“Are we going somewhere?” Julian asked.
“Has your uncle shown you around?” Harry said.
“Not yet. It’s probably on his to-do list.”
“Then I’ll give you the Thomson House tour myself. Health and safety. A scrap like you could easily find himself eaten by a printing press.”
Harry led Julian down the stairs and out into the street. On the pavement, he turned and waved an introductory hand towards Thomson House.
“The building sits directly on the old riverbed of the Taff. Brunel moved the Taff over there to make way for his railway.”
“Julian, just imagine it. He moved the river! What sprang up on the manufactured wasteland was a shantytown of houses and shops. ‘Temperance Town’, they called it – because when Mr Jacob Scott Matthews leased the land it was on the condition that no alcoholic drinks were sold. They tore it down in the ’30s.”
“And you moved straight in?”
“Very funny. We didn’t move here until 1961. Before that we were in a building around the corner in St Mary Street. Come on.”
Harry led Julian to the right of the front entrance and gazed upwards.
“This mosaic was designed by Miss Ray Howard-Jones. The Western Mail ran a competition. It’s an eye. You see? The eye of the people. Clever girl.”
Julian, up until then, hadn’t given the mural more than a glance. The Italian tiles winked in the morning light.
“The eye of the people,” Harry repeated. “That’s our responsibility. Don’t forget it.”
They entered the foyer. Harry peered up the stairwell and then pointed at the desk, behind which two girls were talking. A faint scent of lemon furniture polish hung in the air.
“Exhibitions are over there,” Harry said. “And here the public can discuss their classified advertisements, photo sales and general enquiries. Say hello to the girls – and moving on…”
Julian followed Harry into the composing room where two rows of seven-foot high Intertype machines shot brass letters tinkling into their trays.
“You see they have two keyboards, one for normal print and one for headlines? These guys read upside down and backwards faster than most of our readers read the right way up.”
Julian took it all in, the wooden floors and furniture, trestle tables and wire letter trays. Around twenty or so operators worked in their shirtsleeves. Electric lights hung a few feet from head height. The large clock read ten past nine. Under a window, two young apprentices in ink-stained aprons played gin rummy with a battered pack of cards.
In the stereotyping room, the stereotypers were laying papier-mâché matrixes over prepared typefaces to make the moulds. Once these reached the stereo department, they would be cast as plates with hot metal, then trimmed and water-cooled.
The supervisor approached Julian and removed his pipe. Grinning and pointing it in the direction of his staff, he said with a laugh:
“They can take their time, as long as they go fast.”
Dotted around the room were freestanding shelves topped with tins of oil, paraffin, and what looked like tins of wax and hard-bristled shoe brushes. Small drawer cabinets, the kind seen in chemist shops, ran along one wall. Old notices were pasted above them – reminders, warnings, memoranda.
“And now for the press hall,” Harry said.
The works manager, J C Parker, was dressed in a dark blue three-piece suit, over which he wore a brown coverall. J C issued a warning that Julian should never enter the press hall without permission and to keep his hands in his pockets at all times.
“Over 150,000 copies of the South Wales Echo are printed every day,” J C said. “These are Crabtree Viscount high-speed rotary machines. Ten this side, six that side. They’ve got eight-page capacity. Papers are folded, counted and delivered at fifty thousand an hour from six points, all at the same time. It’s all controlled from this master panel.”
“We get through forty thousand gallons of printing ink a year. I bet you can feel the hum from your desk.”
“I can,” Julian agreed.
“Automatic conveyers take the papers directly to the newsroom. From the dispatch department, they’ll be thrown into the vans or trains. The newsboys will take them from there.”
As Julian looked around, J C pulled Harry aside.
“Harry, a little bird told me he’s the nephew of Mr Taylor.”
“He’s not a spy, is he?”
“Of course not. It was my idea to show him round.”
“Taylor probably thinks I just oversee these machines, but he doesn’t know the half of it. What I really do is manage the team who keeps it all going: the machine minders, the oilers and the greasers, the control hands, the web hands, the electricians and the fitters.”
“The kid’s not a spy, and I’m sure Taylor knows just how valuable you are, J C.”
“Good. Just checking.”
Next, Harry introduced Julian to the advertising department, including J G Mackintosh, who explained tele-ads to him – ‘just call 3-3-0-2-2 and say what you want’ – and Mr Davies, the advertising manager, who acquainted the boy with the cheerful but busy tele-ad girls.
They climbed the stairs to the first floor before walking past the library and their own desks towards the subs, sidestepping the papers on the floor. It was functional: wooden chairs and black telephones. A Western Mail reporter dashed across the room, snatching up the handset of a ringing phone. A copy taster with braces and two-tone glasses was assessing the papers on the table. The news conference had already taken place and writers were putting the leaders together.
Julian was fairly familiar with the administrative process, but Harry recapped. The news ended up on the crescent-shaped desks and copy went inward to the centre where the chief sub picked it up.
Harry led Julian into the wire room and they stood in front of the battery of teleprinters. Harry’s voice started to betray his enthusiasm.
“These,” Harry said, “connect us with the rest of the world. We’re linked to the other Thomson offices, including London and Newcastle. We get information from Reuters, the Press Association, and British United Press. We can get a copy of a picture from New York in twenty minutes. All very technical. All very impressive.”
They entered the boardroom after Harry checked it was free. A tray of cut glass tumblers and an empty water jug threw fans of light across the mahogany. A black-and-white mural of Cardiff Castle took up most of the back wall.
“It’s an enlargement from a Western Mail photograph,” Harry said. “We’re almost done. Telephone exchange next. Push-button technology, mind you. None of that plug-in cords malarkey. I think we’ll bypass the accounts department.”
Julian, attracted by one of the young telephonists stationed at the end of the line of consoles, had to be pulled away. The women had made it homely with pot plants, holiday postcards and pictures of their families.
Harry, showing Julian into the canteen, nodded towards the pool table in the corner. “Grab a cue, while we’ve got ten minutes.”
“What if we get caught?”
“I guess you’ll be thrown into a newspaper van and the newsboys will take it from there.”