The Final Farewell: I
I’ve forgotten that to other people he looks a bit odd. As we make our way up the stairs of the ferry, fellow passengers stare at us. Some crane their necks for a better view, while others smile openly as we stand in line for a cup of coffee.
To people knowledgeable about the craft of typography and letterpress printing, Wil Hudson is a legend. His craftsmanship is widely admired and he is known for the classical beauty of his typographic design, as well as his expertise in printing. He belongs to a dwindling number of typographers and printers who endeavour to make a living through their craft.
To our fellow passengers, Wil is an oddity, but he secretly enjoys how his carefully cultivated eccentricity attracts attention. He sports a plaid deerstalker hat on his head, the kind Sherlock Holmes made famous. The hem of his stained, rumpled, beige raincoat hangs down in the back, threads trailing in his wake. His light grey polyester bell bottoms provide the canvas for more spots and stains. He carries a cane which he swings out in front of him with a flourish. He’s a portly man, with longish, greying hair and a beard. His dark eyes, behind black framed glasses, are small, but intense. His face never knows repose; some feature is always in motion. When he’s excited, scornful or angry, his eyebrows, mouth, cheeks, chin move so quickly his face looks like the different parts of a steam engine building up power.
We take our coffee to the back of the ferry and find seats with a view. He is calm, almost serene, with just a slight twitch around his right eye, one that is always there. We watch the ferry pull away from Saltery Bay, leaving Powell River behind. Wil waves his cane at the scene. “The final farewell to the Malaspina Shores,” he proclaims.
I point out that he might return for a visit and while he agrees, he adds, “But never to live.”
Wil and I are on our way to Vancouver, where he will visit his friend Keith Shields before returning to Nelson, where he now lives. He left Powell River a few weeks earlier, after he walked away from his business and equipment that had supported him for most of his life. He had to return to deal with some final details, however, and with those tasks completed, I’m taking him to the city, a trip which involves two ferry rides and a ninety-minute drive down the Sechelt peninsula.
Wil raises his cane again and points at the mountains to the east. “Those hills look like the hills of China,” he says.
“I didn’t know you had been to China,” I say.
“I haven’t. I know what they look like from reading. And from friends who have been there.”
“But you have been to England,” I say.
He tells me again about his trip to the historic Monotype Corporation Limited to buy the casters, years ago. We hardly notice the ferry approaching Earls Cove forty-five minutes later.
In the stairwell, on the way back to the car deck, he puts his hand inside his pants and, with much swearing and cursing, pulls up his underpants. He explains that he bought a new pair, made in China, and they keep falling down.
I drive slowly down the peninsula, but he constantly cautions me to drive even more slowly. The rear bumper rides precariously close to the ground because of the weight of the type. As well as taking Wil to Vancouver, I’m delivering twenty drawers, technically called California job cases, of his type to Peter Quartermain, a professor at the University of British Columbia who also operates a private press in his basement. The type represents the last of Wil’s equipment that needed to be placed after he closed his business.
As we crawl towards Sechelt then on to Langdale, Will regales me about the imminent eco-disaster he believes will take place as the result of continuing environmental degradation to the planet. He describes the peninsula before it was logged, lists the types of trees that have been obliterated and the ones that will be lost in future. He predicts that books will become obsolete sooner than we might expect because of the lack of pulp to make paper.
At Langdale, we park in the line-up, then walk up to the picnic tables at the front of the terminal. He tells me about Jeremy Rifkin’s book, Entropy, which argues that humanity’s wasting of resources at an increasing rate will lead to the destruction of civilization. Rifkin provides examples of past societies which experienced a similar destruction, but on a smaller scale. Rifkin’s theory is based on the second law of thermodynamics, the law of entropy. Will urges me to read it.
On the ferry to Horseshoe Bay, we sit up front and watch Bowen Island and other smaller islands glide by. A group of long-haired, bearded youths wearing baseball caps backwards on their heads sit across the aisle from us.
Wil leans over to me and says, “At least I won’t have to look at any more Powell River dog faces.” His lips are twitching and there’s a dangerous glint in his eyes. There’s no way to tell if he is going to raise his voice and start insulting adolescent boys in general, a favourite target of his scorn, so I suggest we move over to a window seat. I’m relieved he agrees.
As we drive towards Vancouver on the Upper Levels Highway, Will catches glimpses of English Bay and ships riding on anchor. He is looking forward to spending some time with Keith, who lives in Vancouver’s West End. He and Keith share an interest in the ships that come into Vancouver and take regular walks down to the seawall to count them.
Before we reach the West End, we have to cross the Lions Gate Bridge. We see signs that it is not far away and Wil warns me that it is about to collapse, because of popping rivets and overall structural inadequacy. He becomes agitated, twitchy, yet I drive calmly towards it, amazed at how much he knows about how the bridge was constructed. After we safely cross it, he says, with a small smile, “We made it that time. But don’t go across it again.”
