Dad was a papyrophile; he loved paper. Not necessarily what was written on it, but the feel of it, the size, length and shape of it. He viewed paper in its various forms in a way that most people don’t: as the end-point of a long, careful process of ruling, sizing, cutting, fitting into a desired product.
He began his working life as an apprentice ‘ruler’ for Coulls Somerville Wilkie in Dunedin, New Zealand (known in the trade as ‘Coulls’) at the age of 14 years old. His is not a unique story: with three brothers at the war and an invalided father, his mother accompanied him to his first and only ever interview and an apprentice he became, staying on with the same firm for forty-five years.
As a child, I found it very strange that Dad had become a ‘ruler’ over six long years. What did it mean? What did he do? Why did it take so long? To this day, I am still not too sure, but it did involve paper and precision and the art of guillotining with an eagle eye. It most likely included folding paper also, because Dad constantly did this; the Evening Star, silver Easter egg wrappers – any paper or paper-like object lying around would be measured, stacked into alignment and folded. Even as his memory of how to do the basics began to fade, his ability to fold, cut a straight line and explain how a book was made, did not.
On the subject of books, you might think that we would have had quite a number in the house, with a father like Dad and with them being made of paper and all, but we did not. There was a stack of old Damon Runyon paperbacks in the hall cupboard alongside ancient encyclopaedias, and for a time, the family Bible. Our childhood reading list entailed Enid Blyton’s Noddy books, and Girls’ and Boys’ Own manuals, given to us by relatives at Christmas. Later, I read the Famous Five series, the Pippi Longstocking series and the Milly Molly Mandy series, but I had to borrow these from the children’s library after school. Every year we received Oor Wullie and The Broons from our grandmother in Scotland which, by and large, Mum had to translate.
I only found out years later that there were however, some books in that cupboard that Dad had made himself. He knew how to ‘create’ a book from paper, from scratch, how to rule it, bind it and provide it with a cover. One of these was his and Mum’s wedding album. black and white photos, starting from the day she arrived in New Zealand, are attached to thick black paper which is somehow glued at the spine and bound into a whole. Magic.
If you handed Dad a book, the first thing he would do was to look at the spine, he would tip it upside down, turn it around, run his hand down the middle page: all an assessment of its manufacture rather than its printed content. I bought Dad books every year for his birthday until my Mother told me to stop as he wasn’t reading them anymore. But I was sure that he still liked handling them and examining the paper inside them. At least I wanted him to.
Dad loved to write too. He always had a stylish pen in the inner top pocket of his jacket and there was always a stash of scrap paper in the hall cupboard, off-cuts brought home from the factory by him, and for him (and us) to write on. He had charming handwriting – old style, sloping, legible. He knew the names of many different calligraphic styles, like the distinctive American Palmer style. Dad covered all our school exercise books with wallpaper left over from his second, wallpapering-for-friends, evening job. This was slightly embarrassing as no one else had heavy floral ‘60s patterns on their books, but it was meticulously done, and very identifiable when the books were being passed out to the class after marking.
By the 1980s, times were changing in the printing industry and Dad felt his time was up. He elected to retire early as he had no interest in the looming digitisation which was taking over the printing world. Items were still printed on paper, but Dad’s love of the trade was more tactile than that. All the skills he learnt by hand could now be done much faster, more efficiently and cheaper than in the old school, step-by-step, manual way. He joined the Graphic Arts Otago group for some years after retirement and while he enjoyed it, his interest was not an academic one. He could have shown you how to do things using all the terminology of the printing trade, but he didn’t really want to analyse it.
Dad never stopped working with paper though, even when it came down to folding the newspapers for the recycling bin well before my mother had had a chance to read them. I have taken back all the books I gave him, on his birthday, at Christmas, with my inscriptions on the front inside cover: “To Dad, just because I thought you would like the feel of this beautiful paper inside this beautiful book.”
Dr Lorraine Ritchie is a writer and poet who works as a professional nursing advisor in Dunedin, New Zealand. She has a strong interest in the connections between the arts and health/humanities and recently edited a book of poetry by New Zealand nurses called Listening with my heart. Read more about that on Corpus here.