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Tribute to Eileen Simmonds

My grandmother Eileen Simmonds, from Cinderford in the Forest of Dean – known for running Gibbs & Simmonds printers – died on the 25th of June 2015. Last Tuesday I attended her funeral and read the following eulogy.

Printing

I remember going into gran’s workshop as a kid. The slightly sticky black floor, strips of paper everywhere, collections of wooden and metal letters, the smell of grease and oily ink.

I remember the lettering assembled in large frames, forming ‘bills’ – old posters – and photographic surrounds, and I was fascinated by the process of inking the set for the bills, laying the paper out, and rolling it. Watching Keith fill in with ink any little bubbles that had formed and left white dots.

I was obsessed by the enormous leather-belt driven flywheel of a machine, spinning around to drive the mechanism that lifted paper from the stack, placing it in the press a fraction of a second before it closed, while an arm moved up over a plate, collected ink, rolled it down over the press and back up. Silently the press would close, and out came something printed, to be whisked instantly away by another arm and placed on a different stack.

Equally amazing was the small treadle-powered machine that gran occasionally stood at, performing much the same act as the machine; lifting paper, dropping it in, pulling out the printed sheet and replacing it with another. I always wondered how she managed not to catch her fingers in it while she pumped the treadle with her foot. One day – only a few years ago – she did, badly crushing her fingers, and in the height of stubbornness was back at it again a couple of weeks later to finish the job, fingers in splints, and all.

All of this gave me an interest in print from an early age. Gran would sometimes let me sit, arranging sentences in lead type, but I was never allowed to print anything out because of the expense in time of setting up and inking. Instead, I consoled myself by playing with mum’s typewriter.

Gran would keep any literature about printing that arrived, and never let it out of her sight, even though most of it related to computerised presses and printers – it was something she was never going to ‘upgrade’ to. I came across a poster with some fractal graphics, mathematical patterns printed in bright colours, and when I asked for it, she clung to it saying “it’s reading material”. She was never going to read it – but it fuelled my interest in graphics from that point, and drove me into a career doing computer graphics, which has now got me to the point of being a programmer.

A couple of years ago I took up writing as a hobby after I had some compelling ideas for a novel. In a way, I’d like to think that, by self-publishing, this part of me is carrying on the family business of putting words into print. Now it’s done by a computer and printed either in Milton Keynes, or somewhere in the US, but it’s still creating print and being read as far away as New Zealand.

One of the things I’m thankful for now, is that gran was able to attend my book launch. I’ve been told it made her proud.

I named one of my characters after the family name, slightly changed from Simmonds to Simmons – which she never knew. Given that character lived a solitary life, it now seems fitting that in my second book, he should meet up with his lost love, left behind when he ventured off into space. Her name is different, but I think they should get married so that in the end she can be named Eileen Simmons, and, as she is now with her husband in real life, they too can be together again.