Typesetting – a dying art?

When I started work in the printing industry in 1977, type was still set using the ‘hot metal‘ process, and the job of compositor was key to the way words appeared on the page – in much the same way as they had for the previous 400-years.

Within a few years, however, type was set onto film or photographic paper (called ‘photo-setting‘). This proved to be short-lived, due to the arrival of computers and typesetting software, which allowed text to be made ready for printing in a fraction of the time taken by even the most skilled compositor.

Domination of the art by computer-based typesetting also met a swift decline with the advent of SGML, XML and HTML mark-up languages. The advantage here being that text ‘captured’ within the tags used for each of these processes can be used in print or online without having to be re-typed.

But, and it’s a big ‘but’, there is still a role for the hard-pressed typesetting compositor of yore. XML capture requires words in bulk, but some texts are destined for print that do not warrant the creation or in-depth application of XML etc tagging. There is, thankfully, work for the typesetter yet. Wonder how many apprentices are being trained in this essential work?

A private walk through public school grounds

Those dog-days of August can weigh heavy in some years. So it was, with a new academic year soon to start, I decided to play pre-term truant for a day this week and go for a walk around the Cumbrian town of Sedbergh. I’d vaguely heard of a public school of the same name, but didn’t know – until I arrived there – that the school pretty much is the town.

Sedbergh School, Sedbergh, Cumbria
Sedbergh School

It has been there since its foundation in 1525, so I suppose it has earned the right to flex its muscles a bit. After all, if the locals can’t afford to send their own kids there (and at £10,500 a year for boarders – after paying the £750.00 registration fee, buying the uniform and sundry other expenses – such as Combined Cadet Force annual camp fee – of which more later, the fees are on the steep side), a fair few earn their living from the place. The school is so intertwined with the town that the signposts mingle as well: one minute you’re looking at a sign for the Tourist Information Centre and the parish church, the next you’re being directed to the Bursary and Headteacher’s Office. There is also a fair degree of latitude when it comes to public footpaths, and I wandered along the edge of playing fields as the current crop of ruby-playing Sedberghians were learning how to beat next term’s opponents into a bloody pulp, and along the banks of the rivers Dee and Rawthey that mark the furthest extent of the school grounds. The ethos of the place proved to be fascinating too. Founded before the Reformation by Roger Lupton, a local man who became Provost of Eton and endowed the school with scholarships to St John’s College, Cambridge University, the school boasts strong links to the Church of England, with a chapel that is larger than many English parish churches. The prospectus throws up a few anomalies here, however. While all pupils have to attend chapel, and are encouraged to both sing hymns in a way that’s ‘strong and heartfelt‘ and allow themselves to be prepared for confirmation into the Anglican Church, they are also expected to sign up wholesale to either the Navy, Army or Air Force sections of the Combined Cadet Force as soon as they start Year 9 (13-14). In addition, those who play percussion or wind instruments are automatically enrolled into the school’s Corps of Drums. Exception from this Eton Rifles form of junior conscription is at the Head’s discretion and must be sought in writing by parents. All have to attend annual military camp – the bill being added to the last invoice sent to parents/guardians for the current school year. All in all, this struck me as a rather 1950s anachronistic playing out of the old cries of ‘Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition‘ or ‘We come in peace, shoot to kill’.

Briggflats Quaker Meeting House
Briggflats Quaker Meeting House

A more peaceful alternative so such ‘robust’ (or even rather confused Christian theology) can be found nearby: the hamlet of Briggflats is home to England’s third oldest Quaker Meeting House, where peace is very firmly on the agenda, and lusty hymn singing most certainly not – the silence reigns supreme.

Howgill Fells above Sedbergh, Cumbria
Howgill Fells above Sedbergh, Cumbria


Took the day off yesterday and went up to Sedbergh on the N Yorks-Cumbria border to explore ‘England’s book town and its Quaker past.I hadn’t been before, so the town nestling in a fold of the Howgill Fells, with its public school dating from 1525, which lies at the heart of the place, came as a surprise. Will be going back for more!
Sedbergh School, Sedbergh, Cumbria
Sedbergh School
Howgill Fells above Sedbergh, Cumbria
Howgill Fells above Sedbergh, Cumbria
Briggflats Quaker Meeting House
Briggflats Quaker Meeting House

Four Yorkshiremen? One’s enough if you’re Three Peaking’

Called into the Co-op garage and store in Ingleton this morning for some diesel on my way to Sedbergh for a day’s walking. The man behind the counter was giving a masterclass in pure Yorkshire tyke upmanship, regaling a young couple with tales of his Three Peaks‘ exploits .
Not only had he climbed Whernside, Ingleborough and Pen-y-ghent just last weekend, breaking off to bring a friend back who’d come down with sunstroke, he told them, but he was planning to do the route back-to-back, a double three peaker, towards the end of September.
The couple left, expressing their amazement at his prowess, while I was left pondering how – if the other three had turned up – they’d have told how they completed the whole thing half an hour before they’d set off…

