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Interview: Bill Brisco, printer

08 February 2013

'The Church Times was rather old-fashioned, as were most of the staff'

In 1955, my father contacted Rosamund Essex, then editor of the Church Times, to ask if there were any vacancies for me. There was one - for a dogsbody: office-boy-cum-general-factotum (who was known as a "printer's devil"). So, at the age of 16, when I didn't really know what I wanted to do, off I went to Portugal Street.

Rosamund was very - how can I describe her - stern. That's the kindest word I can think of for her. A no-nonsense kind of lady. She was a pillar of the Abbey in St Albans, as well, where my family worshipped.

In those days, the Church Times was rather old-fashioned, as were most of the staff.

All the work was done by hand. I started off in the front office, which was headed by Mr Finch, downstairs, just inside the door. He commuted in from Kent, and was assisted by a Mr Salmon from Chatham, and another man from Harrow. I thought they were elderly, but I suppose they were in their 50s. On the ground floor, there was a Miss or Mrs Somerville, who dealt with advertising, and was an ardent Communist. She read the Daily Worker.

Apart from Bernard Palmer, who was the head man, and Rosamund Essex, I can remember the proof-reader, Mr Randall, in an office right upstairs underneath the printers. He was a younger man; and there was Anne Frances Potts, who was in her 20s. She edited the children's page.

People came in on a casual basis - mainly clergy. They used to write ad hoc articles, I suppose, as and when asked.

Each day contained a bit of everything. First thing in the morning, we dealt with the mail; and we dealt with enquiries and subscriptions. All the editorial work was done upstairs, in a rather large room. So it was: "Do this, do that, run out to the café round the corner and get me a ham roll."

If they needed some dirty job doing in the print workshop, like "dissing", dis-typing - breaking up the type which had been set and putting it back into the trays again - that was my job. Once the type had been cast, it was just necessary to assemble it together with the pictures, which in those days were solid metal plates; so the time it took varied, according to its complexity. Headlines didn't take long, but text took time.

I really enjoyed my lunch hours, peering into the Old Curiosity Shop opposite, and wandering down Oxford Street. Commuting on those old steam trains could be cold and cramped, but it only took 25 minutes, the same as today.

There were typesetting machines upstairs, and the compositors made up the pages of hot metal. They were put into what are known as chases - one for each page - and that was put into a forme, which holds the page. These were lowered down on the infamous lift, which was a hand-rope job - always getting stuck. On one occasion, the heavy forme fell to the bottom, and was completely ruined. There were loud words emanating from upstairs.

St Albans has this great tradition of printing. It was supposed to have had the second printer: Wynkyn de Worde.

I did printing training at Staples Press in St Albans. Everyone who worked there aspired to go to Watford, because the wages were twice as good. I didn't do that - eventually I set up on my own. We had a printing club at school, and my brother had also done some printing work, and I was getting more work than I could handle at evenings and weekends. So my fiancée suggested I started my own business. I had secretarial help, and a printing friend who helped in the busy times. A lot of my work came from the Abbey, because they didn't have their own department then.

The main changes in printing have been the moves from hot metal to offset, and now to digital. Hot metal is still used in the craft world - and there are still things we can do that offset can't do, like perforating, numbering, and scoring. A prime example is printing draw tickets. A letterpress printer can do all in one movement, which makes it cheaper for the customer.

Styles have changed, and you have a lot more options with digital. But you see a lot of bad offset work done by people who have no real training, unlike the hot-metal apprentices.

I was in the St Albans Abbey Fellowship from the mid-'50s, and over time I got involved with various things: the parochial committee, the Cathedral Council, and various sub-committees: finance, mission, Abbey Magazine - I suppose that's because of the printing connection, though I didn't print it.

I'm now the head of servers at the cathedral. I used to sit in the nave on the south side, always on the end of the row. One day, Dean Thicknesse came along. He used to walk up and down the centre nave on his stick before the service, talking to people. One day, he prodded me in the back with his stick and said in his loud voice: "You must become a server." I was duly enrolled, in 1953. Yes, 60 years ago, though I was at boarding school at the time; so I wasn't formally admitted till 1955.

It's hard work doing the rotas. It's coming up to our busy time, with all the extra Easter services, and we've lost a few servers recently. They go off to university, and it's becoming difficult to cover all the services: weekdays, Sundays, and all the special services. I don't know why I do it, really - I tear my hair out on the second Sunday of every month. It comes round relentlessly. It's a chore. But it's a tremendous pleasure - doing the actual serving. I shall carry on with that for as long as I can, though kneeling is getting increasingly difficult.

I married my fiancée, Virginia. It's our Golden Wedding on 16 February, and we're going to Devon. We have two meetings for collectors of Poole pottery in February and July, which usually attract between 100 and 150 people. We have talks, sell books, and have a jolly good long weekend.

Virginia's grandparents had three pieces of South Devon pottery, and I thought it was wonderful. When they died, the pieces came into our possession. They had "Watcombe" on the base; so I acquired a book about it, and discovered a collectors' society, and it all went on from there. The Watcombe pottery became established in Torquay in 1869, and closed in 1962. At the time there were about 20 potteries in the Torquay area. Now they've all gone.

Being us, we didn't just become members: we got involved. Virginia became editor of the magazine for 13 years, and I printed it, and I became secretary and eventually chairman in the '70s. In 2000, we gave up all that, and now just enjoy the pottery and going to meetings.

I've had some odd things to print over time. This last Christmas, I printed some paper bags for a Raymond Gubbay concert at the Albert Hall, in which they were playing the 1812 Overture. The bags had a starburst on, and the word "BANG" in the middle in red. When the cannons were going off, the audience had to blow up the bags and burst them.

My one regret is that I didn't continue with my music studies when I was younger. That was really - well, it was because I met Virginia. . . No, the truth of the matter was that I wasn't good enough. I had a vision of being a really competent musician, but when I was 11 I lost the top of my finger, and it affected my confidence and capability.

Cuthbert Thicknesse was an inspiration. He encouraged me. He always seemed to have time for you, though he did seem very gruff to some people,

My favourite part of the Bible is the Psalms. When Dean Thicknesse was here, we used to say verses, taken from psalms, in the vestry.

When I was really young, the Queen and Prince Philip came to open the new Chapter House in St Albans. I actually served at that service, and spoke to them both. Prince Philip said to me: "I bet that cross is heavy." I replied: "Deceptively so - they think because it's acrylic, it's not - but it is." But there have been lots of other occasions which I've been honoured to be part of, and will always stay with me. I was invited to go to a garden party at Buckingham Palace in 2001, which was nice. I think often servers are taken for granted.

I wanted to be a pianist and organist; so, to me, the sound of an organ is just wonderful. And the sound of railway steam- engines: every summer we go to the Severn Valley Railway. They re- create the 1940s, and we dress up, and travel up and down the line - great fun.

Untidiness bugs me.

We like going to North Cyprus; and Guernsey.

I'd like to be locked in the Abbey with its former Master of Music, Peter Hurford. He was a brilliant musician and a friendly guy, from whom I learned a lot.

Bill Brisco was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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