A Linotype link with Leopold Bloom
An Irishman’s Diary: Joyce and the page make-up men
Involvement in a recent Zurich workshop on Joyce and newspapers brought with it, for me, the strange experience of being part of the history that was being discussed. Newspaper technology changed very little between the 1890s and the mid-1980s (indeed, the printing process, although massively magnified, is still essentially the same).
The major innovation of those years, the Linotype machine, whereby type could be set by the line instead of by the letter, was already in place in the Freeman’s Journal by 1904 (there is a very valuable photograph of the caseroom (production area) of the newspaper from those years showing the Linotype machines).
Thus the Irish Press caseroom which I entered as a raw journalistic recruit in 1971 differed but slightly from the Freeman’s Journal works area where Leopold Bloom finds himself in fiction in 1904.
The first thing that struck one (very forcibly) was the almost incredible noise of the Linotype machines as they clanked away, not in unison.
This, combined with the banging of the chases (page formes) on the “stone”, actually a large metal table, together with sundry other noises off, created a cacophony in which it was difficult to think straight, or think at all.
I used to wonder how the Linotype operators managed to maintain their concentration in the midst of all this, and it is not surprising that so many misprints (the famous “shrdlu”) appeared so often (many more were caught).
My principal engagement was with the page make-up men, the workers who put metal type into the pages, theoretically in accordance with a page plan that had been drawn up in the editorial area.
On my first night on duty, I fell for the common ploy of being asked to bring a tray of metal type over to the “stone”.
Ever helpful, I was about to oblige when some kind soul warned me off. Had I done it , it would have resulted in a mass walk-out and the non-appearance of the next day’s paper. Handling the metal was strictly the preserve of the relevant trade union – it is almost incredible to think of a union possessing such power today.
In accordance with this ethos, the page make-up men cultivated what might be called a sturdy independence: when a given story did not fit (when it overran the length assigned to it in the page plan), the last paragraph or more was unceremoniously tossed out (“tossed out” was not the term actually used, but it will serve).
All this work was done under considerable time pressure. One could only admire the skill with which these men could adjust a page so that everything fitted together, creating spaces or eliminating spaces where it seemed impossible.
(One, a Hungarian refugee, used to exclaim: “So you think I have the rubber metal?” when confronted with a piece that significantly overran its length; at times it seemed as if they did.)
While the main focus of my work was in the page make-up area, I was also dimly aware of other parts of the operation, especially something referred to as the “cliche” or the “stereo”, an area where impressions were taken from the metal pages, which were subsequently printed. I did not know then that the words “cliché” and “stereotype” come from these printing terms.
Joyce, however, did: in addition to the experience of newspaper production he gained when visiting the Freeman’s offices, he also took extensive notes on these terms from a manual of commercial vocabulary that he owned, as has recently been discovered.
The newspaper caseroom was most definitely a working area, an area of production.
Bloom’s experience in Ulysses is similar: the book is one in which very little work gets done, very little is produced. The caseroom section is one of the few exceptions; by contrast, when Bloom moves to what might be called the edito- rial area of the paper, no work at all seems to get done, people just stand around and jaw.
Unrepresentative though this is, there is certainly something very distinctive about the newspaper production part of the book – and it does stay in my memory as a very distinctive, now vanished, world, a world of great wit, great geniality and, in spite of all, great commitment.
Revisiting that space and some of the men who gave life to it – Noel O’Neill, Willie Shakespeare (yes), Sammy Battle, Jem “the Greyhound” Reilly, John Wheeler, Harry Merrigan, Tommy Carroll and many others – was an unexpected byproduct, in faraway Zurich, and in a faraway time, of an immersion in Joyce and newspapers.