Joel Biroco and The Herculaneum Press

by Paul W Nash


Many and endless are the arguments about what constitutes a “private press”, but no one could maintain that Joel Biroco’s Herculaneum Press was not one. It fulfilled all the strictest criteria – Joel printed for pleasure and through a desire to express himself in print; he usually printed letterpress, with types set by his own hand, on a small hand-operated machine, and circulated his publications in an informal manner.

The founder of the Herculaneum Press was not named “Joel Biroco” at birth, but this is, very much, his name. He left London’s Imperial College with a chemistry degree in 1981, having edited the student newspaper for a year, and drifted for a while, reading widely in European literature, Asian mysticism, and archaeology. In 1984 he was present at the Stonehenge festival, held at the midsummer solstice, and experienced an epiphany, a “metanoia” he calls it, which inspired him to give up his job and begin to search for an explanation, both for the message he seemed to be receiving at Stonehenge, and simply an explanation.

The first avenues he explored were those of the occult, and his reading led him to found a new magazine, which he wished to call Chaos. He heard, however, that another periodical of the same name was just about to begin publication; so Joel numbered his first issue “Number 3”, and thus obliged the other journal to change its name to Chaos International. He wrote the whole of number 3 himself, but quickly gathered a group of regular contributors and counter-contributors, although number 4½, entitled The Exorcist of Revolution, was also written entirely by the editor, “in a dangerously suicidal frame of mind in Hounslow”. From number 8 Joel changed the title to Kaos.

The magazine ran for five years, from 1985 to 1989, the final issue being number 13, published to commemorate the “Nietzsche Centenary”, it being 100 years since the philosopher’s “sudden slide into eleven years of Utter Oblivion in January 1889”. [1] The magazine is a mixture of literary, occult and erotic texts, with illustrations specially commissioned or “borrowed” from a wide variety of sources. For a while Kaos satisfied Joel’s publishing demon but, by the time the final number had appeared, he was bored with the format and subject matter and wanted to produce something more aesthetically pleasing. The obvious next step was to found a private press.

Like many of those who want to print by hand, and to do it well, Joel looked first at the Kelmscott Press. Indeed, the hand of fate appeared to be upon him and, for a while, books by and about William Morris seemed to be everywhere. But after an initial enthusiasm Joel began to find the work of Kelmscott over-ornate, and fate again took a hand: while examining private press books in the British Library, he discovered, and was greatly impressed by, the antithetical cousin of Kelmscott – the Doves Press, with its simplicity of design and execution, its single size of Roman type, and its paragraph character (which particularly intrigued Joel, who searched in vain for a similar symbol among the available typefaces).

In early 1989 Joel, who was then living in Hornsey, saw an advertisement in Exchange and Mart for a second-hand Adana 8×5 and some basic tools, which he bought. Next came the choice of typefaces to work with. He toyed with Plantin and Bodoni, but ultimately chose two of Eric Gill’s designs, buying founts of Perpetua and Gill Sans from the Mouldtype Foundry. A little later he bought Garamond and smaller founts of Albertus, Bodoni Heavy, Pepita Script, Pabst Wavy Oldstyle, Placard and Blado, the last partly because he had read that it was based on the handwriting of a Pope. [2] He was also influenced to choose Blado by Conant Brodribb of the Demi-Griffin Press, whose Italic Impressions (1980) and Demi-Griffin Descant (1980– ) are largely a celebration of this type. Joel joined the British Printing Society, and was delighted and encouraged by the work of the members; in some cases it was so poor that he felt he could easily do better, and in others it was so good as to be inspiring. All he needed now was a name for his press. He chose “Herculaneum” because, at the time, he was reading the works of Friedrich Nietzsche and remembered the line from Die fröhliche Wissenschaft: “The secret of finding the greatest potential and the greatest joy is: live dangerously! Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius!” (from epigram 283). This conjured an image of Herculaneum, and the word also had the necessary euphony for a press name.

Jonathan Wood describes the arrival of the Press as follows: “In April of 1989, I received a letter from a Printer’s Devil proclaiming the birth of a new publishing venture to be known as the Herculaneum Press, which somehow one hoped would incorporate the best and most renowned traditions of the English Private Press movement with the lucid, economic and deceptively unassuming ideas of its creator …” (Netherwood, the Authorised Exorcise Book [Kosmopoli (i.e. London): Anywhere out of the World, 1990, p.10]). Joel set to work on his first publication, and in June 1989 managed to complete 175 copies of Che Sara Sara (item 1 in the bibliography at the end of this article). The text was written by Joel, and printed a page at a time on the Adana, in A5 format. Anyone who has used such a press will know that it takes some getting used to, and Joel spent many hours adjusting the impression, then flexing his back to achieve sufficient pressure for each page. The book was illustrated with a linocut by the author (shown here), printed on a stencilled background, and the colophon and cover were printed in two colours. Considering the small scale of the press and its operator’s inexperience, the book was a triumph; Joel managed to attain a quality of impression which many professional printers fail to achieve. The next problem was the binding. He opted for a kind of perfect binding, with the A5 sheets and the wrappers being glued together at the gutter. To give extra firmness, and conceal the glued edge, he added a strip of red cloth tape around the spine. This was originally a purely functional addition. But it looked good, and became the house style of the Herculaneum Press.

