Scalpel-wielding, glue sniffing pram hoodies

If you’ve just returned from holiday you’ll be finding it a bit difficult to fit back into office routine.  But for me, on a distant planet, it used to be like that every day.

I caught up with some old friends from that planet recently. The mere sight transported me back about three hundred years. And seeing me did the same for them.

Let me tell you about that faraway world. 

It was called an advertising agency.  Not a communications house or an ideas factory or a brand consultancy or a media shop or a marketing resource.  Just an advertising agency.

There, art directors and designers spent their days manipulating things rather than images on a screen. They moulded materials, manhandled objects and cranked machines in their quest to make ideas concrete.

As a copywriter, I limited my practical efforts to pecking at a manual typewriter with two fingers and xxx-ing out my mistakes as I went along. Around me, the visual people were  doing inexplicable things which took an enormous amount of time to achieve modest ends.

For instance, I’d long been aware of a pram upended against the wall. Every so often one of the chaps would go and stand with his head inside it.  But instead of oohing and aahing at an invisible baby he’d merely stay there for an age, humming a selection of current hits, head and shoulders hidden and voice muffled by the pram hood. If anyone came looking for him they were told he was On The Grant. This meant he shouldn’t be disturbed.

How I envied my colleagues this haven. We copywriters just sat there searching for the ‘Q’ key, in full view of any passing superior who fancied handing out another short-deadline job. I longed for a miniature pram hood on my desk.

Eventually, I learned that being On The Grant meant manoeuvring the complicated system of heavy lenses and cranking handles known as a Grant Enlarger. You placed a piece of paper bearing an image in the base of the enormous contraption, and cranked up or down to enlarge or reduce the view. The altered image appeared on a backlit plate of glass inside the pram hood. The operator traced this with a pencil on to a new piece of paper and – voila – emerged, years later, with an image a slightly different size to the one he went in with.

An astute art director could spend his whole career On The Grant and never be pestered by account handlers or people collecting for leaving presents.

Prints of darkness

Another mystery to me was The Dark Room. I thought it was a Portaloo reserved for artworkers. There would normally be a queue of them outside, hopping impatiently from foot to foot.  Occasionally, one would knock on the firmly closed door and yell: “How long are you going to be in there?”

An irritated voice would yell back: “This could take some time. You’ll have to wait.”

The disgruntled queuers would disperse, calling over their shoulders: “Well, don’t use all the paper.”  I much preferred the more private facilities at the end of the corridor.

After a while I gathered that whoever was behind the door would have been making a PMT, or photo mechanical transfer. Whatever that was, it would be pasted on to the patchwork quilt of type and images that formed a piece of finished artwork, which bore a passing resemblance to the art director’s original layout.

Then came my bit. I would read the pasted-down type and check it for errors. At last I was playing a part in this workmanlike process.  So, naturally, I would make as many amendments as possible, desperate to make a contribution.

Unsurprisingly, there were lots of things to correct.  Since the carefully crafted xxx-laden typescript had left my desk it would have passed through the hands of a copy typist, the client and a remote operative called a typesetter. You’d never believe how many extra commas that could generate.

Strangely, my co-workers didn’t appreciate all those artwork amendments. They’d set to, grumpily slicing away at the stuck-down type with finely honed scalpels, excising commas, slashing out apostrophes and pasting in new words cobbled together with spare bits of type from elsewhere. When the artwork came back for re-checking it would look like a blackmail note assembled by a deranged surgeon.

As for the general working environment, the atmosphere was poisonous and the air was blue.

Not that we didn’t get on with each other. It’s just that we were constantly breathing a mix of petrol, Cow Gum, Spraymount, fixative and post-lunch (sometime pre-lunch) beer fumes, reinforced by acrid cigarette smoke and the scent of Magic Marker.

So it’s no surprise that older hands rejoice in the arrival of the digital age. We’re like mediaeval serfs delighting in the luxury of central heating and electric light.

And if you’re wondering whatever happened to that chap you haven’t seen for a few decades, he’s probably still On The Grant.


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