August 20, 2019

The spirit of the press room

A SHADOW drifted across the far end of the long, dark passageway and Don Bentley stopped, surprised that someone else should have been down there in the printing works at this hour.

Bentley strained his eyes to identify the shape in the near darkness, at the far end of the passageway where the light from a single light bulb at its entrance barely penetrated. The shadow moved out of sight and Bentley called out, softly at first as if not wanting to disturb the silence down there. His words were lost in the still, cold air. He called out again, louder this time, so the words bounced down the passageway, echoing off the walls at its far end, before dying away.

“That you, Henry?’’ he called out again. “It’s only me, Don Bentley, on my walkabout as usual.’’

There was still no reply and Don Bentley moved forward towards the darkened end of the corridor, somewhere he had not ventured before on his travels through the works at night, looking for evidence this had once been the printing hub of the newspaper, with hundreds of printers toiling away, amid hot metal and ink and oil, and rising steam from tin tea mugs. The coldness down there now chilled Bentley to the bone, and he was keen to return to the warmth of the newsroom, but first he had to explore this part of the works where he had not been before.

Off the main passage ran a series of alcoves with low ceilings, propped up my iron beams on red-brick pillars. Don Bentley had once gone down a coal mine in his reporting days and this is what this forgotten part of the works resembled, but with a symmetry of red-brick and iron boxes unlike a mine’s pit-pole chaos of tunnels that put it in nature’s world, like a cave. This section of the print plant, abandoned for 20 years, was very much a part of man’s environment, and his history, and there were artifacts of a bygone age to prove it, like discarded printers’ trays and metal clips to hold galley proofs. It was clear that the main passageway at its far end, and some of the alcoves, led to other areas of the works in a labyrinth of passages, but these entrances had been sealed off long ago, some with the original, heavy fire doors, not unlike those Bentley had seen in the mine, that were chained shut.

Don Bentley had had a long, hard night at his own coal face, the sub-editors’ desk of the Mercury. A round of autumn flu had left the desk two staff short that night and during his break Bentley had been pleased to get away from his terminal and take his weekly stroll through the old works. Using the cliché of a newspaper man, he would say it was his weekly jaunt down memory lane, reliving the experiences he’d had in printing works of old.

Don Bentley looked about him now, expecting the night watchman Henry Thompson to appear from some doorway, or sub-passage. Henry had his own office of sorts down in the old works, separate from the maintenance men who were based nearer the administrative and advertising offices. Henry’s hideaway was known to only a few people with a knowledge of the lost world of the old works but it had a phone and Henry could be summoned on this.

“That you Henry?” Don Bailey repeated and his call was met with silence again. After six hours staring at a computer monitor, and thousands of words, Bentley reasoned his eyes were playing tricks on him, confused by the murky near-light down in the works maze. There was clearly no one there. No one could have been in this part of the works, or even been hiding, without Don Bentley seeing them. And no one would be down there anyway, at this hour; only Henry and Henry would have shouted out.

Henry combined the roles of watchman for the printing works and odd-job man, assisting the two-man maintenance team working in the Mercury’s art-deco building on Macquarie Street with minor jobs, like changing light bulbs, which were hardly worth the team’s valuable time. Henry worked from mid-afternoon to about one in the morning when the giant press in the section of the works that was still active was shut down after the print run of that day’s Mercury. The watchman-come-handyman had once been a printer at the Mercury and was pleased not to have been made redundant with his 300 or so colleagues when the old hot metal process of producing newspapers was phased out in favour of computer-generated electric editing, which did away with typesetters and compositors in the early 1980s.

As an apprentice Henry had suffered a leg injury and from that time he had walked with a pronounced limp. When the day arrived for the electronic editing system to be installed, and the redundancy notices started to be handed out, a decision was made by the Mercury’s management in favour of Henry, then aged 50, staying on, in whatever position could be found for him. The Mercury had a responsibility for him, and there were concerns that he would struggle to find another job with his limited mobility. This suited Henry. Unlike most of his colleagues, who had lives outside the printing works and welcomed a generous payout for a craft that was dying anyway, Henry’s life had been wrapped up in the Mercury. He joked he did not like fishing, hunting or footy, so there was nothing for him out in the world beyond the Mercury’s walls. Henry had hoped the Mercury would establish a museum to tell its history and the old ways of printing when hot metal finished but this never materialised. Instead, he had his own museum down there in the works, with discarded printing equipment and even a few of the linotype machines that once set the lead type. If anyone cared to look into the past, to delve into the history of the Mercury beyond the bound volumes of the newspaper in the basement archive, Henry would show them.

