Picas For Sale Part 1
Written one evening in a shop-house on one of the sois in Bangrak during a pleasant sojourne with a bottle of 100-Pipers and several cans of Bia Singha. I let my mind off its leash to wander back to one of the first jobs I held after leaving school – to saunter forth to find my fame and fortune. I didn't find either – but I did have a good time and a few chuckles with all of these characters along the way.
For those who aren't familiar with printing terms, picas are a measure of type size – one pica is nominally equal to 12 points or units of height in the printed character – approximately one-sixth of an inch. We used to measure width of lines in picas also – although that measure is normally expressed in units called ems and ens (an en being half an em). In the newspaper trade 6 point nonpariel, or nonpl for short, was a general typeface used for just about everything that was not considered too important – but the typeface we used for that purpose was not 6 point, it was 4¾ point but, where I worked, we still called it nonpl. Of course, none of this is very important now as this was in the days of “hot metal” type – these days everything is generated digitally and termed “cold” type. The characters in this story are probably all dead (just like “hot metal”) and I have changed all names of people and places to protect the guilty, while the geography is also a bit questionable. This masterpiece is also garnished with a generous sprinkling of imagination – yet these events did really happen. I was there.
Once upon a time there was a building almost opposite the General Post Office, in Thanon Na Ranong, Khlong Toey. The building housed The “Daily Mail” and “Sunday Bugle” newspapers, together with radio-station 4WX and also, contained within its walls, were numerous characters who could easily have been plucked from that wonderful fairy-tale “Alice Through The Looking Glass.” Indeed, as one stepped through the doorway into the marble-lined foyer you could be forgiven for imagining you had just stepped through the looking glass into surrealism.
To the right lay the advertising front counter, presided over by Khun Shillington in his glass-partitioned office – looking for all the world like your archetypal chartered accountant. I don’t know if he had ever been a chartered accountant but at the time I wouldn’t have known what a chartered accountant was. He was probably the paymaster but that was of little concern to us lads, except if you had the misfortune to be absent on pay days through sickness or, God forbid, misadventure – after which time it was deemed appropriate penance that you front Khun Shillington, cap in hand, to receive your bundle of satang. Presumably, this was thought to be a deterrent for future absentees.
I had to see him, once, to collect my pay and my recollections are somewhat faded and perhaps embellished by writer’s licence but my memories of him were as a man of medium height, slightly balding beneath a tennis eye-shade. He wore a long-sleeved white shirt, braces and rimless spectacles. He has probably long-since gone to that great firm of chartered accountants in the sky along with the other many and varied characters from Khun Lewis Carroll’s pen.
I first walked through the looking glass one June evening in 1962 – more by chance than by design. As a lad of 18 I had been “saved” from being press-ganged into the crew of a 200-ton scow that regularly made 5-day and weekend trips into The Gulf of Thailand and surrounding waters. Many of you may remember the vessel called “Pacific Paradise”, moored down near the Customs House. Well, can I remember those heady dreams of sailing off into the wide, blue ocean to lock cutlasses with pirates and mutineers – climbing the rigging to shout:
“Where away?” screamed back the bosun, with a face in a grimace.
“Ten points off the starboard bow, Sir”, I would yell back.
Yes – the romance of the sea.
But alas, aarrrggghh, my dreams were doomed to be scuttled with the arrival of Grandma and Great-Aunt at the quayside in a clapped-out old taxi. Kung, the deckhand, was busy polishing the belaying pins – or was it the ship’s bell? I can’t quite remember which it was. However, he was interrupted, momentarily, by Grandma’s best voice.
“Excuse me, my good man – yoo-hoo! Are you the Captain?”
“Naw”, replied Kung, nonchalantly. “You’d be looking for Cess, lady”.
“Well then, would you please take us to this Mr Cess? – there’s a good fellow!”
Cess looked a bit rough around the edges after losing 10 rounds with a bottle of rum, the night before – his eyes were glassy, his speech was slurred and he was unsteady on his feet. He wasn’t drunk, mind you – he was just “unwell”. At first glance, he reminded me of an escapee from one of those old Humphrey Bogart movies – he could have come straight from “The Caine Mutiny”.
“Are you the Captain of this vessel?” shrieked Grandma, while Great-Aunt removed her white gloves to re-arrange the flowers and fruit on her hat after they had lost their grip on the brim.
Cess nodded in agreement.
“Please don’t take our boy to sea”, pleaded Grandma, while Aunty mouthed the words in unison like a ventriloquist’s dummy.
“His Great-grandfather was a sailor and he was a cruel drunkard. He used to beat my mother and give all of his money to the bar maids” – and on she droned, and droned.
Cess had had enough of this rot, after enduring her sad tale.
“Get off my vessel you silly old bat – and take that ventriloquist’s dummy with you – oh, and don’t forget the boy.”
And so ended my dreams of adventure on the Spanish Maine. A life of excitement and meaning snuffed out like a candle before Lent – forever shackling me to a life of mediocrity as a pen-pusher for some Shylock. And so it was with these thoughts that I stepped through the looking glass and made my way to the elevators, to the left of the foyer. I remember the time well – 6.50 p.m. and I was ten minutes early for my appointment with Khun Jobst.
