My First Influences
As I mentioned in the previous post, my father died in April and that’s made me a little reflective. Cancer took my mother in 1988, and I’ve been thinking a lot about them both ever since I scattered his ashes alongside hers. In addition to the lifetime of memories I have from each of them, I’ve made the unexpected realization that each, in a different way, contributed enormously to making me what I am today – not only as a person, which is to be expected, but also in my choice of profession. That second part came as something of a surprise, and I expect it would have surprised them too.
My mother, like many women of her generation, was a secretary-turned-homemaker. For medical reasons I was an only child, and she put everything she had into raising me. She read me stories and encouraged me to read from an early age, so much so that I could read and write before I set foot in a school building. She bought me endless books, starting with Enid Blyton and progressing through myth and legend, literature and nonfiction, and I devoured them all. I loved stories, and so did she.
Mum was a writer herself, although she would never have thought to call herself one. She kept up a voluminous and regular correspondence with friends and relatives across the world: I always remember her with a tray on her lap, writing letters all evening as my dad and I watched television after dinner.
Before I was born, she wrote a series of children’s stories for my older cousin. She always said it was something to do so she looked busy during slack hours in the typing pool, but the love and care she put into these little tales shines through every word. I still have the copies she kept, typed on half-pages and stapled into card covers with the title on the front of each one in her neat copperplate. I’ve even thought of trying to get them published in support of her favorite charity, but I have come to the reluctant conclusion that they are too dated to be publishable today.
My dad worked in the printing industry for his entire career. He started in the printing and stationery section of BOAC back when airliners had propellors and parts of Heathrow were still under canvas; he retired just as desktop publishing software was making his craft obsolete. And it was a real craft.
His job title was photolithographer, a name which, typically for him, he considered rather too grandiose. Using a photographic process, he turned pasted-up copy sheets into flexible metal plates for rolling-drum presses. His camera used a plate that was three feet square, or so it seemed to me; the back of the camera was built into the wall of his darkroom and the lens moved on Victorian-looking rails. The copy stand had a vacuum bed to hold the sheets tightly in place. The whole arrangement was about twelve feet long, and when he got a new one in the early 70s they had to take down part of the building’s exterior wall to bring it in by crane.
My dad knew how to make wet plates by hand using albumen from actual eggs; he could figure focal lengths and exposure times in his head; and he never went anywhere without his printer’s line-glass. Nothing offended him more than a four-color separation that was a tenth of a millimeter off.
These days, scanners and Adobe Creative Suite have made my dad’s profession as dated as blacksmithing; perhaps one day it will be thought of as quaint and nostalgia buffs will devote themselves to keeping it alive. But all that equipment still fascinates and impresses me. I treasured the days when I got to go into work with him. I would help collate pages as they came out of the great Heidelburg printer, as huge and impressive as a steam engine. He taught me to use a darkroom and for a while I was his assistant in his weekend wedding photography sideline. As soon as the guests left the church he and I would go screaming back home and up to his cramped little darkroom in the loft, rushing to get a proof book and order sheet back to the reception while everyone was full of wine and good cheer.
I didn’t follow my dad into printing, but I did have a couple of vacation jobs in print shops while I was at college. When I went to work for Games Workshop, the principles of book and magazine production came easily to me. I found I liked publishing, and I like to think that my understanding of the business made me a better staffer.
Stories and presses, writing and production: these were two of the many, many gifts my parents gave me. I had no idea at the time. Their influence didn’t make it inevitable that I would grow up to be a writer, but I’m sure it didn’t hurt either.
Thanks, Mum and Dad – for this and for everything. I miss you both more than I can say, but I love the memories you left me.