Don Bentley did not give his experience down in the old works that night a second thought until a few nights later when he passed Henry on the stairs that led to the newsroom, where Henry had been summoned to change a failing fluorescent light tube.

“Henry,” Don Bentley said. “I had a scare in the works the other night. Well not a scare, just a funny experience. Thought I saw someone. I thought it was you but of course it wasn’t.”

Henry stopped immediately, frozen in mid stride going down the steps.

“What you mean?” he said, a hint of annoyance in his tone.

“Thought I saw someone in the works. Thought it was you, but it was just shadows, That’s all.” said Don Bentley.

“And why you telling me this?” Henry Thompson said sharply.

“Well, it’s just conversation, you know Henry,” Don Bentley said, taken aback by Henry’s belligerence, when he had always known Henry to be friendly and full of chat. Before Bentley could utter another word, Henry had vanished round the curve of the stairs and was lost to sight

Don Bentley sat at his desk a few nights later. The chimes of the Hobart Post Office clock were sounding beyond the windows of the Mercury newsroom. It was midnight and Bentley was waiting for the press to start up so he could feel that distant rumble coming from the works that told him another paper was about to hit the streets. A face appeared at the window of the door leading from the back of the newsroom to the works, and Bentley could see it was Henry. The caretaker glanced about the newsroom as if looking for somebody, and Don Bentley waved at him, ushering him to come in. He was keen to establish contact with Henry again, and was troubled that their last encounter had been so frosty.

Still looking about him, Henry approached Bentley’s desk, this time with a broad smile. “Hi cobber,” he said. Henry always used the term cobber when he wanted to make conversion with Don Bentley because Bentley had told him that Henry was the only Australian he knew who used the word. It was the way Don Bentley thought all Australians spoke before he came to the country from England. It was quaint, eccentric and fair dinkum Australian and Don Bentley liked it.

“Sorry about me being a bit short on the stairs the other day,” Henry continued. “Thought you was taking the piss, to be honest, been talking to the other journos, who all take the piss from time to time. I suppose those fuckers have told you about me and my ghost. Fuckers. Took me years to get that monkey off my back.”

Don Bentley had never heard any story about a ghost and he told Henry so.

“Well, there’s supposed to be a ghost down there,’’ said Henry. “People don’t talk about it now, with the printers all gone and all. Not much demand for ghost stories now. Whoever goes down there? Other than you Don. Who wants to know nowadays about printin’, the old ways, starting out as an apprentice, getting a whack over the knuckles with a shiny steel em rule, in a hard lesson learned.”

Don Bentley assured Henry that he had not been joining in any piss-taking, as Henry put it.

“I’ve know a few printers in my time,” said Bentley, keeping the conversation going. “Been to a few initiation ceremonies for apprentices, and banging-outs for retirees. I used to love the works, the stone and all the printers’ fucking nonsense.”

Bentley had purposely used the term “stone”, the metal tables on which lead type was assembled into pages by the compositors. It was from a lexicon that said Bentley had been there and done it, and knew printers and their ways.

“Tell you what, Don,’’ said Henry quietly, looking about him as though he didn’t want anyone else to hear. “I got stories aplenty about the works, all the old characters. And I bet you’ve got a few, from Pommie-land and all. We should get together over a beer and have a few laughs. What you reckon?”

Bentley immediately began penciling in the coming Thursday evening, the night he had off, even though his wife might complain that his two nights off each week were precious for the family. But Bentley reasoned his wife would understand, and his teenage son whom he helped with his homework, if it was a story about the Mercury’s past, especially as the Mercury’s present was such a vital part of their lives.

Bentley met Henry not over the road from the Mercury, not at Mahoney’s, but at another pub, one he didn’t know, the Ocean Child, on Henry’s suggestion. Henry had said he wanted to be away from, as he put it, “the prying ears of the Mercury’’, and when Don Bentley arrived at the Ocean Child Henry was already there, seated at a window and drinking a Cascade draught.

