22 09 09_Publishing 50 Years
*Speakers: Luke Hickey (L), Marie-Louise Ayres (M), Lexi Sekuless (L), Michael Richards (M)
L: Printing is like religion, Alec Bolton once said. We live in sin but with the hope of perfection before us.
Yama, good evening and welcome, everyone, here to the National Library of Australia, to this very special event, Makers of Books, Celebrating 50 Years of National Library of Australia Publishing. I’m Luke Hickey, I’ the Assistant Director General of the Engagement Branch here at the National Library and as we begin I would like to acknowledge Australia’s first nations peoples, the first Australians as the traditional owners and custodians of the land on which we meet, give my respects to their elders past, present and emerging and acknowledge their enduring connection to this land and through them to all Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Thank you for joining this event, it’s wonderful to have a great crowd here in the theatre with us but also to those of you who are online. We’re coming to you from the National Library here on beautiful Ngunnawal and Ngambri country.
As you drove in this evening you may have noticed our flag’s at half mast and perhaps heard the 96-gun salute commemorating the life of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. The Library is deeply saddened by Her Majesty’s death. Her Majesty reigned for 70 years and visited Australia 16 times so it is not surprising that our collections and those of many other institutions contributing to Trove are full of items demonstrating Her Majesty’s role in Australia’s national life. We invite you to explore these moments including through a Trove collection feature that will be presented on our website shortly.
Despite this sad news it is still a particular pleasure to see so many of you here tonight for this celebration of 50 years of publishing here at the Library. Firstly we will hear from our Director General, Dr Marie-Louise Ayres, who will share with us some of the history of publishing here at the National Library of Australia. Later Michael Richards, our author of Maker of Books, Alec Bolton and his Brindabella Press, will speak to us about Alec Bolton, the National Library of Australia’s first publisher and the passion and dedication with which he ran Brindabella Press.
Michael Richards has been a bookseller, a librarian at St Anne’s College Oxford and the National Library of Australia, a historian and exhibitions curator and he’s now a letterpress printer. He received his first tutorial on the upright platen press by Alec Bolton himself and began collecting Alec Bolton’s Brindabella Press books in 1987. Like Alec he regrets the wasted years when he was not printing.
Following both Marie-Louise and Michael we will be joined by Lexi Sekuless, Creative Producer and Owner of Mill Theatre who’ll be reading some specially chosen excerpts of poetry. Please join me in welcoming Dr Marie-Louise Ayres.
M: Thank you very much and again thank you for joining us tonight on Ngunnawal and Ngambri country and may I welcome you with words that I have been gifted by local custodians. [Speaks in language].
We meet to celebrate the 50th anniversary of NLA Publishing and to launch Maker of Books, Michael Richards’ Biobibliography of Alec Bolton, the Library’s first publisher and an acclaimed book arts practitioner. A maker of books, Alec Bolton and his Brindabella Press touches briefly on Alec’s time here at the Library but focuses primarily on the books he produced as the owner and operator of Brindabella Press including several books written by his wife, the poet, Rosemary Dobson.
I was privileged to enjoy their friendship and in fact one of my most treasured possessions is a specially made unnumbered copies of Rosemary’s Untold Lives and Richard – Michael, you are never getting this out of my hands, okay? It’s very special to me.
At Brindabella Alec elevated the art of bookmaking with his elegant handprinted and handbound editions. He carried into that work the ideals that he instilled in NLA Publishing as our inaugural publisher. His commitment to producing beautiful high-quality books that share significant Australian stories and artworks with eager readers, beautiful books that allow us to connect our Library collections with who we are, who we were and the aspiration we may have as individuals or as a nation.
Now Michael will speak to Alec’s fine work at the Brindabella Press shortly but first I’d like to take a look back at the first 50 years of publishing here at the Library. The Library had of course been publishing books since its establishment but these were largely research guides and bibliographic publications. In 1971 Alec joined the Library as our publisher and was tasked with ensuring that the Library was sharing fully and effectively with scholars, students and the general reader the original manuscripts, fascinating pictorial records, rare books, literary historical and social material in the Library’s collections.
Now we have to remember that this was merely two decades before our earliest forays into collection digitisation and in fact it was a decade before we started operating the National Union catalogue and interlibrary loan service so 1971, 1972, publishing works from our collection in book form was really our only option for sharing our collection beyond these walls. I think it’s very easy these days to forget that. So Alec set about searching for stories in our collections, establishing a stable of authors, designers, editors and printers and building NLA Publishing’s reputation for delivering high-quality books.
