Gary Arber, printer
On Monday morning, I set out early from Spitalfields, crossing the freshly fallen snow in Weavers’ Fields, and walking due East until I came to the premises of Arber & Co Ltd at 459 Roman Rd. Once I rang the bell, Gary Arber appeared from the warren of boxes inside, explaining that he did not have much time because he had to do his accounts. So, without delay, I took the photo above and Gary told to me that his grandfather Walter Francis Arber first opened the shop in 1897, as a printer and stationer that also sold toys. The business was continued by Gary’s father who was also called Walter Francis Arber and it is this name that remains on the stationery today.
“I’m here under duress because I’m an airman,” said Gary, explaining that he took over the business, sacrificing his career as a pilot flying Lincoln Bombers when his father died, because his mother relied upon the income of the printing works. “I left the beautiful Air Force forever in 1954,” he revealed wistfully. It is not hard to envisage Gary as a handsome flying ace, he has that charismatically nonchalant professionalism. You can see it in the picture above, Gary retains the Air Force moustache over half a century later, so you only have to imagine a flight suit in place of the overall to complete the picture. There is no doubt Gary saw life before he swapped the flight suit for an overall and vanished into the print shop. He was there at Christmas Island in 1946 to witness one of the first nuclear tests (see it here), though thankfully Gary was not one of those pilots who flew through the dust cloud to collect samples. “We were guests of the day, watching from a boat, we had bits of dark glass and they told us to shut our eyes when the countdown reached two and open our eyes to look through the glass when it reached minus five – but you saw it through your eyelids. Then you felt the shock, the turbulence and the heat. It was great fun.” Mercifully, Gary appears to have suffered no ill-effects, still running the shop today at seventy-eight, driving daily from his home in Romford.
These days, Gary’s shop has become something of a magnet for artists who love his old-school letterpress printing but, as a sole operator, Gary now only undertakes these jobs “under pressure.” “The quality is rubbish,” he says, grabbing a pad of taxi receipts and turning one over to reveal the impress of the type, embossed into the paper – the only way he can get a clear print from the worn type now. “It should be smooth, like a baby’s bottom,” he sighs, running a single finger across the reverse of the page before tossing it back onto the pile. I was concerned upon Gary’s behalf until he disarmed me, “I don’t make any money, I’m just pottering about and enjoying myself!” he confided gleefully. Owning his premises, Gary enjoys complete security and the freedom to carry on in his own sweet way.
I heard a rumour that the Suffragettes’ handbills were printed here and Gary confirms this. “My grandmother, Emily Arber, was a friend of Mrs Pankhurst and she wouldn’t let my grandfather charge for the printing. A ferocious woman, she ruled everyone – the women, my grandmother and aunt, ran the toys’ side of the business.” And although the toys side was wrapped up long ago when Gary’s aunt (also called Emily) died, the signs remain. Lift your eyes above the suspended fluorescents and you discover there are beautifully coloured posters produced by toy manufacturers pasted to the ceiling. “If I removed those the roof would probably collapse!” quipped Gary with a grin. Then, indicating the glass-fronted cases that were used to display dolls, “All the shopfittings are a hundred years old, nothing’s been touched.” he said proudly, and pointed to an enigmatic line with scruffy ends of string hanging down, each carrying more dust than you would have thought possible, “Those bits of string had board games hanging from them once.”
Moving a stack of boxes to one side, Gary uncovered some printing samples for customers to select their preferred options. What a selection! There was a ration card from a butcher round the corner, a dance ticket for December 30th 1939 at Wilmot St School, Bethnal Green, and one for an ATS Social with the helpful text “You will be informed in the event of an air raid,” just in case you get seduced by Glenn Miller and do not hear the siren. There is a crazy humour about these things being here. I turned to confront an advert for a Chopper bicycle portraying a winsome lady with big hair, exhorting me to “Be a trendy shopper.” I turned back to Gary, “This is a shop not a museum,” he said sternly. You could have fooled me.
Aware that I was keeping Gary from his chores, I was on the brink of taking my leave, when Gary confessed that he was no longer in the mood for doing accounts. Instead he took me down to the cellar where six printers worked once. “This is where it used to happen,” he announced with bathos, as we descended the wooden staircase into a subterranean space where six oily black beasts of printing presses crouched, artfully camouflaged beneath a morass of waste paper, old boxes and packets with the occasional antique tin toy, left over from stock, to complete the mix. Here was a printing shop from a century ago, an untidy time capsule – where the twentieth century passed through like a furious whirlwind, demanding printing for the Suffragettes and printing for the Government through two World Wars, and whisking Gary away to Christmas Island to witness a nuclear explosion. And this what was what was left. I was completely overawed at the spectacle, as Gary began removing boxes to reveal more of the machines, enthusiastically explaining their different qualities, capabilities and operating systems. He pointed out the two that were used for the Suffragettes’ handbills and I stood in a moment of silent reverence to register the historical significance of these old hulks, a Wharfdale and a Golding Jobber.
Gary made a beeline for the Heidelberg, the only one that still works, and began tinkering with the type that he used to print the taxi receipt I saw earlier. This was the heart of it all. I joined him and, standing together in the quiet, we both became absorbed by the magic of the press. Gary was explaining the technical names for the parts of the printer’s pie, when an unexpected wave of emotion overcame me there in this gloomy cellar, on a cold morning in February, up to my ankles in rubbish surrounded by historic printing presses. “Will you print something for me?” I blurted out, and although he claimed he only did this “under pressure,” Gary kindly consented to my heartfelt request at once.
I need some correspondence cards and I am honoured that Gary will print them for me (in Perpetua, my favourite typeface) as a momento of his wonderful printing shop. Once we agreed on the nature of the job, another customer arrived. So I said my goodbyes, secure in the knowledge that I now have reason to go back and continue our conversation, once the proofs are ready.
I doubt very much that Gary did his accounts that day, but Gary is a sociable man with a generous spirit (even if he strikes an unconvincingly gruff posture occasionally) and if you choose to pay a visit yourself, then it is highly possible that you will learn (as I did) about the Roman sarcophagus that was discovered in the Roman Rd, or the woman who was the inspiration for the character of Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion, or Gary’s adventures on steam trains in India, or when Gary was invited to the National Physics Laboratory in the fifties see an early computer, as big as four houses, that could play chess.
One word of caution,“Printers are either highly religious or wicked,” says Gary, adding “- and I don’t go to church!” with melodramatic irony. So if you decide to go round, be sure to pay Gary due respect by buying something, even if it is only a modest thing. Bear in mind, as you purchase your box of paperclips, that Gary is there under duress – he would rather be flying Lincoln Bombers – and then, once this subterfuge is achieved, it is appropriate to widen the nature of discourse.
This picture shows the garden at the rear of Arber’s printing works in the Roman Rd photographed in 1930. I was going to photograph the same view today but, once I saw it for myself, I decided that you would rather not know.