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Bob Gormack - man of books

Dorothy - 12/11/04

If you are a lover of New Zealand books, you will probably have heard of Bob Gormack and seen some of the books printed by him at Nag's Head Press in Christchurch - beautiful small volumes printed in hand-set type on an antique Harrild & Sons printing press.

Bob Gormack
Bob Gormack

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The topics range from New Zealand poetry and Bob's diaries to sport and New Zealand and Australian history. Some of the topics have a curiously modern ring - Pioneers in Protest subtitled No Gains without Drains, letters of complaint from the archives of the Christchurch City Council written in the 1850s, and Methods for Diminishing the Rabbit Nuisance 1877.

Where did his life among books begin?
Bob was fascinated with books as a child and his first writing and printing venture was writing verse for the school magazine and helping with the publication.

After a short time as a journalist and then as a public service cadet he decided on full time study at Canterbury University College. A year later war broke out.

Second World War - involvement with printing
He was not fit enough to be conscripted into the armed forces so he did part-time work and part-time university study during the war years. He joined with some friends who shared his pacifist views and helped them publish anti-conscription pamphlets in the early months of the war. In this they ran the risk of visits from the police. The other result was that Bob became skilled at hand setting lines of display type, locking up printing formes and hand feeding both treadle and motorised presses.

Diary for 1942-3 and Diary of a Hundred Days
These diaries published much later in Bob's life give a valuable picture of life in Christchurch in the war years.

Diary for 1942-3 gives a fascinating insight into the thoughts, ambitions and problems of a writer in his student days. He read widely - philosophy, psychology, poetry, drama and novels - and did not confine his reading to works written in English. He records his reactions to other people's writing and to the music he listened to, including the music of his friend Douglas Lilburn. He attended literature lectures given by Winston Rhodes, and evaluates these in his diary.

A group of people, mainly men, living in rented rooms formed the Sanseneise Society and met in each other's rooms for meals and in depth discussions on life and writing. For this group Bob wrote what he calls his Sanseneise farce and the group put on a successful performance of this in the University's Little Theatre.

Bob writes about his stage experience in the cast of Shakespearian plays put on by Ngaio Marsh. In a footnote he writes about acting in the role of gravedigger in Hamlet:
"Looking back, it appears to have worked out very well indeed. With this gravedigger's role I gained an entry to a whole new world of Shakespearian theatre experience, under the direction of Ngaio Marsh. I got minor character parts in her first five Shakespeare productions with the Canterbury students, ending with Macbeth in 1946. In addition there were the semi-professional tours, first round the New Zealand cities then later by ship to Australia."

Diary of a Hundred Days
This detailed account of life in Christchurch in the middle of World War 2 was kept for a hundred days in 1943 and sent as daily letters to peace activist Wilf Foote in a detention camp in the North Island. The letters were kept and published in Diary of a Hundred Days and are now an important document of New Zealand's social history.

Ventures into business as a printer
Later he began a small business printing specialised graph paper, although to do this he had to travel by train to Rakaia, a distance of some 56 km (35 miles) and run a platen press which was kept in a shed in the grounds of the Presbyterian manse. In 1944 he had the chance to take over the press at no cost and with a friend set up a printing business at the back of a building in the heart of Christchurch.

The Raven Press
They called the new business The Raven Press. They printed graph paper, orders from the Students' Association and labels for pharmacies' bottles. Keeping the business going was a struggle as they had to use all possible funds to buy further printing equipment.

At this time they were given what Bob in his history of Nag's Head Press describes as 'a sorrowful mounted horse head'. It hung on the wall of the Raven comp room.

In 1948 his partner wanted a change of occupation and the Raven Printing Press was sold. Just before it was sold Bob wrote and published Bookie, a satire on Book, a publication by a rival printing firm. He needed to represent it as coming from a different printer, and from the horse on the wall took the title, 'Nag's Head Press'.

Working at Pegasus Press
For the next few years Bob worked in other printing firms. He particularly valued his work as a compositor at Pegasus Press started by Albion Wright. Pegasus published some memorable material such as the Maori magazine Te Ao Hou, and the great Canterbury Centennial book The Journal of Edward Ward recording his voyage to Lyttelton in 1950. He sailed on the Charlotte Jane with well known pioneers - James Edward Fitzgerald, Alfred Charles Barker and Charles Thomas Cholmondeley.

At Pegasus he met people who were to make their mark as significant New Zealand writers. He worked with New Zealand poet Denis Glover, and when Albion Wright published seven paperback books of the work of seven New Zealand poets he took Bob's suggestion of publishing an eighth book of the poetry of John Caselberg. Bob and John corresponded regularly over the years and one of the first books published by Nag's Head Press was Six Songs in the Wake, poems written by Caselberg after the death of his dog. Later these poems received further recognition when lines from them were used in a series of paintings by Colin McCahon.

After his work at Pegasus Bob and his wife Helen went to Britain for him to gain some experience in the printing industry there.

Editor at Whitcombe and Tombs
On his return from Britain he took up a position on the editorial staff of Whitcombe and Tombs, later Whitcoulls Publishers. In the role of book editor he oversaw the printing of many outstanding New Zealand books.

He was concerned with design as well as editing. He is proud of the design work in books like the revised fourth edition of L. G. D. Acland's The Early Canterbury Runs and W. A. Sutton's Water Colours of Italy.

Among the hundreds of books that he edited were Philip Temple's non-fiction books, and John A Lee's Roughnecks, Rolling Stones and Rouseabouts.

He was responsible for much of the editing and design of New Zealand - Gift of the Sea a book by an outstanding New Zealand writer, Maurice Shadbolt, and an outstanding photographer, Brian Brake. This was one of the first books of photo essays that became so popular in the seventies.