1972 was UNESCO’s International Book Year with the slogan, Books for All. It was also the year that the National Library of Australia published its first NLA publishing title, most approximately a brochure to support our exhibition Book Design in Australia.
In those early years NLA Publishing produced several exhibition brochures, continued to produce bibliographic and statutory publications and then in 1975 came its first major book with Captain James Cook in the Antarctic and Pacific: The Private Journal of James Burney. Thanks to Alec’s team and their work our first book won a 1975 Australian Book Design Award, an award that a number of books produced in Alec’s time including the Letters of Vance and Nettie Palmer of 1977 and Cazneaux in 1978 would go on to receive.
Cazneaux was designed by Adrian Young, a frequent collaborator with Alec and who we are pleased to have with us here tonight. The book showcased 85 images from the Harold Cazneaux collection selected by Max Dupain. Dupain also penned an appreciation of Caz for the work in which he wrote, his work is what matters, its place in the history of Australian photography and its influence on past, present and future generations of photographers.
Borrowing that sentiment the National Library has influenced generations of readers. We have a place in Australia’s literary past, present and future. The publications we have produced over the last 50 years play a key role in this as we have sought to identify stories in the national collection worth telling and sharing with a wide national audience.
Now Australia has changed a lot in the past 50 years and of course it’s changed a lot in the last two but the Library continues to carry out its mission to collect material that reflects the stories and people that make us who we are as a nation. We preserve and protect these records in whatever form they come and tonight is a reminder that the publishing program has played a significant role in uncovering the stories that our collections can tell and ensuring them.
Now over the course of the past five decades successive publishers starting with Alec and then I think with the late Ian Templeman who had executive responsibility for public programs including publishing, Paul Hetherington who’s travelling and can’t be with us tonight, Susan Hall who is with us tonight and now Lauren Smith have of course brought shifts in tone and emphasis and in today’s world we have many more opportunities to provide access to our collections.
The constant in these years has been NLA Publishing’s commitment to opening up the Library’s collection for Australians wherever they are and creating books that have a profound impact, publishing the work of many of Australia’s renowned artists, thinkers and writers.
Around every part of Australia and the world readers can hold the artwork of William T Cooper, Peter Dombrovskis, Ellis Rowan, George French Angas, Frank Hurley, Joseph [Lisish] 9:28 and Olive Cotton in their hands. They can read about poets and postcards, cartoons and cartography and see the handwritten journal entries of explorers, first fleet surgeons, mutineers and convicts. Importantly Australians can read the carefully researched and often heavily illustrated work of historians and experts on topics as varied and diverse as the Antarctic, protesting and civil disobedience, fishing, fashion, budgerigars, the first world war and the stolen generations.
In the late 1990s the Library was funded by the Commonwealth Government to carry out the Bringing Them Home oral history project. More than 600 hours over some 340 interviews were recorded of people involved in or affected by the policy of child removals. These oral histories are of enormous historical significance, they’re full of intimate moments of dialogue, exchange, revelation and reflection.
The NLA publication, Many Voices, published in 2002 captures these firsthand testimonies in hundreds of interview excerpts, contextualising comments with historical or biographical information to help readers to follow the stories that are being told. Many Voices was published with a CD that provided readers extracts from nine of those oral histories and of course those oral histories are now available to listen to online, CDs having been retired by the Library a very long time ago.
Now the publication of that book represents the Library operating at its truest, collecting, preserving and making accessible significant parts of the Australian story. NLA Publishing was able to continue this truth with the publication of Sorry Day in 2018. Written by Coral Vass and illustrated by Dub Leffler Sorry Day is a picture book that brought this essential and difficult part of our history to younger readers. It entwines two stories, a mother and child listening to then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s apology on 13 February 2008 and children being separated from their mother and driven off in the back of a truck in an earlier time which is indeed what happened to Dub’s mother.
It's sometimes difficult to measure the impact of a book. It’s not really about sales but about the moments in which a reader sitting with a book open before them or being read aloud to them or playing in their headphones slips away from the present moment, the hubbub of other commuters on the bus, perhaps quiet snoring of their partner, the chill of the air-conditioning in their local library and finds themselves absorbed into that book and to another world, into an artist’s studio, to an opal mine in Coober Pedy, to a boxing ring, to the grasslands of Wiradjuri country, to another time and place completely. It’s about a reader carrying that knowledge forward, letting it shape and shift the way they understand the world, sharing it or building on their newfound knowledge with further research.