“Thought you’d like to chat about the old days, Don,” said Henry after ordering another drink for himself and Bentley. “All your stories of places you’ve worked, I bet you have a few.”

Bentley had been invited to tell his stories first, and he obliged.

“Well, I love the printing business, or should I say loved it because it’s all gone now, except for the guys who operate the presses, ’’ he started. “I don’t need to tell you that. I always wanted to be a reporter, never thought about sub-editing and the link with printing and the printers and I learned all that during my training.”

Bentley explained that during his indentureship with the Surrey Advertiser in Britain, part of his training had involved going into the sub-editors’ department, primarily to improve his writing skills, from a perspective of how sub-editors viewed reporters’ copy.

“You can learn a lot in the subs’ room,” he said. “Not just about bad writing and punctuation and grammar, and getting facts straight, but about the whole business of printing, or you could.”

Bentley said that when journalists described their craft as a “people business” in the old days, they were not simply talking about the public. One side of journalism, the business of actually producing a paper and getting it out on the streets, involved dealing with the printers.

“I’ll never forget my first editor,” said Bentley. “The day I went into the subs’ room he called me in to explain what sub-editors actually did, although I knew of course, or said I did. But he then said, ‘I must warn you about the printers, they’re funny people and you’ll have to get to understand them if you want to be a sub later on’.

“He never explained why or how they were a funny breed,’’ Bentley continued, “but I suppose he just didn’t get on with them. He was a bit of an intellectual and I suppose he looked down on the printers, thought he was a cut above. I don’t know. But they gave him a hard time.”

Bentley said that after about a month in the sub-editors’ department he was told that he was going to be allowed to go down to the stone.

“I didn’t even know what the stone was,” he told Henry. “But then I was led into the printing works and there was one of the subs standing over a page, the type all laid out back to front. Couldn’t touch anything, of course. Couldn’t even lean on the stone. That was printer’s territory and we soon learned that print unions were powerful and any touching of lead type and the paper wouldn’t come out.”

Henry laughed in acknowledgment. “Very protective of their trade,” he said of the printers. “Five-year apprenticeship and not going to have some pimply kid handle type.”

Another beer was ordered and Henry leaned forward, eagerly waiting for more of Bentley’s observations about the old days of printing.

“Well, an old hand on the Surrey Advertiser, who had been a stone sub up in London, told me that the best stone subs were those with empathy with the printers, supported the same football teams and all that sort of thing. And sought out the printers’ pubs to go drinking with them. He preferred the company of printers over journalists anyway.”

Henry Thompson was taking note of every word, his brow creased in concentration, nodding his head as Bentley went along.

“Always had a lot of respect for the stone subs,” Henry said, cutting into Bentley’s story. “Fucking hard job, rewriting headlines that busted and cutting stories to fit in lead type. Fucking amazing some nights. Not like today when the computer tells you a story will fit – and a headline.”

Bentley cast his thoughts back to the days of editing hard copy, of marking up stories with the print size and width for the linotype operators setting the type, of consulting a chart that gave the count of the various headline sizes so that headlines would fit to the column width. It all seemed so long ago now. Computers, as Henry had said, told the sub-editors the exact length of a story, and indicated if a head would bust, the old term for a headline that didn’t fit.

“Fucking long time ago, now,” Bentley said, gazing into his glass.

“Bet you got on with the printers, Don,” said Henry, “I know you must have, loving the old works so much, wandering down there at night. I don’t know.”

“Well, it was a part of my life,” Bentley continued. “I got to know all the apprentices on the Surrey Advertiser, we were all the same age. After work I’d go drinking with them. They all drank rum and blackcurrant in those days, it was the traditional printer’s drink.”

Henry thought for a moment about the drink Don Bentley had mentioned. “Never heard of that one. But then that was England and they were different over there. All the boys ever drank at the Mercury was Cascade, or maybe Boag’s for the boys that had come down from the north. Not many of these, though, but we had a few Poms over the years. And they were whingers, always going on about England.”

