Conscription made me a printer’s devil

When the apprentice compositor at the printing works where I worked as an errand boy was called up shortly after the introduction of conscription in April 1939,1 filled the vacancy in the composing room and thus became a ‘printer’s devil.’

Work started at 8 am, and when I was the errand boy my first task was to sweep out the composing room. Then, when the office and our stationery shop opened at nine, I had to sweep and polish their floors and empty the waste bins, not forgetting to give the windows a weekly cleaning.
After those menial tasks were completed, the running of errands could begin -parcels of business stationery; small packets of private stationery; advertisement proofs for advertisers in our weekly newspaper; fetching something for my boss’s lunch or a tray of refreshments for her tea from a nearby restaurant. The walk back from the restaurant through the traffic, balancing a loaded tray complete
with teapot, hot water jug, cups and saucers, sandwiches and cakes was an embarrassing nightmare:

I worked a 50-hour week, plus an extra four or five hours on a Wednesday night when our newspaper was printed – all for ten bob a week. My ‘promotion’ to apprentice elevated me into the elite fraternity of skilled tradesmen. It also meant an increase of one shilling in my weekly wages.

One of the skills I had to master was stoking the coal-fired central heating boiler and ensuring that, during the winter, the temperature was as high as possible without blowing up the boiler – all clever stuff for a 15-year-old.

By September 1939 other fires were burning: Europe was ablaze. Conscription steadily took the young men from our works, leaving only the older men, myself and one other apprentice. The film Gone with the Wind, released at this time, epitomised the atmosphere of the period.

In 1941, as a consequence of German air raids, the National Fire Service was formed along with a system of civilian fire-watchers. The latter activity was compulsory for every male over the age of 16 who wasn’t a member of any other national service organisation, so I found myself enrolled in the ‘Town Centre Fire-Fighting Association’. Our command post was an empty shop near the printing works, manned during the day by a full-time warden plus six part-timers at night. Duty shift ran from 6pm to 6am and if the sirens sounded we had to patrol the streets wearing our ‘TCFA’ armbands and ridiculous-looking bucket helmets and carrying stirrup pumps.

Like most of my friends I planned to volunteer for the RAF when I became 18 so, in preparation, I transferred from the TCFA to the Air Training Corps.

Life in the blackout wasn’t only work, duty and beating the patriotic drum. There was sport in the ATC, and on free evenings we would meet in one of the many Italian cafes which were a feature of my home town. There we would exchange news of friends who had gone into the Forces. Sometimes we would talk about a future world known as “After the War” when would we meet again, find a boat and sail around the world. We never did – the bonds of youth were broken by the war.

Meanwhile I was anxiously awaiting my 18th birthday in May 1942. As soon as it arrived, I volunteered for the RAF and by October I was in Air Force blue and it was goodbye to typesetting and printing ink -there were more serious things to be done.

I did, however, return in 1946 to finish my apprenticeship and stayed in print, one way or another, for the next 50 years.

Wyndham Lewis