These moments are invisible to us as publishers but we know they exist by the shadows that they cast. Sorry Day, which received the 2019 Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Award in the Eve Pownall category is just now being reprinted for the seventh time. Some 10,000 copies can be found in bookshops, homes and libraries. Families and class groups read this story together. I have read it multiple times to my five-year-old granddaughter and each time there are new and incredibly difficult questions.
As you’ll read in A Maker of Books no publishing venture is without its challenges. In some ways this can be multiplied at a cultural institution and it’s not always been easy but NLA Publishing does stand alone in its field in terms of longevity and in the breadth and depth of our program.
The Library’s been able to work with many significant authors, some of whom have been able to join us tonight. We’ve published the work of leading lights from the art, fashion and entertainment worlds including Helen Ennis, John Olsen, Deborah Thomas, Sasha Grishin and Jennifer Byrne, well respected historians, academics and subject specialists such as Penny Olsen, Clive Hamilton, Anne Moyle, David Hill and Patricia Clark and actually Pat’s sitting up the back there and Pat, we seem to have a spotlight right on you which is as it should be because in fact Pat’s bringing out another book with us later on this year. And a host of other inspiring Australians such as Bob Brown, Judy Horacek, Anita Hyce, Brendan Ile and Robert Drew.
NLA’s Publishing’s most popular books are often the ones we are most proud of, not just because they’ve connected with readers but because they tell important stories, showcase a collection and celebrate language and creativity. Strangers on Country by David Hartley and Kirsty Murray, also illustrated by Dub Leffler, bring significant moments of first nations history to young readers in a sensitive and interesting way. Journeys into the Wild, the photography of Peter Dombrovskis by Bob Brown immerses readers in the misty beauty of Tasmania’s wilderness and it’s a wonderful memento of the Library’s 2017 exhibition of Dombrovskis’ work. This is Home, Essential Australian Poems for Children edited by Jackie French and Fair Dinkum! by H G Nelson are filled with beautiful, funny and powerful words. And the late Tim Fischer’s Steam Australia launched in this room, Locomotives That Galvanised the Nation, brings the Library’s superb John Buckland collection of train photography to a wider audience.
In our recent history we’ve seen many of our books reach new audiences. We were delighted to publish the children’s book on native animals, Who Am I? Written by our then publisher, Susan Hall, in Kaurna language in 2019 as Ngana Ngai. We’ve sold right to books, both children’s and adult, into China and India and Stephanie Owen Reeder’s thrilling true tale, Lenny The Legend is in preproduction with Roadshow Films. So there are many more titles that deserve commendation but we would miss out on the part of the evening when we get to say hello and speak to each other if I went on. But in closing I’d like to say thank you, thank you to our authors for forging paths into our collections and lighting the way so that others may follow.
Thank you to the illustrators who’ve given shape and form to our stories. Thank you to our editors, proof-readers and designers who have striven to publish beautiful books and thank you to our volunteers who have assisted us in so many ways, most recently of all things by knitting for us. Also thank you to our distributor, NewSouth Books, for getting our books into as many corners of the country as possible and to the many booksellers and librarians who’ve recommended our books to curious readers. To all of our former and current staff and those others around the library who’ve contributed so richly, thank you for working here at the Library with passion and dedication and showing us your heart on every page that you help to produce. In fact I think nowhere is that more apparent than this very, very beautiful special edition of Michael’s book.
Fifty years on NLA Publishing remains an important part of the National Library’s mandate, to open up our vast collections so that Australians can explore and use them meaningfully. In the coming years we are looking forward to bringing readers new biographies, art books, social and cultural histories, natural history titles and books for children. We’ll continue to celebrate our anniversary with a rotating display of NLA books in the main reading room that will show off 50 books from our 50 years and in the school holidays we’ll be having some special story time events for younger readers.
I’d now like to invite Lexi Sekuless to the front to read some poems by Judith Wright and Rosemary Dobson. Thank you, Lexi.
Lexi: The Rainforest by Judith Wright.
The forest drips and glows with green, the tree frog croaks his far off song, his voice’s stillness, moss and rain drunk from the forest ages long. We cannot understand that call unless we move into his dream where all is one and one is all and frog and python are the same. We with our quick dividing eyes measure, distinguish and are gone. The forest burns, the tree frog dies yet one is all and all are one.