“Now then, why do you want to be a copyholder?” asked Khun Jobst.
The thought ran through my head – “The Money”.
No, I better not say that!
“Well, I’ve always wanted to be a copyholder for as long as I can remember, Khun Jobst”, I replied as I lied through my teeth. I couldn't believe I was so convincing. Perhaps he was desperate for staff.
He nodded in sympathy.
“Read this copy for me, please.”
I mumbled through the words in my best ersatz B.B.C. broadcaster’s voice.
“Very good! When can you start?”
And so began my penal servitude.
On arrival for my first night’s work, I discovered that the reading room was presided over by a triumvirate consisting of Howard Jobst, Robert Hiscocks and Warwick Smith. I was to learn that Howard Jobst held the power and the other two luminaries were of a lesser magnitude. Khun Jobst was called the Head Reader or sometimes, rather facetiously, known as The Phrenologist. I liked him and got along well with him – he had a gentle yet firm manner but there were others who said he was weak. He was a tall man, balding with a ruddy complexion. He had a prominent chin and wore silver-rimmed glasses. When he walked he was slightly stooped and bandy and he took short, quick steps, tapping the walls and doorways with his knuckles as he walked along.
Robert Hiscocks, a real old curmudgeon, was soon to retire and I had very little to do with him but I do remember he and Khun Jobst seated side-by-side at the Head Reader’s table looking rather like a pair of bookends. From there they surveyed all in their kingdom. Warwick Smith was a sick man and was soon to pass on to “the other side”. An inveterate chain smoker, he preferred to circulate around the room leaving half-smoked cigarettes on tables or benches wherever he had been.
My first evening in the room was spent in the company of Bob Watson, who was reading revise proofs. I was to assist him by reading the copy of the classified ads as typed by the classified ad girls or written by hand at the front counter. He was required to find any errors on the galley proof which was an impression in ink of the type as it came off the linotype machine. In those days, everything that appeared in print in a newspaper was read at least twice. We read everything from Death and Funeral notices to the Editorial. The Editorial was often read “eleventy-seven” times – absolutely no errors allowed.
The pace was fast and furious and everything went well until Khun Bob “threw a wobbly”.
He roared and then threw his arms up in the air – then collapsed like a sack of shit onto the desk, face down. I thought he’d had a coronary, at least. But, no, he recovered instantly and calmly remarked that it was time for a pill.
He opened his briefcase and selected 3 or 4 bottles from an array of maybe 10 or so then proceeded to pour himself a handful of pills which he downed, ceremoniously.
“Ah! That’s better – now, where were we?”
Looking out the front windows onto Thanon Na Ranong, two floors below, was a pleasant way to spend a few moments. Tuk-tuks and motorcycles moved noisily up and down Na Ranong and the passing parade of the faceless public never ceased to provide interest at any hour of the evening.
Beside the building, connecting Na Ranong with the soi behind, was a smaller soi – accessible to vehicles only from the back soi for half-way along. From there to Na Ranong it was for pedestrians only. A few of the “hard cases” from the reading room would sometimes go to the top of the building from where they would drop plastic bags full of water onto pedestrians in the lane below. After observing the confusion below from the roof parapet they would then scuttle back to the reading room before Khun Jobst noticed they were missing.
At Christmas time, the front of the building was always decorated with coloured lights, thoughtfully provided by the management so that bored inmates of the reading room could hurl light globes down into Na Ranong to break the monotony.
Our starting time was 5.30 p.m. in those early years of the ’sixties and I loved working in that building. It had a magic like no place I had ever seen. Apart from the aroma of the place there was a constant low rumble produced from the many Linotype and Intertype machines, Ludlow machines and tungsten circular saws that were used to cut or trim type slugs and, as edition time came around, the Goss rotary web letterpress units in the basement would start to thunder into life with deafening power and urgency.
There were two batteries of machines in the composing room, known as the “piece” battery and the “house” battery and compositors only got to the privileged position of “piece” operator after considerable time as “house” operators where they could show their ability and speed. The “piece” operator was the backbone of the composing room. He had to be fast and accurate in those days of “hot metal” – the acme of his trade and having the unique ability of being able to determine his own income based on the amount of type he set.
I recall one of the operators by the name of Stan Gadsden – a “piece” man who was having an unusually bad evening for errors before I remarked on it to my reader, Khun Lou O’Brien.
“Khun Stan was originally employed by the company as an apprentice electrician, you know?”
“So, how come he ended up being a Linotype operator?” I queried.
“Ah – the silly bugger overbalanced and fell into a crate of electric light globes and he was so long recovering from his accident that the company decided to make him a compositor instead.”
“How enlightening”, I quipped.
By the time I looked for the logic in the story and found there was none, Khun Lou had fallen asleep again.
