While working as a journalist at Macmillan Magazines, just off Fleet Street, in the early nineties, I often used to wander past St Bride Printing Library during my lunch hour. In its romantically narrow, hidden passage, a quiet backwater behind the traffic snarl of Ludgate Circus, the place always intrigued me. I longed to wander in, but had no real motive except curiosity. Instead I would sit down on a bench outside St Bride’s Church and eat my Pret a Manger sandwiches, before hurrying back to the subs’ desk on Nursing Times or Therapy Weekly.
By the first year of the new millennium I had a PhD, a toddler and no job. Patrick, my partner and I decided to buy a printing press. We wanted to do our own printing. With our friends Bruno, Francois and Burhan, we had already published three copies of a literary journal, interstice, and we now wanted to print books, literary experiments that mainstream publishers wouldn’t touch - to be written by ourselves and our friends. But how were we to acquire such a press? I scoured the shelves of art bookshops, but even the Tate Modern didn’t have what we wanted, just designer oriented glossies of zany typography that was never meant to be read, just admired. I said to Patrick, ‘I’ll have to go up to St Bride Printing Library.’ After making this announcement three times, I actually did it.
The library seemed rather small. I was used to the University of London Library and the old British Library. Small knots of people from remote parts of the world gathered around a man with a skullcap as children do around an adult who is distributing sweets. Later I discovered why and became one of them. The younger man who seemed less crowded showed me some copies of the Small Printer. It appeared to be the thing I needed, but there were no presses on sale in the most recent issue. He suggested I talk to the librarian when he had a moment. And indeed when Nigel did have a moment he took my details, and said that if he heard of anything he would let me know. And within a couple of days, he did. And within a couple of weeks we were up at book dealer Barry McKay’s beautiful Georgian house in Cumbria and had bought a cabinet of type and a modest but entirely functional Adana Eight-Five printer, circa 1938.
The type cabinet was extremely heavy and it took six months before Cumbria Express lugged it down to our house in Brighton in various pieces. We bought new rollers for the Adana, and began the long project of cleaning the type, much of which was covered with cat fur or spiders’ webs. (Much of it still is, in fact.) There were a great many contents of the cabinet that we could not identify, but that our small son Laurence and his friends loved to get out and play with all over the floor. Later I realised that most of this was ‘furniture’ and some of it was ‘leading’. Patrick’s job as a Reader in French at King’s College London had become more time-consuming, but I still had a passion and commitment to setting up the press. I booked myself in to Claire Bolton’s course at the Alembic Press in summer 2002 and learnt the basics of typesetting and printing.
After the course I was able to set type but I had to tell Patrick that I would never be very fast or good at it. I realised that you need a proper old-style apprenticeship to set large amounts of type the way they used to; and that nobody did it any more, the fine presses concentrating either on artists’ woodblocks or linocuts, or on poetry. We were not going to be able to do our literary experimentations using the hand press, and by this time I had another idea anyway.
Our son Laurence was not yet able to read, but loved books. He always had at least two stories read to him before bedtime, but also often brought books with him into our bed in the morning. I had become something of a connoisseur of children’s books, and I realised that many of them were rather poorly illustrated, with images that lacked fascination, often over-coloured and far too shiny, and in short not what any discerning parent wishes to buy. I remembered the far more mysterious or funny or subtle illustrations from the books of my own childhood, the original EH Shephard illustrations for Winnie the Pooh rather than the crudely sentimental Disney version; the delicate fairies of Arthur Rackham. I decided that I would like to make hand-made childrens books with proper artists’ illustrations, books that were sturdy enough for children to use (though at five Laurence now knows exactly how to hold a book, by the spine, and never throws, tears or manhandles one); books to treasure and return to, not to read and throw aside.
Laurence started school full-time last September, and Crabapple Children’s Books is gradually getting off the ground. The first list will consist of simple word books - groups of objects such as insects, trees, or clothes, that will help children learn to read and extend their vocabulary. I have recruited a group of talented local artists to do my illustrations. I have discovered a local schools supplier from which I can buy paper in bulk and have it cut to the right size. I have made contact with a local letterpress printer who has sold me a lead-cutter and a guillotine and a box of 24 point Bodoni which I will use in my books. I have made costings and a schedule and contacted educational groups which might be interested in commissioning, and have had one positive response already. And the parents I talk to all think it is a fantastic idea - informally I already have a clientele. It’s early days, but the outlook is pretty positive.
All of this thanks to St Bride’s. Without the warmth and encouragement, and direct practical help, of the librarian and his staff, I could not have dreamt up this project and hoped to make it into a reality. St Bride’s is more than a library, more than the sum of its parts. Its future is now secured - it has avoided the dive into faceless anonymity of so many independent libraries swallowed up by large institutions - and the weather is set fair. The next episode in the St Bride’s story will be a gripping read.
Anita Phillips is a freelance writer and editor who is now making letterpress printed children’s books