The Continuance of Poetry, A Selection by Rosemary Dobson
We have seen you off as far as the yellow box tree, returning I sit for a little while reflecting on the long white clouds low at the horizon. The wind sharpens the distant Brindabellas. In the courtyard the fallen plum blossom settles. There will be time enough and time enough later for crossing the threshold to lamplight and conversation. When you set out on your long journey the houses of your friends become empty. Rooms resounded with the need of reassurance but here on the page are your messages, here are poems, stones, shells, water. The one waits in the hand, this one is shining, this one is yellow and this smooth to the fingers. Ching, chink says this one clear as a wind-bell.
Poems are set out in the empty rooms of houses. Windows open on clouds in the blue distance. White water falls down the hillside, on the rock two fish swim under the water. Flannel flowers splash in a falling torrent, push aside boulders, spill over the ledges. Held still in the eye like a fish carved in sandstone they become a white cloud visiting the rockface.
When people lend books to each other their meaning is giving, they bestow excitement, joy, imagination. You lent me Rothko, I lent you Mirandie. We exchanged whole art galleries, museums, sculpture, encyclopaedias. Years ago I said here is Poppa, you said here is Berryman. Who owned up to the coffee rings on the Manay which had to go back to the Kingston Library? All, all were returned long ago. Now they are gone. I hold them.
L: Thank you so much, Lexi. Talk about bringing excitement, joy and imagination and bringing those words off the page, thank you. It’s now my great pleasure to introduce the star of tonight’s show, Michael Richards.
M: Thank you. You’re a sea of blank faces to me because I'm wearing my reading glasses so I won’t be able to see if there’s any responses. That’s probably just as well.
I begin by acknowledging that we meet on the traditional land of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.
I’m deeply grateful to the National Library of Australia for publishing this book and I thank all who’ve helped me write it including many who like me have had the privilege of working or have worked in the past at the Library. I thank the Bolton family for its encouragement and friendship over many years including Rob and James who are here today as well as Lucent, Ian and Nicola, all of whom could not get to Australia for the occasion. Thank you also to Dr Marie-Louise Ayres for her welcome and her contribution to the book. To Lauren Smith, Amelia Hartney and the rest of the publications team at the Library and to Dr Carin Florence who encouraged me at every step on the way.
There’s a long list of acknowledgments in the book. Such lists can of course be treacherous things. If I’ve left anybody out I apologise from the bottom of my heart.
In 1966 in a signed opinion piece of Art [Turned] 24:32 Australia Alec Bolton made one of his rare public statements on political matters. Writing in the aftermath of the resignation of Jorn Utzon as architect of the Sydney Opera House he was dismayed at the likely impact. While he lamented the lack of a, quote, intelligent, sympathetic mediator, able to interpret the views of a great artist and the prudent bankers’ attitude as he put it of the New South Wales State Government to each other, for him the dispute raised a larger issue. The fact is that where a work of art is concerned money may cease to have ordinary meaning, he argued. All that counts is the work itself and the necessity of acquiring it.
While he agreed that the state government was correct in seeking to reign in the rising cost of the Opera House construction the cost of Utzon’s departure was also high. To quote, Australia will face the awful fact of having spent many millions of dollars only to end up with a less original, less than perfect building. This would be the most bitter cost of all, again something quite beyond reckoning in terms of money alone.
When a few years later he became a private press printer similar considerations prevailed. During his time at the National Library the books of his Brindabella Press all either broke even or made a small loss even though he was investing more and more in their production as his ambitions and skills grew. He possibly made around $70 on The Exiled Immortal, a pamphlet written by Harold Stewart which cost him four years of negotiation and heartbreak and I do mean that, it was a very difficult saga. It was the one book that he came close to abandoning, he confessed to some friends.
Ironically, though, in the early years that was perhaps his biggest profit-maker. Times and Places, his first hardback netted $16.50 which went to the author. His pricing policy initially aimed at maintaining that principle after he left the Library and security of a public service income. The book was the thing and what mattered was that its makers, author, illustrator, printer, binder were happy with it even if compromises were forced by costs.
At the same time it should be said his books had to pay their own way and if need be would cost more than some might anticipate. I’m trying to do books up to a standard rather than down to a price, he told Geoff Page in 1987. That’s what my subscribers expect. The content of the book is my first interest but after that the production has to come out right and I'm not willing to work within price ceilings and limitations. At the same time I'm not aiming at absurd prices and I should just add that up until now I have not made any profits personally out of my printing, end quote. On the other hand a big deficit on one book would severely limit his subsequent publications. He couldn’t afford a major loss and on occasion privately lamented the slowness of some booksellers in paying their bills.
