A century ago James Leatham moved from Hull to Turriff and began a serialisation called ‘Twixt Desk and Shelves’ in his magazine The Gateway. This is the first episode, exactly 100 years after it was first published:
Twixt Desk And Shelves
I. There’s nothing so funny as folk.
First published in The Gateway in July 1916
‘Come on here! I hinna had a lift this lang time,’ said a strong man, showing a double row of natural ivories. He had come forward out of pure neighbourliness, and as he hoisted his end he spoke as if it were quite a privilege to be allowed to heave at heavy boxes and still heavier machinery.
‘Some grand willing lifters in this part of the country,’ said the Printer to whom all this dunnage belonged; and he smiled encouragement to his strong helpers, as well he might.
‘What was ye deein’ pittin’ a load on the cratur like that?’ protested a cross carter to the goods foreman, who had accompanied the last load. ‘She cam up the brae wi’ ‘er belly nearhnan’ trailin’ on the grun’, ruggin’ at it.’
The foreman, be sure, had his answer ready, and just as surely the others joined in the dispute. Altogether there was some stir and a good deal of curiosity among those who happened to be about as the lorries discharged load after load of this heavy cargo at one or other of the two doors that gave admission to the premises. These consisted of two long sheds which had been occupied by a cycle agent, now called to the colours. Built of wood and concrete, the whole front, practically, consisting of windows, the premises were lined with V boards, which had just got a coat of distemper above the varnish, and the outside was now painted in cheerful green, red, and white. They formed part of a terrace, the other end of which was occupied by a monumental sculptor, whose craft was freely represented in granite tombstones of diverse shapes, sizes and hues, from the ‘Bon-Accord black’ (of Sweden) and dark, spotted Labrador pearl, up to whitest Kemnay. There were ‘In Loving Memories’ in every kind of Gothic, Italic and squab Sans-serif lettering, scattered about the railed-off half of the terrace, in which a crane and a bogey or so competed with them for place. A little glass-cased shed adjoining the road contained a display of wreaths, crosses, and other trappings of woe. But the sculptor was a very hearty man, with a cheerful hail to passers-by in the road below; and to this emporium of the memento mori a further element of cheerfulness was added by the day-long rookity-coo of pigeons. Two pairs of brown-and-white pouters straddled among the obelisks and flew noisily over the urns and crosses. There was, however, a touch of the profession even about the sculptor’s pigeon fancy. Most fantails are white; but the sculptor’s pair were of funereal black.
It is one of life’s ironies that people who are content to live under leaky thatch should have a canopy of carved and polished marble or granite over their rotting remains when dead; that the Egyptians, for instance, should have put mountainous pyramids of hewn stone over their wicked and foolish dead Pharaohs, while they themselves festered in mud huts amid swarms of vermin. But the sculptor of St Congans did not give all his granite to the insensate dead. He kept some of it for the appreciative living. His own house was of granite. The polished door-jambs were of many well-blended hues; a miniature battlemented parapet of the polished stone overhung the doorway; a masonic emblem shone from the crown of an arch over the front gate. Another gate which gave entrance to the terrace had its pillars surmounted by two enormous polished balls of the precious stone. So that the dead did not have all the honour and expense.
It was, all the same, a cheerful corner, resounding to the noise of vehicular traffic all day, to which on mart days was added the lowing of much bestial and the excited shouting of those that gain a livelihood as propellors of horned beasts. Birds sang loudly in the belt of tall trees that shot up on the other side of the road; and the whistle of trains that passed near by brought an extra sense of the world-stir.
The printer’s new premises stood, as so far indicated, on a terrace raised up and railed off from the road, their elevation placing them well in view of all men. They were lean-to sheds built against a high bank; and the passers-by grinned when the read the undernoted announcement, printed in bold red letters on a white screen that ran across the lower portion of one of the wide windows, which was divided into four compartments by matter-of-fact mullions of painted wood:
The St Congans Press. Henry Haldane. Printer and Bookseller. Office of the Pelican
They grinned, and he grinned also, but on the wrong side of his face. The state of popular enlightenment was apparently on all fours here with that of the English country town he had just left. This was a matter of no direct importance to a butcher or baker, since the ignorant had their animal needs as well as the enlightened, whereas it was with the noblest part of man that a bookseller made his account. In his own native city there were ‘Presses’ galore; but these people had evidently never noted the signs or imprints of the printers who called their establishments the Caxton, Bon-Accord, St Nicholas, Adelphi, or Rosemount Press.
