Stereotype – it’s such a cliché

Printing presses were not foremost in my mind when I decided on my future as a reporter.

I knew about the principles of printing having once had a John Bull printing outfit.

Not, of course, that this childish toy was ever designed to introduce people to the real joys of printing.

To learn more than that, when I was about 14 or 15, I bought a secondhand Adana printing press from a school friend for a fiver.

Mine wasn’t as bright and shiny as the one above but it was similar and came with a composing stick, lead type, and a frame in which to place the rows of type.

In fact it had everything a budding printer might want – if he or she wasn’t looking to go beyond a five inch by four inch format, handy for visiting cards and headed notepaper.

Mind you, I did end up with some smart visiting cards (with no-one to hand them out to) and a charming selection of stationery with my name and address set neatly in the top right corner.

I was more interested in Caxton and Guthenberg than I was in 20th century printing.

When I did become a journalist my interest remained in finding stories and writing them up.

Then came the time that Peter told me he wanted me to accompany him to the head office at Oswestry and see what happened on the day the paper was put to bed.

I drove to his home just outside Wrexham that day and we then travelled together. On the way he told me he needed me to be on hand to take down last minute copy over the telephone.

The head office and printing works were based in a large Victorian building opposite the old railway station (which was also now part of the North Wales News group offices).

When I first walked through the front door I little realised how it was to be a second home for me in the near future, and that the board room to the right would become very familiar. That, however, is another story.

On that day I felt and smelt an atmosphere that became to be very special.

Initially Peter took me up to the first floor and left me in a room clearly set aside for visiting editors, equipped with two desks, one with a typewriter. Both had telephones and the typewriter desk also had a set of headphones attached to the phone.

“I’ve got to go and see some people. Wait here and if anyone rings from Mold be prepared to take some copy.”

He showed me how to use the headphones so that I could type while listening.

While I waited I could feel a thrumming in the air as though the whole building was vibrating.

It wasn’t long before he was back and said he would take me on a tour which began on the top floor where the sub-editors for the weekly newspapers were located. They appeared to be a mixed bunch yet chatty too as they got on with marking up copy.

From there we followed the marked copy to where the Linotype operators were busy typing on a complicated looking keyboard on a massive machine.

The noise in that room, with its rows of machines, was like being in a 19th century cotton mill with the looms working constantly.

As the operators input copy the machine mechanically turned the typewritten copy, with all the subbing instructions, into slugs of lead, each one revealing all the characters turned into one line of the right typeface, typesize and length.

Each machine had its pot of molten metal which was constantly fed with sticks of type metal (an alloy of lead, antimony and tin).

In time I would become familiar with every stage of newspaper production but my introduction to the Linotype room left me amazed at the “magic” which turned my copy into gleaming silvery lines of type.

The next stop was “the stone”, long tables on which were large frames in which men (it was mostly men in those days) were assembling the slugs into blocks of copy as they would appear on the final page as stories.

Before going down to the stone Peter warned me not to touch anything. Even if I saw something on the floor I was NOT TO TOUCH!

This was the power of the printing union. If a non-print union person – even a company director – touched anything in the realm of the printers it could bring on a stoppage.

We had to stand on the opposite side of the stone so to us the pages appeared not only back to front but also upside down. In time I became adept at reading things upside down as well as I could a normal page of print.

The assembled pages were proofed, at which point the journalist on duty could check for errors, although the print union proofreaders also did this and could often notice errors missed by the journalist.

Once approved the page frame, or form, would be covered in papier maché to create a positive mould, a flong, which would then be used to create a curved stereotype or cliché in metal which would be attached to the print press ready to print.

Yes – it was printing that gave us the words stereotype and cliché. Since when we have turned both words into clichés.

The final move was for the stereotypes to be attached to the presses and they were ready to roll.

That first time, that magic moment when the button was pressed and the press slowly began to come to life, will stay with me forever.

Standing on a platform above the presses and seeing the white reels of paper being covered in print, folded, cut and dropping out finished newspapers at the far end will never leave me.

The roar of the presses and the vibration through my body at that moment has remained with me ever since.

I knew then that as long as those presses rolled and roared I would forever be a journalist.

The day they no longer thrilled me I would walk away.

Published by Robin

I'm a retired journalist who still has stories to tell. This seems to be a good place to tell them.

One thought on “Stereotype – it’s such a cliché

  1. The “shop floor”…not so much a shop, but the platform for various print unions of the serious type, pardon the pun. Robin is correct when he remembers being warned about picking up something off that shop floor.
    Did it once at our Oswestry print HQ. Nearly caused a riot. I happened to pick up a cutting awaiting to be pasted on a page.
    Bloody hell. You would think I had just shot the NGA chief negotiator.
    “Idiot”, “moron”…just two of the more polite comments aimed my way.
    Yes. Lesson well and truly learned.


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