added, though, that most of the projects which came my way I actually printed and published, and usually everything went quite well.
The archives of my work, along with one collection of all the books, pamphlets and ephemera, I have decided should now be given to someone who would value it, possibly a university library with an interest in the private press. If you would like to talk with me about this, please get in touch.