The ticket tucked into my back pocket might only have been a rail ticket from Liverpool Street to Diss and not a Golden Ticket, but, gazing around the factory floor at Clays Ltd, I felt every bit as amazed and enthralled as Charlie Bucket on the threshold of Wonka’s. For any bibliophile, to be offered a tour around a book-printing factory would be an extraordinary experience, but imagine how much more so that is, when it happens to be the day that your first novel is due to be bound and packed up, ready for delivery.
The whole bookbinding process, from start to finish, is far too complex for me to be able to explain it properly (to be honest, not being very technically-minded I’m not sure how accurately I’ve retained what I was told), but perhaps the best way to try to give an idea of the experience, is just to describe those things that stood out to me.
We were first shown the paper storage area. Imagine those little rolls of paper that live inside a till. Now picture those rolls expanded to about four feet high and four feet in diameter. (I had visions of giant bus conductors with vast ticket machines around their necks as they take fares in leviathon old Routemaster buses.) And now picture about two thousand of these rolls, stacked several high, reaching back into a vast warehouse. I felt momentarily like a Lilliputian in an ordinary stationery cupboard. Or perhaps a ‘Borrower’.
Each of these rolls of paper feed onto a huge machine, winding up and around giant steel rollers of differing thicknesses, and they then race off around a section of the factory floor, so fast that they actually appear only to be gently vibrating, rather than moving forwards. At one point, the paper passes through another enclosed machine, in which is one of many aluminium sheets. On each one of numerous sheets is (by some complex process I have singularly failed to retain) forty eight pages of whichever book is being printed – and those pages are, seemingly by magic, transferred to the paper within this machine. Presumably, the aluminium sheet is changed over and over again until the whole book is printed. They did explain all this carefully, but I was so busy being overwhelmed, I simply couldn’t take it all in.
The paper whirls on, now patterned with grey stripes, though these stripes are, of course, the words on the pages, whizzing by so fast you can’t see them.
Cut to another section.
We walked from one place to another along a painted green walkway, (to keep you safe from passing forklifts) over green-and-red striped zebra crossings, past thudding, whirring, clacking machines, each intent on some minute section of the whole complex process. The resemblance to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory was still strong in my mind – OK, so you need to replace the candyfloss multi-colours and sparkles with grubby monochrome and paper dust, but the magical impression of extraordinary and incomprehensible mechanical exuberance, and the churning sense of inexorability is no different. These machines, I was told, run twenty four hours a day, every day of the year.
So many books!
One delightful machine puts together the august-looking cloth-bound hardbacks, while another folds the dust jacket around each one – almost tenderly. This particular machine had a definite personality, it seemed to me … very meticulous, rather fussy, pleased with itself for its dedication and hardworking endurance. Small flat plates like robotic hands lift and twist, and pat the jacket into place, and then, like a child with its outdoor coat now neatly fastened, each book trundles obediently off along the conveyor belt – non-stop, book after book after book after book – round three sides of a square, until a circular widget lowers down onto each one, lifting and rotating it into the position that will best make a neat stack – some one way, some the other.
And all the time, everywhere, all around you, the thumping, thudding, chuntering noise of the machines. You have to almost shout, to talk to anyone.
We saw glossy covers whizzing out of their printers, perhaps eight to a sheet, three or four every second; flat plates called ‘joggers’ on three sides chivvying the stack into a perfect block as each sheet fell. We saw a giant shrink wrapper, whirling cling-film around and around a stacked pallet of finished books, ready for storage, looking like a cross between one of those centrifugal force machines with which you test the strength of an astronaut’s resolve, and a huge kitchen dispenser.
And we saw where the laden pallets are all stacked.
If you have ever seen Disney’s ‘Monsters Inc.’ then you will have some idea of the regimented vastness of the hangar where the stacked pallets are stored. The light seems dimmed, though I’m not sure it was. The room might well be fifty feet high, and some dozen ceiling-high sets of shelves stand ranked, with their blunt ends facing you as you look. They stretch too far away to see the other end. Each one is stacked with shrink-wrapped, book-laden wooden pallets – each with its own barcode. No people work in here – the whole system is automated – a rather pompous-looking self-operated forklift moves smoothly between the shelf-stacks, calmly lifting pallets up ten, twenty, thirty feet into the air and depositing them in the correct place. And at right angles to the ends of the shelves, a little dolly-train track runs in from the factory floor – along this a cheerful-looking cart brings pallet after pallet, to be passed to the pompous forklift, in an endless but apparently companiable double act.
It was now time, I was told, to see ‘His Last Duchess’ start its journey. I felt quite nervous. We went back along the green walkway, through now familiar sections, on to where the binding process happens.
And there, everywhere I looked, were copies of the cover of my book.
I’d seen the cover – sent by email, and printed out on my manky old printer – but this was just wonderful. Not just the cover itself, but the fact of the numbers – there were thousands of them!
I felt quite breathless.
I was shown how the flat forty-eight-page sheets are cut and folded, and how the necessary combinations of those folded sections are ordered and then glued together at the spine. Then the cover appears, it is folded around the paper sections and is glued to them. At this point the books are in pairs, looking oddly like sets of conjoined twins, top to top, with all the folded sheet sections sticking out untidily all around.
Then, unseen, inside closed machines, the magic happens. The books are separated and trimmed, and, pop out onto yet another conveyor belt, as finished articles. All very neat. All very, very quick.
I couldn’t quite believe it – there moving along this belt as I watched were hundreds and hundreds of copies of my novel, whizzing past me so fast that my every attempt to photograph them was a total failure.
I was entranced. The emotion of it is hard to describe. Perhaps it is something like that shocked but delighted sense of the reality of the birth of a first baby … you’ve known for months what to expect, but the reality, when you are faced with it, is entirely different. And much, much better. There was a sense of pride, I suppose – this is my book! I’ve done it! And a sense of the enormity and unstoppableness of the thing. It was extraordinary and very moving, and I was struck, too, by the fact that for all the people working there, this was just another book – to be dealt with with the care and attention they give to all their charges, but ultimately, it was just the next one in line. Nothing special.
How odd that felt.
I feel enormously privileged to have witnessed the birth of my book.