A Briefcase, a Box, a Bedroll, and His Father’s Ashes
I found out in September 1991 that Wil intended to leave Powell River, where he had been living since the late 1970s. A mutual friend told me his landlord was planning on raising his rent, he couldn’t afford the increase, he wasn’t making any money at all, and he was threatening to dismantle his equipment and throw it into the ocean so his landlord wouldn’t be able to sell it. My friend and I agreed we would do what we could to prevent any of this happening.
While we couldn’t convince Wil to stay in town, we did convince him to let us try to sell his presses, type and Monotype casters for him. We arranged with the landlord to pay some rent for the month of October and spent the next week helping Wil pack up. He was in the process of throwing away everything he owned, except for his dictionaries and Arthur Waley’s translations of Chinese poetry. He was purging his life’s work, preparing to walk away empty-handed. One afternoon I found myself standing at a large dumpster behind Wil’s shop sorting through what he had already thrown away, picking out what I thought should be saved, filling boxes with samples of his work.
I also started contacting people who ran small, private presses, including Peter Quartermain, who called his printing operation Slug Press, Jan and Crispin Elsted of Barbarian Press and Martin Wolf, who operated a small press on Vancouver Island called Nemo Press. They all either knew Wil or knew of him.
Born in 1928, Wil grew up in the mid-west of the United States. His father repaired early motion picture projectors and, as a child, Wil used to travel great distances with him on his rounds of movie houses. After his father died, he and his mother moved to California and Wil went to high school in San Jose. He attended a union school and served his typographical apprenticeship in San Francisco, then worked as a trade typographer while operating his own private press, Golden Hills Press, for over ten years.
In 1962, he immigrated to Canada and set up shop in Vancouver, first on Lonsdale Avenue on the north shore, then on Denman Street. Wil took pride in being a working printer and typographer and advertised his services as commercial printing design, typographical consultation and fine bookwork.
Sometime in 1965, he moved to 323 Cambie Street, after founding members of the Alcuin Society chipped in $20 each to save him from financial ruin, according to Geoff Spencer, one of the society’s founders. Wil become the group’s resident printer, with the first project a reprint of the 1861 memoir A Theatrical Trip for a Wager! by Captain Horton Rhys, with an introduction by Robertson Davies and pen-and-ink drawings by Sam Black.
Wil and the Alcuin Society parted ways and he left Vancouver, eventually for Baffin Island, where, in 1972, he established and ran Kingait Press, the typography program for the West Baffin Eskimo Co-op. He shipped his type and presses, a 12-x-18 Little Giant and a 10-x-15 C & P Platen, to Cape Dorset and set about teaching. In 1977 came the publication of The Inuit World: An Annotated Block Print Illustrating Wildlife, Weapons, Tools and Objects of Everyday Life. This “first little piece of bookwork” from the Kingait Press received a rave review in Fine Print in its July 1978 issue. The magazine also printed a letter from Wil describing how the book was made, a letter that the reviewer of the book described as “an oddly timeless reminder that human beings in far corners of the world still struggle against adverse conditions to enrich their isolated lives with the magic form of the book.”
After Baffin Island came the trip to England where Wil bought two monotype casters, machines that cast type from molten lead in the manner of linotype machines, but using a different method. Then, because his friend Keith lived in Powell River at the time, Wil set up shop in this small, isolated community that is situated about 100 miles north of Vancouver. His presses and type made the long journey back from Baffin Island and were joined by the monotype casters in a small set of rooms behind the Inn at Westview.
Wil’s plan was to once again support himself through job printing and he did obtain small orders, including business cards, letterheads, invitations, and announcements from a local art gallery, just enough to eke out a living. While small, his shop was warm and dry. Wil managed to fit everything in it, as well as unroll a sleeping bag at night on the floor next to his Little Giant. He had a hot plate in a small back room and a bathroom down the hall, as well as a few cats, on which he lavished an enormous amount of affection.
In 1989, Wil was forced to move because the owners of the hotel had decided to turn his shop into a beer and wine store. This time he found a large space on the ground floor of the Westview Hotel. He survived there in appalling conditions—no heat, a cement floor, large holes in the ceiling and walls, and rats. Wil collected more than a dozen wild cats around him, which he fed faithfully. Over the winter, his situation rapidly worsened. He had few jobs and after the Canadian government brought in a new federal tax, he gave up working all together. He persevered until the following autumn however, when he was faced with the increase in his rent.
Wil decided to move to Nelson in BC’s interior. He was anxious to travel there to find a place to live before the winter set in. In early October a small group of friends gathered at the bus station to see him off. I think he was pleased at the small clutch of well-wishers who came to say good-bye. He smiled and waved cheerfully as he boarded the bus. He carried with him only a briefcase, a box, a bedroll, and a small urn that contained his father’s ashes.
In the summer of 1982, my husband went away to summer school for a month and while he was gone, I worked at setting type for a small chapbook that we had decided to publish. We had become friends with Wil and during conversations with him came up with the idea of publishing a book that contained a short story I had written and a poem by another friend, Charles Tidler. Wil would print the book and teach me how to handset the type. I had worked as a typesetter in Vancouver before moving to Powell River, but only on electronic equipment.
