A life in print
I’ve spent a working lifetime in print journalism and now think I might have done better had I learned to drive a steam locomotive or sweep a chimney. My calling would still be largely doomed, but at least people would recognise that I once had a useful, and even moderately valued, skill.
But digital print is now seen as – and actually is - a rational and efficient replacement for physical print, which was heavy with greasy ink, grubby newsprint and argumentative compositors, and which I loved.
I was for decades a production sub-editor, suspended unloved between the newspaper’s writers and its printers, and learned how to fit words into preordained holes and write headlines of a certain size to fit across a certain number of columns.
This was harder than you might think because letters are of differing widths; ‘i’ and lower-case ‘l’ count as half letters and ‘w’ and ‘m’ as double (or, in capitals, in certain fonts, double-and-a-half) letters; the rest, for instance ‘o’ or ‘r’ are variable and judging whether your chosen headline would fit its space required fine judgment, an ability now as useless as knowing how many furlongs make a league.
You couldn’t, when I started as a sub-editor and all letters were cast in metal, easily mess about with type. If your headline was ever so slightly too wide, a compositor making up the page might, as a favour, squash it by bashing the lined-up type sideways with a hammer, but otherwise type, now so easily manipulated by anybody who can work a computer, was, well, set in stone – ‘the stone’ being the name for the flat surfaces on which the pages were compiled, probably since Caxton’s time.
Do I care? Well, not too much. I spent decades of my life learning skills which I was later unable to use, but then so did most of the working population; chimney demolishers, cheery milkmen, railway guards, gipsy fruit-pickers, dockers, bookies’ runners, bowler-hatted bank managers, insurance mis-sellers, insurance mis-selling compensation-seekers… some might cling on, like the last bluebottles buzzing about the house in November, but all were doomed, which is neither a good thing nor a bad thing, just an undeniable thing.
The special knowledge which gave so many of us a seemingly unassailable sense of our own importance has evaporated like a gigahertz in the wind since the computer age arrived. Now you can visit the excellent Bradford industrial museum and see enthusiasts coaxing into life beautifully-constructed Victorian machines which once kept the world supplied with textiles and now serve as an interesting way of filling an afternoon.
Maybe I could join a historical re-enactment group, making up newspaper pages as they used to be made up. But I don’t think I’ll bother. What’s done is done.