Listening for a velvet hiss

Anna Chapman Parker

Before the workshop, we are sent the text we’ll be working from. It’s a short prose-poem by Virginia Woolf: ‘Ode written partly in prose on seeing the name Cutbush above a butcher’s shop in Pentonville’. We’ve been asked to come up with our own title for the ode, which we’ll be printing today on our own book jackets. I spend the night before in a hotel room scanning the text for ideas. Among the lines I’ve picked out, these two keep coming back to me:

‘There are semblances of human faces, seen in passing translated from a foreign language. And the language always makes up new words.’ 

‘I salute thee, passing.’ (last line)

I like the implication in both of a still presence, a body paused midstream, observing things passing without understanding, and combine them into a new phrase, ‘Passing in a foreign language’. Hopefully it will be short enough for me to typset – this medium is a good inspiration for brevity.

In the workshop, Edwin has printed copies of Woolf’s transcript and points out how bad her typing is. It’s peppered with errors, many of them uncorrected typos (fusrt for first) or missed spaces (Bagsbulge). The apparent carelessness of the typing brings a feeling of lightness and urgency to it. The text feels more fluid, less fixed and certainly less laboured. Lines even wander off the horizontal, drifting down to the footer, as if in sympathy with the reverie going on in the text. It feels excitingly personal: not so far from looking at handwriting. 

Another thing that strikes me visually is the fatness of the left-hand margin. I’m thinking back to my childhood messing around on my dad’s typewriter and trying to remember the manoeuvre that sets the margins. A heavy shunting movement, with a satisfying weight. (Does a bell ring at the end, like someone opening a shop door?) Announcing the arrival of a new line: would that feel satisfying or an irritating interruption? 

I wonder if Woolf set such a wide margin to get a sense of how it would feel on a book page. The shift from typescript to a printed book is a significant narrowing of format, and I hadn’t considered before what a jump there is from the block of text in a typescript – whether typewriter or computer page – to the narrow confines of a book page. In a present-day Word doc with defaults of 12 point Calibri and 1 inch margins on either side, I might get an average of sixteen words per line. Woolf’s transcript gets eight and a half. 

Added to this, Woolf was using imperial-sized paper, which has a wider feel than the A-series in use today. It’s a more generous width to height proportion. To me, the 1:1.4 of A4 looks more serious – like a long face. But I guess that’s just my present-day eye.

Edwin shows us examples of hand-printed booklets with three-stitch binding, in the manner of the sixpenny booklets the Woolfs printed at the Hogarth Press. He explains that small presses like theirs mostly followed the arts and crafts model – disenchanted with mechanisation, getting back to the simpler methods of handmade. But this was also a kind of necessity as mechanised printing was massively controlled at the time, strictly unionised, and required 6 years’ apprenticeship. We hear extracts from Leonard Woolf’s biography of the Hogarth Press. It sounds like they were working it out as they went along.

The booklets are beautiful and inviting as objects. I don’t know if they would have felt more prosaic at the time – in a publishing era before laminated covers and e-readers – but it certainly seems that they were made with a sensitivity to the feel of handling them. Edwin tells us that the Woolfs collected fancy papers to use for flyleaves, indicating that they took pleasure in making them, too. 

It’s time to select the type. For simplicity, we’re all working with the Caslon typeface. Everyone sets to planning out their cover design and working out what sizes each bit of text should be: title, subtitle, author. I’m keying mine into my phone to play with the justification and line breaks, and the blank email I’m typing into has the default footer, ‘Sent from a mobile device’ below the text. I decide to include this in my title in acknowledgment of the journey the text has passed through: another passage. 

We are given a composing stick a bit like a metal scrabble tray in which to place the letters, known as sorts. The letters are placed upside down and back to front. (It sounds simple but for most of us, the first proofs reveal plenty of errors.) Ironically, the hardest part is actually setting the spaces at the end of each line, which must be filled with blank characters so that each line fits really tightly within the frame we have to set them in. The blanks come in many slightly different widths and getting the right combination of them is really tricky, but if we set the lines too loose, the sorts will just fall out when we pick up our frames to take them to the press. The correct tightness or ease is also necessary to get a good print, since type needs to ‘stand on its feet’ – sit firmly upright, not rock to the side. 

Between each line we insert a strip of metal (a lead) to create the space between the lines. The completed lines of text are then placed into a form, or metal frame, and packed with metal bars called furniture, which Edwin observes originally just meant something to fill a space with. Finally, everything is locked into place and tightened using quoins, expansion bolts. (This may be where the expression ‘to coin a phrase’ comes from). When it’s my turn to use the press, I pick up my form and take it to the press ready for inking. 

The whole process feels quite precisely choreographed – there are set ways of using your body for each step of the process, from the way you stand to pick out the type to the fingers used to tighten the quoins – the weaker fourth finger ensuring you don’t make it too tight. I guess each movement was designed over time to ensure efficiency, precision, and reduce the likelihood of potentially time-consuming accidents in a busy workshop. But the result is surprisingly physical – you’re really aware of how your movements need calibrating to play their part. 

The ink is really viscous and sticky as it’s rolled out. To get the right consistency, Edwin tells us to listen for ‘a velvet hiss’. I love the language that’s coming out of the whole process, and the slightly feral feel to a lot of it – a yapped edge, a flyleaf, muttons and nuts (M- and N-spaces). The paper is placed on the press held by small grippers, cranked through to roll over the type, and off peels the finished print. It’s a wonderful feeling. Perhaps when you’ve used your whole body and all your senses to make something, the satisfaction of the result has a compound interest? 

Imprints of the New Modernist Editing
Art Editing Modernism