The chapbook, called Dinosaurs, is small, only sixteen pages. It took me four weeks working six to seven hours a day, five days a week, to set the type for it. Of course, I was an amateur and quite slow. Wil could set type about ten times faster than I could, yet the process itself is time-consuming and labour-intensive.
Although the digital revolution has all but swept away setting type by hand, the dedication and perseverance of a few craftsmen and women keep it alive. The impression made by an actual letter produced from lead on paper is sharper, clearer, more defined than a photographic reproduction. The difference is like seeing an original painting compared to looking at a picture of it.
Setting the type for Dinosaurs became my life for that month. I stood in front of the job case, picked up each letter from its compartment in the drawer and placed them on a composing stick, a tool that looks like a metal ruler. Letter by letter, word by word, space by space, I constructed each line. Depending on the size of the type, the letters are either chunky blocks or fine slivers of lead. The face of each letter is raised and it is this raised face that receives the ink on the printing press.
As I became engrossed in the work, all else receded: the fine summer weather, sharing time with friends, even reading. Wil’s shop smelled of printer’s ink and pipe tobacco. He showed me what I needed to know, then got out of my way. He puttered about, printing some days, making tools on his lathe other days. We stopped for lunch, then more work in the afternoon, until about five, when we would have a few beers together before I left for home.
When he printed, Wil generally used the Little Giant, a flatbed press that he had owned for years and had rebuilt himself. He knew it as intimately as a mother knows her baby’s body and oiled and cared for it as lovingly. When it was running, he walked up and down its length, keeping a sharp eye on the myriad moving parts, stopping to check the sheets of paper as they travelled from one end of the press to the other, making minor adjustments to the ink level or the tension or the speed. When something didn’t please him, which was often, the swearing would begin, all to the rhythm of the press, a metallic ca-thunk, ca-thunk, ca-thunk, ca-thunk. When all was going smoothly, when all the parts were in balance and working just right, the press sang and Wil paced contentedly beside it. A magic seemed to descend on the small shop then, a harmony that resulted in all the parts of the process working together in the great endeavour of producing the printed word.
“This Is A Printing Office,” a sign in Wil’s shop read:
This Is A Printing Office
Crossroads Of Civilization
Refuge Of All The Arts
Against The Ravages Of Time
Armoury Of Fearless Truth
Against Whispering Rumour
Incessant Trumpet Of Trade
From This Place Words
May Fly Abroad
Not To Perish On Waves Of Sound
Not To Vary With The Writer’s Hand
But Fixed In Time
Having Been Verified In Proof
Friend You Stand On Sacred Ground
This Is A Printing Office
The Final Farewell: II
After I deliver the type to Peter Quartermain in Vancouver, I drive back to the West End and make my way to Keith’s apartment, a tiny bachelor suite on Barclay Street. Keith, a tall man with a shaven head and resonant voice, is a sculptor and painter. On the walls are line drawings of nude women well advanced in years. I’m not surprised that he would tackle a subject mostly ignored by other artists.
On the way to a restaurant where we’re going to have dinner together, Keith points out a maple tree in full fall foliage. “Certain leaves at this time of year are luminous,” he says, and we stop and admire the golden colours glowing against the darkening sky.
I become privy to some of Wil and Keith’s rituals. They tease each other about girlfriends, or the lack of them, and sometimes they bait each other, enjoying the outburst that inevitably follows if one of them falls for the gambit. On certain topics, they agree, like the imminent environmental collapse, which Keith believes will be triggered by a biological catastrophe. They also scorn contemporary business practices, which to them no longer involved a product or service performed for a fair price. To them, business had become an elaborate scheme to convince the customer that the product or service is actually worth what was being asked.
After dinner, we walk down to English Bay and they count the ships again: fourteen, the same as the afternoon. The ships’ lights sparkle and glitter in the dark, brightening the water, bestowing an air of festivity on the bay. We walk on the seawall and I fill my lungs with the salty, fresh air. Wil becomes interested in the slabs of concrete placed between the large blocks that make up the seawall. He and Keith debate how the slabs were produced and how they were put there. They are both curious, involved, endlessly interested in how things are made, how they work, how they are put together: the world of machines, grease, moveable parts, precision, hard work.
We walk down a back alley, then up to Denman and a small cafe for coffee. They make up stories about the other customers. Wil points out a woman who looks just like Queen Victoria. They both warn me about the Lions Gate Bridge, which I must cross again on my way back to Powell River.
Then, they walk me to my car. Wil allows me to hug him. I get in the car and drive away. In the rearview mirror, I see him waving good-bye.
Now that Wil and the type have been safely delivered, I speed up as I join the stream of vehicles crossing the Lions Gate Bridge. I make it safely to the other side, as it doesn’t collapse, not this time.
The above photo I received from Laura the way it is was re-photographed, frame and all. It too is a photo in the collection of Sean Johnston