“Yeah, rum-and-black,” Bentley continued. “Got so pissed one night, I was throwing up on the street outside the pub. Never drank rum again for what must have been 10 years after that. Could never stand the smell of rum. Makes me feel sick even today.”

Bentley then told of the first time he had gone to work in London, accepting a junior sub-editor’s job on a dying broadsheet newspaper in the hope that it might lead to a reporter’s position.
“Worked there about two years, never bloody got into the reporter’s room though,” he recounted. “There was a whole team of stone subs, well three, and when one went on leave they always let me go up there. No one else wanted to do it and I always volunteered.

“There was this crusty old sod who was the chief stone sub. Pissed half the time but the printers loved him. He knew what he was on about and never mucked them about. And if there were fuck-ups from the subs, like something totally overset or something that was set to the wrong measure, he could rearrange the page without any resetting. The linotype foreman was happy, the comp foreman was happy, and fuck the chief sub and the editor.”

Thompson laughed out loudly and went for more Cascade draught.

Bentley recounted going up to the stone on a winter’s night, the stone on the top floor of the newspaper’s Victorian red-brick building just off London’s Fleet Street, and crossing a narrow bridge linking one part of the printing plant to another. The bridge, enclosed in glass, spanned a narrow cobbled lane which was coated with virgin snow. As he reached the stone, the craggy old stone sub, a little the worst for beer, was throwing open a window, letting flakes of snow billow in.

“It’s stone cold’, the stone sub shouted out, and the comps and their hands burst into laughter.

“Greatest honour I ever had was on the Johannesburg Star in South Africa, where I worked once as a sub. Went there on my travels, got a sub’s job in the hope I’d fit into a reporter’s position – sub’s jobs were always so easy to get – and this time I got out of subbing. Great times. Anyway, worked on the stone for a time there. Got on with those guys really well. Some of us used to drink in the printers’ pub and talk cricket and rugby. Well, one day one of the comps came down to the subs department and called me outside. He was inviting me down to the comp floor to see an apprentice initiation ceremony. Great honour.”

Bentley described how two lads, who had just signed their apprenticeship papers, had been taken on to the comp floor and told they must be able to complete a little trick before they could start work.

“They were told it was all to do with testing their dexterity, but it wasn’t of course. The kids should have known they were being set up by the number of printers gathered about.”

Bentley explained the boys were shown a gold coin and told to balance it on their forehead. At the same time a printer placed a funnel used for pouring ink in the boys’ belts so the narrow end pointed inside their underpants.

Bentley started to laugh himself, telling the tale.

“Now’, said one of the comps, ‘you got to get this coin to fall off your forehead so it goes into the funnel. Do it three times and you have passed and the coin is yours’. The trick was not so hard and the boys managed to do it the first two times with ease. But just as the coin was being balanced on their foreheads the third time, with the boys having to look upwards to keep it level, someone dashes forwards with a can of freezing water, with ice cubes in it, and pours it in the funnel.”

Henry Thompson did not merely laugh now. He let out a bellow, an explosion of sound. He was in the middle of sipping his beer and it sprayed out of his mouth and all over the table where they were sitting. It was too much for Bentley, too. He was bent over double. He was laughing so much it made him struggle for breath. “What days,” he shouted finally, throwing back his head and laughing again.

“Can’t play a trick on a computer,” Bentley added, embarrassed now that he and Henry were attracting attention from the other people in the pub. The landlord was looking from behind the bar, half hidden behind a row of clean, sparkling glasses and had sent someone across the clean the table.

Henry Thompson had fallen silent, and Bentley was disappointed because he thought that Henry might have some stories of his own. Bentley also had a suspicion that the reason for their get-together, and especially Henry’s insistence on it being private, was not just about hearing Bentley’s stories from print works far and wide.

“Well,” said Henry after a while. “That thing a couple of days ago, when I was a bit short with you on the stairs.”

Bentley nodded, saying “go on” without uttering a word.

“Well, it wasn’t all good times was it? We can look back and laugh at the good times, but it was hard in the works, wasn’t it?”

Bentley said that indeed it was. It was dangerous work, type was hot and heavy, to say nothing of all the lead the linotype operators and compositors and their hands inhaled. He often wondered what damage that daily intake of lead fumes had done and whether former printers had a life expectancy lower than men in other trades.

