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    Bob Gormack - Man Of Books
    Dorothy - 20/3/98

    His love of books has shaped his career and now fills every spare moment of his retirement.

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

    The topics range from New Zealand poetry and Bob's autobiography 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 Diminshing 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.

    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 the 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, 'The Nag's Head Press'.

    Editor at Whitcombe and Tombs
    For the next few years Bob worked in other printing firms, including some experience in Britain, before taking 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, 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 Bob fully occupied.

    The 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 was very similar to the machine on which Bob had printed the anti-conscription leaflets. 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 - 'The 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 the Nag's Head Press
    For the first publication by the 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 110 books printed on that original press
    As I write this Bob has just completed the printing of his 110th book. The titles include a wide range of subjects, but poetry and New Zealand and Australian history are favourite topics. Bob 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.

    A page from Helen Bateman's letters
    A page from Helen Bateman's letters
    (Click here to see it in the actual size of the book)
    Helen Gormack's 'Letters from 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 II give an interesting picture of the events and customs of the time.

    Cricket
    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
    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 at Smiths Bookshop, says 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 The Nag's Head Press
    The Nag's Head Press is an on-going concern, with three titles published in 1997 and a similar number in the pipeline for 1998.

    Bob's younger son, Nick Gormack, a subeditor on the Christchurch Press, 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 is at present working on 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 the Nag's Head Press looks bright.

    Editor's note
    Since I wrote this article Bob has not been idle.
    His recent publications 1998 A Christmas Treat and The Bottle - two of his own stories
    1999 The Broadcast - another of his stories
    2000 England Skittled, a cricket story celebrating New Zealand's first cricket victory against England
    2000 The Clutha Bridge - another of Bob's short stories 2001 The Sometime Shortage - a most entertaining short play Bob has written about the shortage of women in early Canterbury.


    Published with permission from NZine