With the perverted menatality of those who do not see the humorous when it is there, they saw only an occasion of smiling where the absurdity existed only in their own minds. They were amused apparently at the idea of a Press being established in a town of less than three thousand inhabitants. They doubtless overlooked the fact that in a smaller town lower down the railway a printer had been established for years. Nay, he could have told them of a very considerable printer which for two generations had sent out chapbooks that were sent all over the north country, and much general printing was also turned out of this office, which was quite in the open country.
Those who smiled were thinking of the word ‘Press’ solely as applied to newspapers; and they were amused, doubtless, at the idea of a newspaper being produced in two lean- to sheds in a little country town. The printer was annoyed to think that Scotsmen, even in the country, did not know that newspapers formed only one branch of that great civilising agency the Press. Anyhow, the sheds were long and lofty and well lit, and had he felt any inclination towards the production of the ephemeral journalism of new potatoes, large gooseberries, and small presentations, there was room and to spare for even that.
As it was, the part of his stock by which he set most store lay in rough parcels closely packed along four shelves that ran the whole length of the larger shed of the two. These parcels consisted of his own publications. Some of these had gone through edition after edition, selling away steadily year after year. There was always something just out of print and calling for reproduction. At one period he had set up a press at a farmstead, and, with the whole household assisting, he could scarce keep pace with the demand.
His acquaintances sometimes remonstrated with him for wasting his time at what they were pleased to call the mechanical business of printing. In widely varying forms of appeal, they represented that he ought to give all his time to writing; that many men with less ability were making thousands a year by their pen; and that (this was the only disinterested line taken) his facility as a writer was a great trust and responsibility which he had no moral right to bury in a country printing shop; that his writings, properly marketed by a regular London publisher, would sell ten times as well, and he could produce ten times as much of his own proper work. And so on.
To all this his usual reply was that he liked to work with his hands; that he grew fat and soft sitting at a desk; that the years he had given to weekly journalism did not justify a continuance in sedentary work; that if William Morris cared to dye wool and weave tapestry; if Tolstoy wanted to make boots; and if Sir Walter stuck to his dry legal work through all his literary success, surely he, a much smaller man than those giants, might be content to do work which was endlessly varied and not at all dry in itself. There might be some doubt about the value of anybody’s writing – the writing of even the front rankers – but the man who made boots or dye woollens or printed handbills was meeting the test of everyday utility. He was in his vocation whoever might be out of it.
And so here he was today, helping the lorryman with the parts and packages, doing comparatively little damage to a new grey suit, and at the end of each bout of lifting, drawing the corks of the bottles of beer and stout with which the helpers were regaled.
The strong man with the big teeth took his bottle and glass shamefacedly, as if he would rather not have it supposed that he had had any such recompense in view when he came to lend a hand.
The fact seemed to be that all were genuinely interested in the new enterprise. They listened eagerly and asked questions as the machinery was lifted into the approximate places where it was to be erected.
The printer thought this natural enough. He remembered his own wonder as a boy as to how printing could be done in all its uniformity and beautiful exactitude. There were still arts and processes about which he was not too old to be curious. He would, for instance, like to know much more about zincography, the moulding of architraves, the hammering of copper, silver point engraving, and many other processes about which he had not had favourable chances of learning.
The cycle maker’s sign had been painted out, his own emblazoned screen was prominent enough, and the whole appearance of the building seemed to him altered; but for weeks he had slow-spoken callers who were loth to accept the new regime.
‘Could you men’ a burs’en tyre?’ said a lass one day in a hopeless tone which indicated in advance that she knew what the answer must be.
