Wednesday, 16 November 2016

How I got into Beer Writing – Part One

I have been writing this blog since 2008, and apart from a bit of a hiatus due to illness in 2011, have posted on a pretty regular basis. What people may not know is I have been writing about beer and pubs for much longer than the past eight years. Strangely enough it was a complete accident as to how and why I became a writer in the first place, as I am about to reveal.

Back in the early 1980’s, I was quite heavily involved with the Maidstone & Mid-Kent Branch of CAMRA. I was living in the county town at the time, having bought my first house there. I had been a CAMRA member for around five years previously, but had not been actively involved with the Campaign in any shape or form; apart from drinking “real ale” and buying the Good Beer Guide.

"Draught Copy" - 21st Century style
Shortly after moving in, I took a conscious decision to play more of an active role within CAMRA, so got in touch with the local branch and attended my first branch meeting. I received a friendly welcome and decided to go along to future branch socials. The branch, at the time, produced a newsletter called “Draught Copy”. It is still going, but in a much enlarged and much more professional format; but that’s a different story. Back in the early 1980’s the branch were short of volunteers to deliver the newsletter to local pubs; particularly those in Maidstone town centre. I put myself forward, as not only would this be helping the branch, but it would also enable me to become better acquainted with Maidstone’s pubs.

I enjoyed my new role, especially as it got me out of the house and visiting pubs I might not otherwise have bothered with. The branch seemed pleased as well, as not long after I was asked to join the committee.  Again, this was a position I was pleased to fill and I found myself helping out in various ways, including helping to organise and run a beer festival.

Things were going well for the branch until sometime around 1982-83. Then, in a shock announcement, the then branch chairman, informed us that he and his family would be moving to Andover in Hampshire, where they would be taking over the running of a pub, on behalf of the recently formed Bourne Valley Brewery.

Now this was a good move on Dave’s part, as despite being a fully qualified personnel officer, he had been out of work for as long as I had known him; although he had filled his time by managing a couple of local pubs. The latter experience, coupled with his knowledge of beer and brewing, gained partly through CAMRA, stood him in good stead for the pub job. The fact that he knew Bourne Valley’s founder, James Lynch (again through CAMRA), was obviously another point in his favour – who says CAMRA doesn’t open doors to a new career?

From the branch point of view, as well as losing an excellent and highly experienced chairman, there was also the slight problem of the branch newsletter, as Dave was both editor and chief copy writer. At that month's committee meeting, a deathly silence greeted Dave when he asked the question,  “Would anyone like to take over the task?” It was one of those moments were everything changes in an instant so, stunned by my own boldness,  I raised my hand and said, "I wouldn’t mind giving it a go."

Dave and his family weren’t due to move straight away, so he was able to give me some assistance. Back in the early 1980’s though, there were no PC’s and no desk-top publishing programmes. Instead everything had to be typed out manually. The branch had sensibly invested in an electric typewriter, especially for the newsletter. Manual typewriters, for those who can remember, tend to produce very uneven looking print; the degree of inking being directly related to the force applied when striking the keys! Electric models produce a more even text, which is both pleasing to the eye and much easier to read. Typing up copy was therefore no problem, but headings and sub-headings were a different matter.

Hands up all those who remember Letraset? Letraset were best known for their dry rub-down transfer technique, which was used to create “camera-ready artwork”. Right up to the mid 1980’s, Letraset sheets were used extensively by professional and amateur graphic designers, architects and artists to produce affordable and attractive artwork of a professional appearance. I certainly used it to create headings and sub-headings for “Draught Copy”.

For many years, Letraset were based in Ashford; the East Kent town where I grew up and went to school. The company have since moved to Le Mans, in France. Rather than me trying to explain how the process worked, this short YouTube video gives a neat demonstration on how to use “Dry Transfer Lettering”.

I mentioned “camera-ready artwork” earlier. This is a common term used in the commercial printing industry meaning that a document is, from a technical standpoint, ready to "go to press", or be printed. In offset printing the term referred to where the final layout of a document was attached to a "paste up". Then, a “copy camera” was used to photograph the paste up, and the final offset printing plates were created from the camera's negative.