In later years as his income from other sources declined he began to take a larger interest in making a small profit but apart from the bestseller that Twelve Linocuts became this was always modest, especially when measured against time spent on printing and even then he insisted on a 60/40 profit split with Barbara Hanrahan with the lion’s share going to her.
I’m making this point at some length because to me it says something important about Alec. While he was always careful about money as a child of the depression years, it was to him a means to an end and the lack of it would not stop him from aiming for that end. It’s likely that arriving in the security of a good public service job greatly advanced his ability to spend his free time on letterpress printing but he would have got there in the end anyway. After all, his first steps into printing came during his time in London when he was working for Angus and Robertson and by that time Rosemary had been nudging him in that direction for many years, since soon after they first met.
To me this is one of the reasons why his achievement matters today. At a time when the prospects of earning a living as a cultural worker are low, when growing inequality is challenging the hopes and aspirations of so many Australians and corroding the notion of this country as essentially egalitarian and when so many fashionable indicators value wealth and profligate expenditure ahead of all else his example of how to live a truly rich life is worth reflecting on.
While writing this work I’ve got to know him a great deal better than I did in his lifetime, not that I knew him all that well when he was still alive, I hasten to add, although the several hours I spent talking to him in the Friends’ Lounge here at the Library when I was writing A Licence to Print in 1993 were deeply rewarding. I would never claim to have known him as well as many in this gathering. The person I now know quite well is the Alec of the paper trial, the worshipper of the god or goddess of the letterbox as he once quipped to Philip Hodgens. The man who kept most if not all of his letters, notes, drawings and trial efforts – that’s the letters he received and also copies of everything he wrote back and then passed them on via Rosemary and with the assistance of Carin in sorting them to the Library where they form a rich trove, giving insight into mid and late 20th century Australian writing and printing, especially of poetry.
The Alec I know was also someone who completed a major oral history interview with Heather Rusden just days before his death, a reminder of the richness of that collection at the Library as well which Marie-Louise has spoken about. This is particularly fitting as he was himself a skilled oral history interviewer and wrote the Library’s first published manual for its interviewers.
It was the Manuscript Collection that spoke to me when I started work on what was initially to be a short lecture about nine years ago. I had long felt that Alex deserved a fuller bibliographic effort than had been required for A Licence to Print which was really just a checklist of what had been published up ‘til 1993. But when I sat down to begin working through the many, many metres of folders in his papers I realised I really should aim for more given the richness of the collection.
Happily Lucent, Rob and Ian agreed which I think must have been in some ways a difficult decision. Having a biographer rummaging around in the life of a much loved parent must be one of the biggest challenges that can be faced by any family. They have been punctilious in giving me full access and they’re not asking for anything to be off limits and I thank them again for their generosity.
Of course like any attempt to write about the past the work of a biographer is always incomplete. As Edward Wilson-Lee asks in his ground-breaking biography of the man who was in effect inventor of the card catalogue and first proponent in the west of universal bibliographic control, Hernando Colon, son of the man we know also as Christopher Columbus, quote, how does one make a life out of words and paper? Capturing the essence of another person using the crude tools of narrative is a challenge at the best of times. Out of the myriad events a pattern must be discerned, a structure created in which the life makes sense and words must be found that resurrect the subject, conjuring for the reader the experience of being in their presence.
But as Alec himself used to say, if something’s worth doing it’s worth doing badly. Even if there isn’t time or the resources to do it properly, in other words. I got that quote from Jan Fulton who said it was one of the most valuable she ever learnt in her early years at the Library.
While I’m sure there are aspects of Alec’s life which I have not explored I decided to focus on the books he published under the imprint of the Brindabella Press and also for some years, as I explain in the book, as the Officina Brindabella. This is perhaps lamentable but to my mind it also makes the intrusion of a biographer into someone else’s life forgivable. You could put it quite simply. These are the things he made for public view and this is my explanation of how and why.
The how is important. As Alan Loney argues, it takes more than one person to make a book and even the private press model of publishing, which supposedly relies on one person to do most of the work, almost always requires a high degree of collaboration, negotiation and at times compromise. Some private press printers make their own paper, create their own illustrations, cast and even design their own type but most don’t.
The richness of the Bolton papers here at the Library is in part a matter of how completely these processes of negotiation are documented. Here it is worth quoting Loney. Quote, whatever it is that anyone writes it is not and never can be that they’re writing a book. People write poems, letters, short stories, memoirs, biographies, histories, articles, essays, theses, dissertations, novels, diaries, philosophies, plays etc but they never write a book. Books are manufactured by those who publish those writings in book form. A text does not become a book until it is published and publishing means what it says, a writing is made available to the public by a multiplication of copies, not a multiplication of originals. A private text is made into a public service we call book.
