The poem that accompanied this week’s bread is, of course, first and foremost a song, and as such it lives better in performance than on the page. And no performance, in my view, is better than Eddi Reader’s sublime interpretation — if you’ve never heard her sing it, it’s well worth a listen on YouTube. As for the printing, the font, Caslon Old Face, was chosen to be more or less historically appropriate, the original having been developed in the mid 18th century. It was not, however, printed from metal type, but from a photopolymer plate, which was set from a digital version of the font (in this case, produced by Adobe). So, a rather strange hybrid of ancient and modern.
You’ll have noticed that I haven’t quite got the hang of printing from these photopolymer plates yet. They seem to require a different set of adjustments on the press from metal type. In this case, I couldn’t prevent an annoying smear of ink along the edge of the plate from leaving its mark on the paper. But it’s a learning process, and next month I’ll be trying again, probably with one of my favourite poems by Robert Frost.
In the meantime I’ve been reading Eric Gill’s brief and thought-provoking Essay on Typography from 1931, recently reissued by Penguin. It’s a striking book, not only for its somewhat intense meditations on the contrasting characteristics of artisan work and the products of industrialised processes (whether it be print, bread, architecture, or whatever), but also for its systematic abuse of the Daily Mail. For some reason, Gill seemed to see the Mail as symbolising the worst of the new mass-market commodification of culture. Well, I’m certainly not going to argue with him about that.
Anyway, the book is full of bons mots and interesting aperçus about the business of letter-making and its centrality to everyday life. (If you doubt this centrality, remember that Gill is partly responsible for giving London a crucial part of its modern identity, in the form of the fount that he and his mentor Edward Johnston created for the Underground in 1913, a version of which is still in use today.) Anyone who knows anything about Gill’s somewhat eccentric personal relations — to put it at its mildest — would be struck by this, in a discussion of the contemporary fashion for new and ever more elaborate lettering styles: “… seeing the whirl of eccentricity into which modern advertising is driving us, it seems good and reasonable to return to some idea of normality, without denying ourselves the pleasure and amusement of designing all sorts of fancy letters whenever the occasion for such arises. Moreover, it seems clear that, as a firm and hearty belief in Christian marriage enables one not only to make the best jokes about it but even to break the rules with greater assurance, so a good clear training in the making of normal letters will enable a man to indulge more efficiently in fancy and impudence.”
Gill certainly knew plenty about breaking the rules, both in typography and in marriage. But he was clear that a modern industrialised society demanded letter forms that were simple, clear and functional, as were appropriate to the processes of machine-based production.
For myself, of course, that’s rather the opposite of the approach I take both to baking and to printing, where imperfections are not only unavoidable but a positive characteristic of the making process, something to be embraced rather than extirpated. That’s not to say, of course, that I don’t try to reduce those imperfections as far as I can, simply to acknowledge that perfection is the mark of an impersonal, inhuman process. Having had long struggles to get an even impression on the page, without too much show-through (where the impression is clearly visible on the reverse of the paper), I also had to smile at Gill’s capsule history of printing: “To ensure that every letter left its mark more or less completely & evenly, considerable and noticeable impression was made in the paper. The printed letter was a coloured letter at the bottom of a ditch. The subsequent development of typography was chiefly the development of technical improvements, more accurately cast types, smoother paper, mechanically perfect presses. … A print is properly a dent made by pressing; the history of letterpress printing has been the history of the abolition of that dent.”
In light of which, it seems ironic that the strong fashion now, in the current letterpress revival, is for noticeable impressions in heavy gauge paper — the better, I suppose, to distinguish the products of the hand press from those of the inkjet or laser printer. Gill, I suspect, would be aghast.