It’s worth mentioning that the term "paste up”, meant literally that! Columns and blocks of type-written print were cut up and pasted onto a paper or card backing, along with the relevant headings, sub-headings and any illustrations. “Cow Gum” or “Prit-Stick” were the favourite adhesives, but everything had to be lined up so it was level and square. One trick was to use lines drawn with a light blue crayon, as these would not be picked up by the copy camera. "Tipp-Ex", and other similar correcting fluids, helped to cover up any imperfections or paste-up lines.

Cut & Paste
The production of “camera-ready artwork” was a real labour of love, but that was as far as my involvement with the print process went, because the next stages were the responsibility of someone else; someone whose knowledge and contacts were invaluable to the branch in terms of both time and money.

We had a member who worked in the print trade primarily with the repair and setting up of printing presses. Because of the nature of the job, he worked mainly nights, so was normally unable to get along to CAMRA meetings, but by using his skills within the print trade he was able to provide the branch with a professional-looking newsletter for a fraction of the normal cost.

How this worked was as follows. Once I had produced said artwork, I would phone this individual and we would arrange to meet; normally in a car park somewhere between Maidstone and  the Medway Towns, which was where he lived. I would hand over the artwork, and then wait a week or so for his call. We would meet up again; I would hand over some cash in exchange for a neatly bound stack of around 500 copies of the latest edition of "Draught Copy".

Detail from a modern off-set printing plate
I never asked too many questions, but I gathered that having first produced printing plates from the artwork I supplied, he would use the plates to test the machines he had just serviced or repaired. This, of course, involved running off a few hundred copies of our newsletter. This helped him in his job, as well as us and, because he generally worked unsocial hours, I’m sure he was never rumbled. It all sounds very clandestine and underhand, but was really nothing more than a form of mutual cooperation between an organisation, keen to get its message across, and someone who wanted to help, by making use of the printing presses he was working on at the time.

This represented my first foray into the world of printing, but on the creative side, writing the bulk of the copy for the newsletter gave me a valuable insight into the world of writing, and has time went on, helped me to increase my confidence and become a better writer.

In 1985, for business and personal reasons, I moved to Tonbridge, some 15 miles from Maidstone, but in a different CAMRA branch area. By the time I got involved with the new branch (actually I was one of four people who resurrected what had become a moribund group), and helped set up a new branch magazine, things had moved on in the world of publishing and things were about to go digital.

We will leave the story there for the moment, apart from saying getting involved with desk-top publishing was every bit as steep a learning curve as the previous “cut and paste” method had been.

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m.lawrenson said...

Ah, the old days. I remember some of this when I was a kiddywink back in 1993. Things had moved on a bit by then. But only slightly.

I produced my zine on an Atari ST, with some DTP software I got free on the cover disk of a magazine. Being old software even then (copyright date was 1987), the interface was somewhat clunky and it was easier to type the words into a word processor and import the text for layout. It's graphical capabilities were nonexistent, so I had to leave blank spots (carefully measured) for any pictures (physically pasted in later) I required. Each page took about 3 disk swaps to compile (512k wasn't a lot of working memory even then), and about 5 minutes to print out on my hilariously noisy 24-pin dot matrix printer.

I then took it to the local printers. Sadly, no friendly off-schedule contact for me. No, I manually photocopied my A4 work (reducing it to A5), and stuck to my painstakingly worked out pagination formatting. It took ages. I then went home, and manually collated them, and stapled the sheets together using a mini-stapler and a polystyrene block. The edges were never level as I had no trimmer.

It brought you close to your product, but by god was it a pain in the arse.

Matt said...

I joined the Labour Party in 1987 and in 1990 went to college in Stoke, where I joined the Labour Club at the poly. I spent countless hours manually cutting up and pasting articles for newsletters, posters etc. before photocopying them, as well as turning the handle of the duplicator and guillotining leaflets in the Labour Party offices in Stoke. Tell the kids that now and they won't believe you...

Paul Bailey said...

“Tell the kids that now and they won't believe you”. Reminds me of the famous Monty Python “Four Yorkshiremen” sketch!

Seriously, technology has moved on so quickly over the past quarter century that the kids of today almost certainly wouldn’t believe people had to literally cut and paste articles and news items together, before they could be printed.

I will be coming onto DTP in the next part of the post m.lawrenson, but when I think of my old Amstrad computer, with twin 5¼ inch drives, but no hard-disc, and my noisy dot-matrix printer, which seemed to shake the whole house, even those early days seem a completely different world.