This nuanced understanding of publishing from a poet, writer on the nature of the book and letterpress printer whose own achievement is considerable is worth reflecting on. The concept of publishing as a public service is also valuable and highly relevant to Alec. Nevertheless although the principal component of the book concerns the publications of the Brindabella Press it was important to explore the influences and events in Alec’s life that led up to and shaped the press.
So I do pay considerable attention to his childhood and to his early working life as an editor at Angus and Robertson and then with Ure Smith. After that came a further stint with Angus and Robertson in their London office and finally his many years as the National Library of Australia’s publisher.
His long and happy marriage to Rosemary Dobson and their shared passions for Australian literature and good printing were both crucial. A propos of the latter, the poet Alan Gould has remarked that Alec was more deeply knowledgeable about Australian writing than any other nonwriter he knew. While my emphasis has been on the press as Alec’s achievement I’ve also tried to show how completely Rosemary travelled with him through all this. She was his key adviser, a partner in the development of the press’ ambitions and always an enthusiast for its work.
Finally among the influencers was his discovery of the world of the private presses during that brief sojourn in London where he enrolled in night classes in printing at a time when letterpress was still being taught as foundational to good printing despite the fact that offset lithography and photo typesetting was sweeping it away from mainstream printing. It’s an era that we’ve lost sight of and it took seven years to do an apprenticeship as a printer when perhaps 10% or 15% of workforce were caught up in the world of printing.
While Alec’s private press work drew on a lifelong career in publishing the publications of the press can I think be seen as exemplary for many of us from other circles today. Alec came from the editorial managerial side of publishing, not from a career as a printer. His discovery of a personal avocation as a letterpress printer was made in midlife, moving in small and manageable stages from cards and pamphlets through quite straightforward commercially bound books to fine printing of a very high standard. He constantly sought to grow as a maker and to achieve a better result next time. Whatever one’s vocation his example is inspirational.
At the same time his deep engagement in his spare time with the hands-on practicalities of letterpress printing gave deep grounding to his professional career as a publisher and surely fed back into his achievement at the National Library of Australia where he was responsible for so many fine books. It’s interesting to see how many young practitioners of letterpress today, and there are many, believe it or not, come from digital backgrounds in graphic design and publishing. They too find the two worlds complementary.
Alec’s background in publishing did give him several key advantages. For a start he had the familiarity with the Australian literary milieu of the day I’ve already mentioned. Although isolated in Canberra in the early years from all but a handful of other practitioners of the craft of letterpress printing, profoundly isolated in ways that I think we’ve forgotten since the internet changed everything, he was able to find and maintain links with a few key letterpress allies. They became friends he treasured and learned from and several long series of letter in his papers spanning many decades in some instances give rich insight into his work.
In later years as Carin Florence has argued his work would form a component in Canberra’s flourishing in the 1980s as a city of the book, together with such factors as the work of Peter Herald and the Graphic Investigation Workshop at the ANU, the foundation of the Canberra Craft Bookbinders’ Guild and the regular meetings of the Colophon Society, the golden years, Sasha Grishin has called them.
In addition Alec had all the tact of an experienced commercial publisher with many years of experience in dealing with authors, those difficult people, as well as being an editor of great skill. Importantly he continually demonstrated the ability to move on from problems with the determination to learn from them and to improve his technical and design skills. Working with his papers showed me how much his ability to negotiate difficult issues grew through failure as well as success. This was particularly the case with the complex relationship between writers and illustrators which at times caused him considerable difficulty.
His discussions with Les Murray over Ros Atkins’ illustrator for The Sleepout which Lexi is going to read to us are a good example. Murray had strong views on the subject of sleepouts, it turned out, and Alec had to abandon Atkins’ first block which had taken two weeks’ work to produce and ask her to start again, cutting another version which was far more open to the elements. Murray wrote to him, stars and possums and full moons and night air and best all visit you in a sleepout. He drew a detailed sketch of his own childhood sleepout and this too was carefully preserved in Alec’s papers here at the Library.
It is evident to anyone who looks at his books that Alec was deeply conservative in some ways with regard to printing and book design, albeit in the true sense of the word, keeping what matters from the past. He looked to letterpress and what it did best in an endeavour to print the best books he could given his resources. This wasn’t out of a reactionary rejection of everything that was new but was an endeavour to keep alive traditions of proven excellence which were in danger of being lost in a world flooded with books produced cheaply by new technologies that had yet to prove their long-term value.