A cardiac non-event, thankfully

Quiet weekend? Mine was, until about 3.15 on Saturday afternoon when the chest pain started. Nothing to worry about, I thought at first. Then it spread to my back and up towards the right side of my jaw.
That’s when we phoned 111. And after a very short conversation with the call handler, he said the words ‘the ambulance is on its way’.
Enter the freelance paramedics
The arrival of male and female, green-clad, machine-bearing wonderbeings made me start to feel better (Brexiters look away now: one was Irish, the other had an indeterminate Spanish/Italian accent – both were utterly incredible). Getting rigged up to the ECG machine took minutes, and the print-out was clear, so I was assured. This first bit of good news was followed by blood pressure check and a once over with a stethoscope.
I was then presented with a choice; go to hospital for a blood check to search out an enzyme that usually lives in the heart but tends to leach out if you’ve had a heart attack (cardiac event, in medical-speak – which I was rapidly becoming fluent in) or stay at home and avoid the late afternoon queue in A&E. No brainer, I thought; then I was put on to the paramedics’ controller, who very efficiently scared the ‘bejeezus’ out of me, according to the Irish paramedic (not being stereotypical: that’s really what she said!).
In the ambulance, I learned that my paramedics were self-employed contractors working for Falck, a rather strange concept and one that – although grateful for at the time – does make me wonder, yet again, about the extent of privatisation in the NHS.

A&E bound
So, were away to A&E with my wife following on behind. At A&E, the service was so swift I’d had blood taken and been chest x-rayed before my wife had parked the car and found the cubicle. The chest x-ray was delivered to the supervising medics virtually instantaneously, but the blood test result took a little over two hours. But an all-clear, accompanied by the instruction to see my GP as soon as possible after the holiday weekend was worth the wait.

Playing doctors at the chemist

‘Could I have some of those one-a-night sleep tablets, please?’
‘You mean the sleep aid?’ replied the assistant in the Tesco Pharmacy. I agreed that was the product I wanted, only to be then asked when I’d last taken them.
Having said it was a few months ago – the annoying fact of insomnia strikes from time-to-time. The assistant scanned the pack and then finished by reminding me ‘not to take them before driving’. ‘No’, I replied: ‘I tend not to do that when I’m getting into bed’ – like it says on the front of the pack.

Return to the stone age

The new neighbours are having some work done. Not sure what the end result is intended to be, but it seems to involve a lot of stone cutting. They’ve engaged a firm of stonemasons, who seem to favour full throttle petrol-driven cutters and shouted instructions/banter.
It was never like this with Fred and Barney. Yabba, dabbo, don’t…

UK Passports – a beta work in progress

Remember Farage getting rather over-excited about the return of the dark blue UK passport during the referendum campaign? Strange to relate, but the UK government’s application site is now a beta test version, which could suggest that Nige’s dream could be about to be turned into internet reality. It that’s so, it’s to be hoped the pointy heads sort out the print function, as it just made my printer churn out 30-odd pages of unprinted, still pristine white paper, as opposed to the promised declaration form.

All in all, the experience left me feeling that, once again, Brexit is going to be a lot harder to deliver in reality (whatever form that might eventually take) than the over-hyped, truth-free version promised to use by the Leavers during the campaign.

Mr Brunel’s rather wonderful railway

Years ago, I marvelled at the mainline that ran from Easter to Plymouth alongside the Exe estuary through Dawlish and Teignmouth through cuttings and tunnels of red rock.

This photograph was taken on the sea wall that carries the line below the place we’re staying at Holcombe near Teignmouth. We’re going to Plymouth by train on Friday, and I want to go from Dawlish so I can enjoy Brunel’s line as it runs by the river and the sea before turning inland to Newton Abbot and Totnes before meeting the coast again at Plymouth.

Stand at deliver(y)

An old workmate of mine used to complain that ‘accountants make bad printers’. He was a very good printer, but became disillusioned when middle managers and beancounters began to infect the trade back in the 1980s. After all, that was a time when the trade was highly unionised, well-paid and very labour-intensive.
Looking back, it probably reached its peak in the mid-80s, for after that time, the managers took over in earnest – and cutting costs was the mantra they followed with increasing ideological zeal.
I remembered the phrase recently when I had to reject a print run. A series of monochrome graphics had not reproduced well; there were streaks running down the full page illustrations in every one of the books. The job had been printed digitally, not  litho – the process I’d worked in. In litho, such marking would have been put down to gear wear on the press, but digital is the new kid on the block to me, so I just complained and asked for a reprint.
But, while the process may well be totally different to working with viscous ink and printing plates – and the need to manage the ink/water balance during the run, the practice of taking a sheet at random from the delivery stack to check colour strength, image position and overall quality during the run would have meant that this problem never left the pressroom, much less made it through the bindery and out to the end customer.
Then again, with staff numbers paired right back, the beancounters in charge now probably feel that the risk of such things happening, once the job is ‘passed’ by the customer, is something that can be written off. After all, if the statistical probability is small, why not run the risk of not checking? An occasional reprint is still cheaper than paying the wages of printers to stand around on the off chance that one of the sheets they pluck from the delivery might show something’s amiss.
Cost effective? Probably. Even if it runs counter to another old saw – when the fault is so obvious that it would’ve been ‘spotted by a blind man on a galloping horse’. Are those hooves I hear?