Gary Arber – The Last of The Line Listen Here
Let’s step outside Hackney for a moment and take a walk along Bow’s Roman Road. Between the upstart estate agents, mobile phone shops, Caribbean hairdressers and cab firms, you’ll find a shop that seems abandoned long ago. The green paint’s sun-bleached and peeling. The bay of the window holds a faded clutter of miscellany; paper pads, cd’s, staplers and sellotape. The glass pane of the door bears the thin patina of an exuberant white serif-fed script:
“Est. 1897. W F Arber and Co. Advance Press.” At the bottom of the pane, a telephone number the exchanges abandoned decades ago: “ADVance 2067.”
A small sign, written in a neat but unsteady hand, is the sole clue the business may still be trading: “If the door is closed, please knock on the window and wait. I may be busy in another part of the shop.”
Wait, and when the door does open, you’ll be met by Gary Arber. Gary is an amiable old cove; tall, with a well kept head of hair and a curt wry smile that creeps from beneath his moustache, invariably he’ll be wearing his work uniform; an olive-green boiler suit and heavy black work shoes. Gary has a tale or two to tell about the family business he’s been running for the last sixty years.
In its heyday, at the turn of the twentieth century, Arbers took on pro-bono work for Sylvia Pankhurst and her radical faction of suffragettes. Printing for the cause of universal suffrage wasn’t a charitable act on the part of Gary’s grandfather but a job the old man couldn’t avoid: Gary’s grandmother, a close friend of Sylvia, wasn’t one to be argued with. The grandfather’s politics leant in a different direction.
Gary took over the business in 1952 when his father died. Prior to that Gary had been a career airman based at RAF Scampton, home of the dam busters squadron. As a byline during his time in the services, Gary took up radio broadcasting, running a “Down Your Way” style show on the base’s radio station and he now talks with a passion about music, ballroom dancing and recording technology.
Although Gary has moved with the times and works with digital press, the company is one of the few places in London that still uses a traditional letterpress. Down in the cellar a few of the old machines are kept in action most notably the Hiedelberg that arrived from Germany in 1939. Gary can’t be sure if the manufacturers ever received payment for the press. The machine arrived just as war broke out. Payment was sent to the British government who were supposed to send the money on, but whether they did or not no one knows. During the war Arbers became a major government contractor and one of the jobs they took on was printing cards for German POW’s to send home to their families – the cards were printed on the Hiedelberg down in the cellar.
Gary still gets asked to use the letterpress to print business cards and letterheads. “People say they like the embossed feel of work printed on a letterpress,” he says, “but they’ve got it all wrong. Good letterpress printing should be a smooth as baby’s bottom. To get that feel, because you can’t by new type sets these days, you have to apply too much pressure to the machine.”
At seventy eight Gary still works five days a week and will see the business to it’s end … which will coincide with his own. Gary is the last of the line of Arber printers and the keeper of an archive of memories about the family business.