Much as he admired the boldness of people such as Mike Hudson and Jadwiga Jarvis at The Wayzgoose Press their pushing at the boundaries was not for him even though at the end of his life he had with surprising enthusiasm at last embraced computer typesetting in order to print by relief printing, of course, from photo polymer plates. This conservatism in book design is quite evident when looking at the book that in many ways was his turning point in his early years, time given. It was the low standard of contemporary printing that Alec emphasised when he approached James McAuley in 1975 to see if he had any suitable poems for publication by Brindabella, criticising the production of McAuley’s latest title. Quote, I’ve seen a copy of Music Late At Night and wish I’d been its printer. The poems are most beautiful but the presentation is wretched, he said.
Music Late At Night was a 48-page stapled pamphlet in Angus and Robertson’s Poets of the Month series which was actually a really interesting attempt by the previously dominant publisher of Australian poetry to match the flood of cheap offset printed small press formats characteristic of the new Australian poetry movement of the 1960s and ‘70s but its printing was indeed undistinguished and the result was highly ephemeral and very hard to find today if you're a collector. I had a look on the net yesterday and there’s one copy for sale at the moment in Australia. Mind you it’s only $25 so if you’re a collector of either McAuley or the origins of the Brindabella Press go for it.
Alec and Rosemary had been friendly with McAuley for many years. He was someone she’d known at Sydney University when she was studying there in the 1940s and they’d moved in overlapping circles of friendship in the years since. Although they had little in common politically it was Alec who’d suggested the name Quadrant for the anti-Communist literary and cultural journal of which McAuley was the founding editor. It’s typical of the way Alec and Rosemary rose above the cultural feuds of the time that they maintained such old friendships, often with people who’d fallen out amongst themselves quite bitterly.
Ian Bolton also remembers that Rosemary long treasured a clipping of McAuley’s praise in one of her early books in The Catholic Weekly, annotating it as very precious. In the present case Alec and McAuley agreed fervently on book design. McAuley replied to Alec’s letter with the comment that it had taken quote, almost three years to bring out one of the nastiest designs and production that ever disgraced Australian publication. He agreed to the suggestion of a Brindabella version.
It would include all the poems from Music Late At Night with some new material and at McAuley’s suggestion would be called Time Given. Alec admired the poems, they’re lovely. It is their crystalline quality that appeals to me, the sense that you’ve got down to the pure substance of what you’re saying. I think they are very beautiful and moving and I would be proud to print them. The comment is a reminder that Alec was a discriminating reader and editor, he printed and published writing he admired. That was the point in the effort. Printing Time Given was a race against terminal illness and McAuley died before it was published. Alec showed him pages as they were printed and in his oral history interview recalled holding his breath while McAuley looked at them for a long time.
Now that is very nice, he finally said. I was greatly relieved that he approved. Deferring to his author’s cautious approach to illustration and at his friend, Gerald Fisher’s, suggestion, Alec asked Rod Shaw to write handwritten display text for a book, quote, that is otherwise rather severe. These poems are very restrained and classical, he said to Shaw, they’re not morbid but some of them are written against a background of mortal illness. The notion of calligraphy was suggested by the love he shared with McAuley of the Chancery Italic of Ludovico Vicentino degli Arrighi, an Italian Renaissance type designer and scribe whose letter forms were drawn on in the 20th century by several type designers, notably by Frederick Ward and Stanley Morrison for the Arrighi Italic design to accompany Bruce Rogers’ Centaur type face, a face Alec liked a great deal. He was possibly the first to use the two in Australia. He thought he might have been.
Both Alec and McAuley had themselves adopted Italic handwriting as adults. In Alec’s case under the influence of Henry Mund, the Production Editor of the Australian Encyclopaedia during Alec’s time at Angus and Robertson. Mund was a gifted typographer, he said, as well as having quote, immense learning about books, someone whose influence Alec several times mentioned. He imparted to me a feeling for production that I had not had before, said Alec. That was a kind of seminal influence to me which became very important.
As for Rod Shaw Alec had long admired his work as a commercial printer although he was not a close acquaintance. The books printed by Edwards and Shaw are lovely, with generous margins, conservative but elegant typography and good paper. Alec asked – it’s a bit like the book the Library’s just published, actually, it’s a lovely book – Alec asked Shaw to consider italic capitals suggesting [plentum] 48:41 with flourishes.
