Thursday 13 December 2007

Paper and writers

A paper essay; this is not an essay simply couched on paper, but an essay about paper and writing. As a writer it is natural that I am interested in paper, it is the basis of this…can I say obsession…to put ideas on paper, to record them, for what precise reason is difficult to say. Without paper we would still be writing on stone and paper in one form or another has been the support to communicate written ideas of all possible kinds for more than two and a half thousand years.

I can speak from forty years of experience in the paper industry - modest in comparison to those two and a half thousand years, but quite a lot for a writer. Some have spoken of the demise of paper, including myself, but its future seems to be more assured than ever. News papers had seemed threatened by Internet; however, it appears they have found another parade in the form of ‘free’ papers.

On the subject of newspapers it can be observed not many writers are that close to paper, that is paper in any quantity, apart from journalists who live with those huge reels and printing presses, though perhaps what with modern technology they are no now not as close to them as they were. The paperless age still seems far away in spite of efforts to produce electronic books, the latest of which is Amazon’s model of a supposedly convenient hand held e-book. However, we humans are for the moment hooked on our paper versions of books, newspapers, magazines and brochures.

After the pleasure of feeling and reading a new acquisition, old or new, we use it to decorate the bookshelves that declare our intellectual pride? Not really possible with characterless plastic DVD boxes that we now see on the shelves of others or even our children, next to computer game boxes, today videocassettes seem to have slightly more respectability, though unfortunately there’s a good chance that our videocassette player no longer works or has perhaps been inadvertently thrown out in our last clean out of older electrical devices.

We prefer to download our throwaway news from our handy newsvendor for a couple of dollars or so and once finished with it we dispose of it without more ado than by chucking it in our nearest trash bin. In any case it has little value and if it is mislaid in a taxi or on the subway it's of little consequence; it never runs out of power and if something special attracts our attention it can be cut out and stuffed in a pocket or a drawer. Magazines have those nice glossy photographs that speak more than words. Magazines analyse or condense older news that we can read when we relax on a train or a plane, we like to hang on to them a little longer than a newspaper.

So coming back to paper; my first encounter with it was when I got a job during my summer holidays of 1955, did I say 55? Yes, I was fifteen years old and lived in central London, very central. The job was in the Army & Navy Stores, an upmarket department store on Victoria Street, conveniently near to most ministries and more precisely those of the British army and navy, for officers' and adminstrators' needs, posted across Britain’s Empire; it was founded in the nineteenth century. My job was in the stationary department, which catered for more than simply stationary, it housed a large printing department that produced copper plate invitations, bearing the crests of noble families, embossed visiting cards for government ministers and army generals, and of course fine headed paper.

When I left school I joined an engineering firm in Cavendish Square, a stone's throw from the headquarters of the BBC in the West End of London, and commenced in their special process department, where systems for the paper manufacturing industry were designed. It was the start of a forty year long career in industry, travelling the world to promote paper technology in one form or another, which finally drew to a close in the comfortable Paris offices of a Scandinavian engineering group.

What did I do most of that time, design new processes, invent new technologies…no…I suppose in retrospective I talked a lot, discovered the world, from the Russian Taiga to the forests of Indonesia, from pulp mills in New Zealand to Canada, from paper mills in South Africa to Scotland, and businesses from Santiago de Chile to Helsinki.

That’s for the background, so what about this paper? Paper is an essential need, one of the first needs of an emerging nation, one of the key industries for a highly developed nation. It provides printing and writing paper, news and magazine paper, packaging and wrapping materials. Paper is abundant and cheap, essentially produced from wood mostly grown in vast manmade forests and plantations in the northern hemisphere, but more and more in the tropical belt and to a lesser degree in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Little is heard about paper manufacturing, it is not spectacular, and although its manufacturing plants are huge they are discretely hidden in the more isolated regions of North America and Scandinavia. It does not make headline news like the financial sector, with boom and bust cycles, it grows at a steady 2.5% per year, year in year out, and with occassional cycles of overcapacity as large new production plants come on stream.

Paper is not only the raw material for printers and packers, but the raw material for book publishers and writers. Now, what practically all writers forget is that paper is a business, as is book publishing, which reminds me of a visit to a notary’s office in the east of France to prepare the articles of association for the setting up of the subsidiary of an American firm. The notary, a certain Maitre Tresch, an Alsatian, asked me what was the objective of the firm, a necessary routine question. I spent about five minutes talking about technology, markets and various others things, whilst he looked at me with growing pain on his face. After a moment he politely stopped me and told me if the proposed subsidiary was a business, it had only one possible goal and that was ‘lucrative’. It was a lesson in business well learnt. The same goes for book publishers, they are not in business for literature, culture or philanthropy, they are there to make money. Paper is their raw material, the content is their commerce. The paper industry produces the raw material and writers produce content. Publishers and editors are few and their goal is evidently ‘lucrative’…readers are consumers, whatever their intellectual pretensions, writers are many and many of them are good, so the law of supply and demand works ruthlessly and relentlessly, few are chosen and they are chosen by chance and circumstance. However, those chosen are not unlike lottery winners, which is to say all winners have bought a ticket and a writers’ ticket is his writing. Writers who write, write to satisfy some intangible desire, those who write to earn money are, in the vast majority of cases, in the wrong business.

There are no excuses, we write compulsively, those who talk of intellectualism and creativity in writing wear cloaks of snobbery and pretension, which whilst said both good and bad writers exist. Each one has his story and each story has its narrator and sometimes a listener, the writer is a mere translator of the recital.