Time capsule treasure

The Heidelberg Printer
The Botanical Gardens in Southport, Lancashire, do not sound terribly thrilling to a modern audience. But for a five-year-old in the 1960s, they were a portal to another world.

Ducklings and a river. A bird house. Ice creams. Not to mention swings. All perfectly nice and predictable, but for me, the most thrilling part was a quaint museum. I suppose it was simply a mock-up of a Victorian drawing room, but one peeped in and could imagine the days gone by. The mannequins clad in 19th-century garb, were a little scary, frankly, but I can still remember hunkering down, apparently out of sight and staring for ages, fascinated by the bell jars over dried flowers, the wall-mounted butterflies, the embroidered cushions, the leather-bound books on the walls. It was as if I had stepped back in time.

Not surprisingly, I am a fan of historical fiction. The internet now supplies and even feeds this need. I read this genre predominantly – from Sister Fidelma and Brother Cadfael to, well, up to and including WW2.

On holidays, I look forward to new incarnations, and recently, I came across a delightful series set in Victorian San Francisco. Written by a retired academic (of course) called M. Louisa Locke, Deadly Proof is late on in the Annie Fuller mysteries. In this outing, a female compositor is accused of despatching her boss in a rather unpleasant manner. (Not too gory, however. This is more Murdoch than macabre.)

Personally, I have no issue with sitting by a pool in Tenerife, imagining I am in 1880s America. I thrive on it. This charming book is a gem, especially for latter-day journalist – and the printing details were a feast. The research was evident, but only in a good way. (I didn’t guess whodunit, either.)

Not only is the plot as delightfully convoluted as a Conan Doyle clause, the setting is just marvellous. I loved the details about the city, the ‘trolley’, the shops, the frocks, the picnics. Truth be told, I admit to being a fan of feisty females in days gone by, and this fits the bill.

So inspired was I that I sought out a ‘time capsule’ museum of interest to folks well beyond the small settlement of Innerleithen in the Scottish Borders. Robert Smail’s Printing Works is an old family firm, who were not afraid of clutter. It seems they rarely threw anything away, so when the National Trust acquired the property, it was decided to run a ‘living’ museum. It’s full of all the old printing paraphernalia – presses, fonts, cases – but it also operates as a modern-day printing press. Step into the premises, unchanged for over a century, and you are in the late 1800s.

Imagine the actual letters for six-point type. Tiny! No wonder the young apprentices, with their keen eyesight, were so valuable in putting away the letters for the next printing job. You’ll have heard the term: mind your Ps and Qs? This was an expression referring to the fact that Ps and Qs looked similar in the back-to-front world of printed lettering, where you lived in a world that was literally the wrong way round. They looked very much the same to an untrained eye.

Such a treasure trove of information. They have the records of all the tickets to America that the locals bought in the late 1800s. These are now being digitised by an eager staff and volunteers for future generations to marvel. It cost £6 and five shillings for a passage, by the way. It was a fabulously sunny day when we turned up, but we did conjecture with the learned and entertaining staff that the tickets sales might have risen in the dreich winters.

They used to keep a copy of everything they printed, from textile orders to party invitations, in a special year book. They have 50 of them, and they are an astonishing insight into the regular lives of people before the internet took over. How many socio-historical PhDs can one imagine in there?

I plan to return shortly for a longer visit and try my hand at compositing for myself.

Sidebar. When I worked a paper with a hot metal press, I used to have to write out my headlines on copy paper and hand them to a 'runner'. I always knew when the headlines wouldn't actually fit and find myself writing smaller. Even now, I can still create three lines of words in 72 point Times New Roman across three columns without busting. (If this makes no sense, ask a journo.)

Here’s the review of Deadly Proof.

Isn’t it fun when a book nudges you back into the real world?


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