During these years Bob did little further writing or the type of printing which had been his first interest. Marriage, the birth of three children, the purchase of a section, building a house and developing a garden, kept him fully occupied.

Nag's Head Press starts on a machine confiscated by police during the war.
Then in 1964 with a garden shed all ready to receive it he was offered an old printing press exactly like the machine on which he had first printed anti-conscription leaflets. It was a Harrild & Sons (Fleet Works, London) press with fittings for both treadle and motorised operation.

Very early in the war the press had been confiscated by the police from its owner, Lincoln Efford, a pacifist campaigner. It had been returned and had lain, dismantled, in the garage at the property where Lincoln Efford's widow lived.

Bob says that the wartime police had presumably retained two key parts to ensure that the press remained inoperable. Two brackets to hold the clamped chase were missing. A friend made substitutes which worked well.

The name for the press was fixed on instantly - "Nag's Head Press". Type was the next consideration and as hand setting was to be the method Bob settled on Monotype Caslon for basic text in the two available trade-set sizes, 12-point and 11-point.

His own composition Book I from Nag's Head Press
For the first publication by Nag's Head Press Bob then returned to composition, again using his skill at satire. After 1940 when New Zealand celebrated its centennial, numerous towns, districts, schools, churches and other organisations produced centennial histories, some of them of poor quality in the writing and printing. Bob began his fictional centennial history of Barnego Flat. Because all the type had to be hand set it appeared in episodes from 1964 to 1982. Roderick Cave in Matrix 5, an annual publication from the Whittington Press surveying historical and modern typography, describes the history as "a witty and intelligent pastiche of other commemorative volumes". He goes on to say, "To sustain a joke successfully over nine parts and twenty odd years, though, takes some literary skill, and Barnego Flat is now deservedly sought after by collectors in New Zealand; sought not merely for the amusing content, but for the volumes' typography".

Now 119 books printed on that original press
As I write this Bob has completed the printing of his 119th book. The titles include a wide range of subjects, but poetry and New Zealand and Australian history are favourite topics. He has printed work by many New Zealand poets - the best known being Basil Dowling and Denis Glover.

New Zealand history
Works of New Zealand history include:
Biscuit and Butter: A Colonist's Shipboard Fare, The Journal of William and Laurence Kennaway, London to New Zealand, N.Z., 1851, edited by R. C. Lamb and R. S. Gormack
Dr Gundry's Diary: Parts I and 2 edited R. S. Gormack, the journal of the surgeon-superintendent on the Steadfast, February - June 1851 and starting practice in Christchurch
A Year at Hawkswood the diary of Frances Caverhill for 1865 in two volumes, Hawkswood being a farm (station) near the coast in North Canterbury
Pioneers in Protest ed. R. C. Lamb subtitled No Gains without Drains letters mainly of complaint, culled from the archives of the Christchurch City Council, written in the 1850s.

Australian history
Numerous books on Australian history were commissioned by the publisher, Sullivan's Cove, Adelaide, South Australia. Among them are:
The Horrors of Convict Life by John Frost
A Journal of Events from Port Phillip to Mount Schank, etc., in 1843 by Messrs Edward and Fortescue Arthur
Life of John Broxup, late convict at Van Dieman's Land
The Settler in Tasmania by Charles Furlong, a reprint from an anonymous publication in London in 1879
The Kains; Female Convict Vessel Charles Picknell's Journal and Thrasycles Clarke's Notes [1830-31]

His personal journey
He has printed six volumes of autobiography based on his life in the early 1940s when he was in contact with a number of writers who have since become well known in New Zealand.

Helen Gormack's Letters frrom London at Coronation Time
These letters to New Zealand, written by Bob's wife, Helen Bateman, a Christchurch journalist, when she was in London at the time of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth ll give an interesting picture of the events and customs of the time.

Bob's interest in cricket has led him to print some small volumes about famous cricket matches:
Grand Match All-England Eleven v. Canterbury Twenty two, 1864
Great Knock Sim's Australians v. Canterbury 1914
Demon Bowler Australian xi v. Canterbury xv 1878

Rugby has not been forgotten and The Wales Test 1905 gives the match reports and commentary of the First Wales v. New Zealand Rugby Test played at Cardiff Arms Park, 16 December 1905.

The rabbit problem
Methods for Diminishing the Rabbit Nuisance Papers relating to this, 1877, source the Appendices to Journal of the House of Representatives - an amusing exchange of official letters between England and New Zealand on possible solutions to the colony's runaway rabbit problem.

Interest from collectors
Ross Humphries, a specialist on New Zealand books and formerly manager of Smiths Bookshop, said that the publications by Nag's Head Press are among the most sought-after works of non-fiction, especially the rugby and cricketing monographs and A Year at Hawkswood. Quite a number of book collectors are trying to make up sets of The Centennial History of Barnego Flat.

The future of Nag's Head Press
Nag's Head Press is an on-going concern, with titles published in 2002 and others in the pipeline.

Bob's younger son, Nick Gormack, works as a journalist, but has more than a passing interest in the work of the press. In recent years he has been responsible for introducing a younger generation of writers to the publication list, including poets Kathleen Gallagher, David Howard and Bill Direen.

Nick produced his own handsome alphabet book, Letters are to Learn. It is illustrated by a talented local artist, Jenny Rendell, and employs the full range of display lettering available at the press.

The future for Nag's Head Press looks as interesting as ever.

Nick Gormack intends to carry on with the work at Nag's Head Press, but Bob is no longer alive to be part of the enterprise.

Bob died after a short illness on August 20, 2006.

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