‘Oh, you’ll easily get your tyre mended, ma’am’ said the new tenant, smiling. ‘There are two cycle agents in the High Street alone. This, as you will see, is a printing office and bookseller’s shop.’
She did not go. More time was evidently required for the new order of things to soak into her mind.
An absurd old rhyme came into his head as she stood, and as he hated to talk about the weather, he said, ‘Your question, reminds me of an old strowd. I wonder if you know it.
‘Hae ye ony men aboot yer toon,
Hay ye ony men ava,
Hae ye ony men aboot yer toon
‘At could mend a broken wa’?
Ring a riddle nickadarie,
Ring a riddle nicadkee.
Do you know it?’
She went off as if she were insulted by the question.
A previous tenant of the place called in one day, displaying a very offhand manner. Strolling in, he immediately asked, ‘What are you going to do here?’
Printer: It is the business of a printer to print, and the business of a bookseller to sell books. I am a printer and bookseller.
Casual caller: Who are you going to print for?
Printer: There must be lots of printing to do in a complete town of over 1000 population, with three churches, three lawyers, three chemists, a higher grade school, a provost, a town council, a school board, gasworks, a parish council, and a score or two of shops. But I may have all the world for my market if it comes to that.
Casual Caller: Eyh?
The printer took no notice of this rude interjection. He remembered as a boy having seen a captain of militia give a man a sounding welt on the face for just such a form of address, and he (the onlooker) had been thoroughly startled and impressed by the well-deserved chastisement. He had forgotten that this kind of rudeness was rather distinctively Scottish (though he suspected it was Colonial as well), and he did not like being reminded of it now. The abstract countryman was perfect, but the concrete one was often not a little of a boor, who behaved as if the word ‘Sir’ or any other courtesy would blister his mouth.
Some of the most dexterously courteous and tactful people he had known belonged to the shire in which he now stood. He had known one man – a retired draper – who had always addressed his gardener as ‘Mister Adams’ and his whole demeanour was in keeping. Rochester’s celebrated poem on ‘Nothing’ enumerated Scots courtesy among the painfully non-existent things; but the printer had always resented the imputation. Yet – after all, here was the thing showing up, undeniable, and very objectionable. If a person spoke distinctly, within hearing range, and there were no noises to drown the sound, then the person who failed to hear might be deaf, but was more probably just wool gathering. In speaking to a deaf person one raised one’s voice, and got the pitch sooner or later. So if it was wool-gathering the apologetic ‘Sir’ or ‘I beg your pardon’ was only courteous.
By ‘Eyh?’ was something of a local institution apparently. He had been working indoors one evening while a painter and a neighbour worked outside. When one made a remark the other never failed to say ‘Eyh?’ At the other end of the building and with a wall between him and them, the listener heard the first remark; but the two men working side by side never seemed to hear it. The result was that the one person who was not engaged in the conversation had to hear it all twice over. Thus:-
Painter: They say he’s left five thoosan’’
Painter: They say he’s left five thoosan’
Stonecutter: Oh he’ll hae left the dooble o’ that.
Stonecutter: He’ll hae left the dooble o’ that.
That kind of thing kept up for half an hour rather tends to get upon one’s nerves. In his wage-earning days the printer remembered that if an office man failed to catch a remark twice running, he would be sharply requested to ‘wake up’ or ‘take the wax out of your ears.’ But, other men other manners, evidently. He had known men say ‘Eyh’ at every remark who would answer you presently without having the remark repeated, if you just waited; which showed that it was not a case of failing to hear, but simply an objectionable mannerism arising from a kind of mental laziness, or a contemptuous disregard for your company.
However, these were spots on the sun. Every place had its drawbacks. As he looked across at the belt of woodland on the other side of the road, with the green fields showing beyond it, while the birds warbled their cheeriest, he felt there were compensations here at any rate.
To find more episodes of 'Twixt Desk and Shelves' oinline the first 10 episodes are being serialised online at McStorytellers (episode 2 HERE)
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