“I’ll always remember my first time on the stone, and drinking with the printers, ” Don Bentley started up again. He felt Henry Thomspon was building up to something and, like a good reporter, he was determined to draw it out of him. Putting Henry at ease, in the comfort of his memories, recreating a familiar environment, good and bad, warts and all, was the way to go about it.

“I can always remember noticing how many of the printers had fingers missing. It was quite a few. I’ve never forgotten that.”

Thompson nodded. “And toes,’’ he said. “Don’t laugh but known of blokes who had whole pages of type dropped on their feet. How it happened I don’t know but it happened. And look what happened to me. Pushing a fucking trolley of lead, when one of the comp hands should have been doing it, and the whole thing comes off the rails and rolls onto my leg.”

Bentley looked back to his first days on the Surrey Advertiser stone and how he was surprised at the heavy nature of the work, especially in pushing the trolleys with lead to the linotype machines and the even heavier flat carts that were used to ferry the formes holding completed pages of type. These were pushed from the stone to the press that created the mould to make the half cylinders that went onto the presses.

“There was this old guy on the Surrey Advertiser, stone hand he was,” Bentley said. “He always had a brown, long storeman’s coat on, you know the ones I mean, and a fag dangling from his lips which never seemed to be lit. ‘Stay out of his way when he’s pushing a page’ one of the old comps told me that first day on the stone. ‘He’ll cut you in half with that thing’.”

Henry Thompson gave a nervous half laugh. He was looking at the floor, and he started talking again without looking up.

“They had a bad one at the Mercury, an accident, ” he started. “Before my time, in the Thirties to be precise, Young boy, a printer’s devil.”

It had been years since Don Bentley had heard the term “printer’s devil”  and he was eager for Henry to say more.

“Printer’s devil he was, in the days you had such things. Only a lad. He was 15 and being tried out for an apprenticeship, as the devils were.”

“Only a kid and there was a loose bit of paper on the rotary press, not the one down there now but an earlier one. And he was sent up there to pluck it out as the press was rolling. Should never have been up there, don’t know what they was thinking, but there he was. He always wore these leather boots with elastic sides, but this time someone had stole them and he was wearing these old shoes with laces. And they says a lace wasn’t tied and it caught on the steel decking alongside the press and in the boy went. Crushed between the rollers. Bloody mess it was, well they say.

“Heard all about it from guys from that time, who I worked with when I started. One of the stone subs made a joke about the boy ‘certainly making an impression’, smart arse, the sort of journos the printers hated, and he got taken outside and had the shit kicked out of him.”

As Henry spoke, Don Bentley now saw there was more to the ghost story, or at least the suggestion of something strange in the works, and that was why Henry had acted so out of character when they had met on the stairs.

Something had told Don Bentley, a gut feeling, his reporter’s instincts, that Henry’s invitation for a drink was more in the context of what Bentley had seen that night than recalling tales of the craft and art of printing.

“Well some guys say they used to see him, the boy, after he was killed,’’ Henry continued. “They described him. Always wearing these baggy old pants, and a check shirt and a hat;  he always wore a hat which was strange for the time for a boy in the works. A working man’s hat, a flat cap type of thing like the working men always wore in the 1930s, you’ve seen them in pictures. I suppose wearing the hat made the boy think he was grown up.”

Henry stopped talking for a moment. He looked straight at Don Bailey and appeared to take a deep breath, as though summoning the courage to ask him a personal question, which indeed he was.

“So what did you see, Don? Was it a boy, all sad eyes and just staring straight at you. Like there’s pain in that stare that you can never imagine. Not pain, pain but a pain about losing your youth, your future. Like you know what you’ve lost, because you see people every day enjoying the life they’ve still got. Do you follow?”

“I saw nothing, Henry. I swear,” Don Bentley said gravely. “It was a shadow, that’s all. No boy, no hat, nothing.”

He tried to switch the conversation from his own experience to what others might have seen.

“So when did they last see him, or say they did?”

“Oh this was right up to the time when hot metal stopped and there were still men working down there in the works. Some saw him, some just said it went cold some nights, like a cold wind or draught blowing through the works.