Shaw, who’d known McAuley since the 1930s drew a great many alternatives for the title page and half titles and refused payment. They’re all still here in the Bolton papers here at the Library. Jim would have loved those titles, Alec replied, it’s sad that he’s not still around to see them. Shaw’s generous contribution to the book belies post-cold war views of the primacy of left and right binaries. Despite McAuley’s social and political conservatism and Shaw’s own close identity with Communist and progressive causes they shared a history in Sydney cultural circles of the ‘40s as did Alec and Rosemary in later years.
In 1993 the distinguished bibliographer Marcie Muir gave Alec a copy of her memoir of her husband, the bookseller and writer, Harry Muir, with the words, to Alec Bolton in friendship and admiration for the Brindabella Press. It’s an attractive little book printed by Jim and Ruth Walker at the Croft Press Circuit at Cobargo and illustrated with some of the book plates Muir commissioned from artists such as George Perrottet and Eric Thake who remarks on Harry Muir, begin with a claim that I would repeat about Alec and I quote, those who love books live in a state of constant anticipation and lively interest. It is a stimulating atmosphere, there’s always the excitement of something fresh to look forward to or some new book which may prove unexpectedly rewarding. Many of our friends loved books and enjoyed their life.
Alec was self-evidently one of these, a happy man whose achievement will be long with us. Writing this bibliobiography has been for me one of the great happinesses of my own life and my hope is that others will enjoy reading it, perhaps even themselves finding it unexpectedly rewarding.
L: Thank you so much, Michael. I’d now like to welcome Lexi back to the stage for two final poems.
Lexi: The Sleepout by Les Murray.
Childhood sleeps in a veranda room in an iron bed close to the wall where the winter over the railing swelled blind on its timber boom. And splinters picked lint off warm linen and the stars were out over the hill. Then one wall of the room was forest and all things in there were to come. Breathings climbed up on the veranda when dark cattle rubbed at the corner and sometimes dim towering rain stood for forest and the dry cave hunched woollen.
Inside the forest was lamplit along tracks to a starry creek bed and beyond lay the never-fenced country, its full billabongs all surrounded by animals and birds in loud crustings and sometimes kept leaping up amongst them. And out there to kindle whenever dark found it hung the daylight moon.
Reading Aloud by Rosemary Dobson
Low, clear and free of self your voice went on. At night you read and for how many years? From Stern to Kipling, Flaubert, Boswell, Proust – Proust a whole year and finishing you said, one of the great experiences of my life. And mine, and mine.
Intent to listen, quieting my hands with plain and purl I followed your low voice. Knitting unmindfully long scarves for friends, sent off as signs of that shared calm content, still looked for in the unshared books I choose reading alone.
Well we gave up once, stalled on Chuzzlewit. How wrong it felt. You sensed a binding need to take books to the end. Faced with reverse said, we must press on. From books to life your thought, forgive, learn from the past, press on. And I press on.
L: Thank you, Lexi. Thank you also, Michael, for drawing such a rich portrait of Alec both tonight and in your book, Maker of Books. I would also like to thank Rob and Kate, members of the Bolton family who are here tonight and also for those who are watching it online either now or later, for their support and would also like to echo Marie-Louise’s words earlier of the brilliant work that’s being carried on by those who’ve worked in our publishing teams across the years. I think one of the things that Michael mentioned tonight and that’s in the book is round the – up to a standard and not down to a price which is certainly the spirit that we’re looking to continue on into the future as well.
Unfortunately we have run out of time tonight. I’m sure you’d agree we could have spoken and listened for hours but I do hope that you can join us in the foyer for some refreshments. Before you leave please make sure to collect your gift on your way out, you will receive a beautiful copy of our publication here tonight and there are also copies of the book on sale in the bookshop which make for excellent gifts, I can assure you. Thank you all again for coming and we hope to see you again soon. Good night.
End of recording
In 1971 the late Alec Bolton joined the Library as our first Publisher, and in 1972, the National Library of Australia published its first title under the imprint now known as NLA Publishing. Alec set about searching for stories in these collections, establishing a stable of authors, designers, editors and printers, and building a reputation for high-quality books – one that NLA Publishing continues to enjoy.
In this book launch and celebration National Library’s Director-General Dr Marie-Louise Ayres FAHA, speaks to the first 50 years of publishing at the Library, and Michael Richards, author of the Alec Bolton biography A Maker of Books, talks about Alec Bolton and the quiet passion with which he created beautiful books.