Tuesday 3 November 2015


Susan Hill's Howards End Is on the Landing is not short of surprises - the most dramatic of which is her frank, and frankly astounding, admission that she can't stand Jane Austen. Less surprising perhaps is that she worships Virginia Woolf just this side idolatry. But this admiration leads into unexpected territory - that of the John Bull Printing Set. Being the kind of chap who likes to rely on lazy stereotypes, I'd assumed the John Bull Printing Set was a boy thing (partly on the grounds that girls would have more sense than to fall for its delusive charms). But no - keen to emulate her Bloomsbury heroine's establishment of the Hogarth Press, Susan pounced with glee on the John Bull printing set she was given one childhood Christmas. And she loved it. Indeed she goes to far as to say 'No one who missed the era of the John Bull Printing Set can say they have lived.'
 Hmm. The trouble with the John Bull - and I speak from bitter memory here - was that a more useless printing system could scarcely have been devised. The type came in the form of rubber strips (John Bull's main business was in puncture repair kits), from which each individual letter, number or punctuation mark had to be removed with a pair of tweezers. A large proportion of these tiny bits of rubber would inevitably be lost, and setting those that remained, a piece at a time, in the little wooden rack that served as the printing block was the devil of a job. Not only was it extremely fiddly in itself, you had to be sure that each letter was the right way round (i.e. its mirror image) and the right way up - not easy with tiny Ss and 2s and Zs. When you eventually got to the point of printing, you'd often find you'd got something wrong and have to dismantle the whole forme. And you didn't have much time to devote to printing, as the ink pad that came with the kit would run dry annoyingly fast.
 Even the dedicated Susan Hill didn't get far in her printing operations, and eventually abandoned John Bull in favour of producing handwritten stories and newspapers. Most John Bull adopters never got beyond setting up and printing their own names to stamp on the title page of books, or anywhere else that ownership might be asserted. I still have some old Observer's books stamped with my name - in abbreviated form as I didn't even have enough usable letters for my full name (my set was from the cheaper end of the range). Some of these books contain alternating or overprinted stamps of my name and my brother's, tracing long-running ownership disputes. We each of us had a country named after us too; they slugged it out in epic two-man Test series in the park, and laid claim to various patches of local territory. Indeed I still regard a small traffic island at the end of our boyhood road as sovereign territory of Nigelliana, and keep a proprietary eye on it. But that's another story...


  1. 'No one who missed the era of the John Bull Printing Set can say they have lived.'

    It is my steady complaint that technology salesmen know that the two magical words are "Everyone is". The predicate hardly matters, given the right CIO. Yet I realize that this is more agreeable than the writer's gambit of "Nobody who has not x can y.

  2. Yes, Hill's is a peculiarly preposterous statement - it would be truer to say 'No one who missed the era of the JBPS can say they have gone to great lengths to print their name very badly in a book...'

  3. The discussions over the mechanics of the statement (group or personal) are intricate indeed and are mirrored in a fascinating article in today's Guardian 'Relativity v quantum mechanics', supporters of the description of the whacking big versus the supporters of the description of the teensy weensy. Both sets of arguments are infinite and will be ongoing as our descendants descend into a black hole, at which point all parties may discover the truth. Exiting the black hole, on the opposite side, obviously (or, possibly, not) both sets of supporters will produce the perfect joint statement.

  4. Ah Malty - that's what I call perspective!

  5. And now I've got Amazon offering me 'items similar to' the John Bull Printing Set. They look every bit as useless...