“Some said the boy was always seen on the night that we printed the footy guide, he was mad on footy like all the boys. Like everyone in the works. Dreamed of playing for Carlton. He was good, too, so they say. Always appeared on the night the footy supplement appeared with all the teams and fixtures and the prospects for the new season, round about this time.”

Don Bentley looked at Henry, and the laughter had vanished from him, the sparkle and fun had gone, but it was time for his own question, the one he felt he must ask, even at the risk of ruining what had been a wonderful evening of reminiscences.

“And have you seen him, Henry? You can tell me. I won’t laugh. Those walls down there hold the smell of lead and ink, they probably still hold the laugher of the printers, so who says they don’t hold more?”

“And all the cursing, and all the fucks,” Henry was laughing again at the thought of those days, the camaraderie, mateship. “Well. I saw something one night. Don’t know what it was but I’ll tell you something, and I don’t care if you want to take the piss, or any of the others of you, I saw something. It looked like a young fella in an old cap, but I can’t be sure. He had this stare, and that’s what I remember, the stare of someone pissed off at losing his youth, even vengeful.”

“Did he say anything?” Don Bentley ventured.

“Cause he fucking didn’t, ” Henry replied, “He’s a fucking ghost, and I can’t be sure of that. But I’m telling you, Don, it was pretty creepy that night. I haven’t been down that part again, well not after the press has stopped running and it’s quiet and still down there. Too creepy.”

Henry Thompson’s words trailed away and Don Bentley could see he was troubled by what he had or hadn’t seen that night.

Don Bentley didn’t believe in ghosts. During 40-odd years as a newspaperman Don Bentley had heard countless ghost tales in and out of newspaper offices, had covered ghost stories and interviewed people whose insistence at what they’d seen had impressed him to the point of wanting to believe them. But Bentley, with the journalist’s air of cynicism about him, didn’t believe in ghosts and to prove it he told Henry Thompson a few weeks later that he was going back down to that part of the works where he had ventured just once. He was going down in the dead of night, after the rumble of the presses had stopped reverberating through the building, and after the distant laughter of the casual staff who inserted the supplements into the newspaper had died down.

Don Bentley did not believe in ghosts and he urged Henry to come with him to bury this tale of ghosts once and for all. To Bentley’s surprise Henry agreed, and said he would bring a high-powered torch because they would need it down there in the dank dead of night.

A few nights later, they reached the start of the passageway and at the far end they suddenly saw a shadow of sorts, a strange shape that waved and billowed and then vanished. They ventured forward, Don Bentley in front and Henry a few feet behind aiming the beam from his torch over Henry’s shoulder so it lit the way ahead. The dingy, ink-stained walls were white in the light, throwing up shadows of hooks and loose wires. When they came near to the end of the corridor the shape appeared again, moving and waving. Don Bentley thought he could see the shape of a boy there, with a cap and shoes with laces that flapped and floated. Henry had dropped back a few feet and peered around Bentley’s body.

Don Bentley continued to move forward, slowly, and then let out a laugh. “And there’s our ghost,” he said. He had stepped forward quickly now and was bending over a pipe that ran along the floor at the end of the passageway and vanished into the wall on each side.  Wisps of steam rose from the pipe. Henry moved alongside Bentley and gazed at the pipe and where it vanished into the walls.

“It’s hot water, and it’s leaking. It’s the pipe to the generator, the generator’s water cooled,” Henry said, still looking at where the pipe vanished into the walls, his head turning from side to side rapidly.

He was now wearing his hat of maintenance man.  “Generator must have been running tonight. They test it sometimes. I’ll tell them about the leak.” Henry was already walking back along the passageway. The rising steam had reinforced how cold it was down there and Henry was keen to get to the warmth of the maintenance men’s office where he would enter the leak in a book of work to be done in the building

As Don Bentley turned to follow him he noticed a half-folded newspaper in one of the alcoves leading from the main passageway. It was still fresh and new, just of the presses, and when he stooped to pick it up a supplement fell out – the coming season’s footy guide

Bentley quickly kicked the newspaper and its supplement back into the alcove where he had first spotted it, out of sight of Henry Thompson. The ghost had been laid to rest and Don Bentley wanted to keep it that way.

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