Khun Lou was my mentor from the first week I arrived at the reading room. He reminded me of a very large leprechaun. Other members of the room had christened him “Lipstick Lou-Lou the Lightning Lover” but the title seemed totally out of character with his demeanour which was more akin to that of a sloth. Khun Lou always told the same story:
“I’m only staying here long enough until I put my boys through college – then I intend to emancipate myself and go back to Australia”.
He had, formerly, worked as a reader for Fairfaxes at “The Sydney Morning Herald”. Many of our readers had done so.
The stories he would tell me – some true but some, patently, falsehoods. He fired my imagination with a passion to visit Sydney and perhaps even to apply for a job on “The Sydney Morning Herald”. But alas – life rumbled on like some slow, unswerving tumbrel – taking us all to an inexorable fate. He was never to leave The “Daily Mail” until Boot Hill called and he passed to that great reading room in the sky. I was later to leave but never destined to work for “The Sydney Morning Herald”.
When I started work at the newspaper, as a lad of 18, I suppose I was fairly cocky and cheeky but in some ways fairly shy – fresh out of school and with limited life experience, I had worked for a short time in the railway as a trainee engineman and for a while I worked as a probationary apprentice typewriter mechanic. As luck would have it I escaped from that fate before my manacles were struck.
Today, proof readers are just a memory – about as scarce as lion tamers but when I joined the staff of the “Daily Mail” the job was reasonably well paid and carried a certain amount of prestige, even if it was only in the minds of our coterie. Few outsiders knew what proof readers did. Journalists saw them as a thorn in their side and something that was to be endured while compositors saw them as the lowest of the lowly – a parasitic life form that grew to be despised but endured. Maybe it was because we were always highlighting their manifold incompetencies, yet that was what we were being paid to do. The regard in which we were held can be gauged by the fact that our room was about the size of a large packing case that housed around 50 tormented souls – all smokers, bar one or two. It was something akin to working in an opium den. Talk about passive smoking!
It could have been the evening when Khun Myles put the frog in Khun Jobst’s drinking water as Khun Lou and I sat musing on the cruelties of life. Khun Lou broke the silence.
“What did you do before you came here, Mark?”
I related my short history with the railways and Boswell and Co., the typewriter people.
“Wait there – how many picas?”, he grunted.
“Thirty-six”, I answered – bored shitless and slightly miffed at being cut off in mid-sentence.
“Listen”, Khun Lou continued. “Khun Don (one of the other readers) gave me a small portable typewriter but it doesn’t work very well. I wonder if you would be able to have a look at it for me!”
“Bring it in and I’ll see if I can get it going for you.”
What a stupid thing for me to say – I knew as much about typewriters as I did about brain surgery. My knowledge of typewriters extended as far as making the tea for the mechanics at smoko and lunch – and to boiling the rags used by the mechanics to clean ink and oil off the machines.
Pulling a typewriter to pieces is easy – something like pulling an engine to pieces. That’s the easy part. The hard part is getting the pieces to go back where they belong. Khun Lou’s typewriter was no exception! There it lay on my bench, at home, in a hundred pieces like some mortally-wounded creature. I had thought of putting it out of its misery with the sledge hammer but decided, instead, to brighten up the platen knobs with a coat of green paint.
Why green, you might ask? Well, green has a calming effect on the psyche and I calculated that Khun Lou might need a little calming after I had finished telling him that I couldn’t get the bloody thing back together again. Also, green was the only colour that I had.
Time slipped down the plug-hole of life and, after a fortnight of enquiries by Khun Lou as to when he would get his machine back, I felt I could postpone the inevitable no longer.
“I’ll bring it in tomorrow night, Khun Lou”.
I stepped through the looking glass with trepidation the next evening and had at first thought of pleading for clemency due to insanity. However, I thought better of that tack and instead reasoned that it was probably better to brazen the whole matter out. I stepped from the elevator at the second floor and entered the lion’s den.
There are some things better left unsaid and if only we had the wisdom to judge at the time when to keep our gobs shut then, perhaps, life might go along more easily. But some of us are not too bright.
Khun Lou looked up as I approached.
“Did you bring it in?”
“Yes”, I replied as I pulled the sugar bag full of parts from my airline bag and plonked it with a rattle on the bench in front of Khun Lou.
“I had a bit of trouble.”
I don’t know why, but he seemed flabbergasted until, finally, he started to speak.
“If you couldn’t fix it, why did you pull it to pieces?”
“I didn’t find that out until I’d pulled it to pieces, did I? Anyhow, I don’t know what you’re so upset about – you got the bloody thing for nothing!”
There was a stony silence. It was obvious Khun Lou was dumbfounded – his mouth was moving but no sound was coming out.
[It was some years later that he told me how he took the sugar bag and its contents home to his wife and explained the sorry tale to her, expecting sympathy. “Well, it bloody-well serves you right for being stupid enough to give it to him in the first place!”]
Meanwhile, back in the present – as he picked up the sugar bag I pointed out that I had painted the platen knobs, while backing away from the cubicle to beat a hasty retreat from the danger area to try and find my friend Khun “Rumble”.
To be continued.