The text of Che Sara Sara is typical of Biroco’s earlier works, being a prose poem on happiness and despair, beginning “I envy those for whom suicide has meaning”. On the wrappers he printed the title above a Chinese seal. An early source of inspiration was a book of these seals, which consist of lines from poems, axioms or charms, expressed as pictograms within a square, oblong or circular cartouche. Not only do they possess great decorative beauty in themselves, but they are also texts, and may be read as simple words, as allusions, or merely as shapes. Some have an added resonance, when they form half of a couplet, suggesting the other “unspoken” words. The use of these seals was not consciously an attempt to define a press style, but it became one of the most unusual and distinctive features of Joel’s work.

Perhaps he regretted having printed so many copies of his first book, however. Not only had the labour been immense, but he had no particular desire to sell his work and the private distribution of 175 copies was clearly going to take time. He took ten copies to Skoob Books, intending to try to sell them; but when he arrived he found a copy of a rare book he had been searching for for some time, and agreed to swap his ten copies of Che Sara Sara for the volume (a copy of Wei Tat’s An Exposition of I-Ching, inscribed by the author). Later he did sell a few copies of his books, but the vast majority were given or bartered away.

Joel’s second book was inspired by the writings of Louis Ferdinand Céline, in particular Guignol’s Band, and was called Yip-i-addy-i-ay! (Céline claimed that this was the first thing he learned to say in English). The text was distilled from a prose poem of around 20,000 words, and this time Joel chose not to make a rod for his own back, and limited the edition to 75 copies. The title-page is particularly pleasing, with a tall elegant frame printed in grey. The binding was made as before, but this time Joel added a dust-jacket of marbled paper, with a printed cover label. Jonathan Wood commented of Joel’s first two books: “as they are designed throughout so beautifully I hope somehow they will find themselves reviewed in The Private Library, the premier not be sniffed at journal of the Private Libraries Association” (Netherwood, p.12). This did not happen at the time, perhaps because of Joel’s shyness about sending out copies of his books for notice in the popular press.

Over the ensuing years the Herculaneum Press, like many such ventures, also published a good deal of ephemera, and these betray the preoccupations of the printer and his circle. A card announces that “A GROUP is gathering together to discuss various aspects of the occult, which may lead to an opportunity to work practical magic ...” and another advertises Joel’s “I Ching Coin Prediction” service. He did not hand-print another book for over two years, however, although this was not for lack of material. Several works were begun, and pages of type were set, before the project was abandoned, because the words did not seem worthy of the lead. Instead, while hatching his next letterpress volume, Joel published a one-off photocopied “samizdat” journal called Kwatz!, subtitled “the antidote to the deadly dull occult magazine” (1990), and a collection of correspondence and “Good advice for Satan’s kingdom” entitled Epoch (1991). Both follow on from the writings in Kaos, with contributions from many of the same gnostics. Epoch was published in the style of a Herculaneum Press book, although the main text was printed lithographically. However, the wrappers, half-title and colophon were all printed on the Adana, and the binding was in the Herculaneum house style.

During June and July 1992 Joel fought to complete the next book. This was set in newly-acquired Garamond type, and was published in an edition of only 40 copies as Old Sourpuss. The text was another prose poem, the interior monologue of a bitter old man, and the printing of it was such an effort that, at the end of it, Joel felt disinclined to tackle anything so large again. By Herculaneum standards this was a Herculean book, although to the reader it was merely a modest pamphlet, rather well-printed. Over the following four years Joel printed oddments – further cards announcing I Ching readings, or bearing mottos, charms, spells, axioms or Christmas greetings. Among the greeting cards is an impression in red from a damaged block of the royal arms, found on a market-stall. Because the lower section would not print properly Joel overprinted it in black with a linocut of a voodoo vever, and added the greeting “The Eclipse of the House of Windsor by Voodoo | Merry Xmas from Papa Legba & the Herculaneum Press”. One more Herculaneum book, Slow Volcano (1993), did appear, but the text was again set and printed without the use of lead, although the outer leaves were printed by hand, including one of the Press’s characteristic Chinese seals.

Joel’s publishing demon was growing less insistent, and his interests were turning more and more to the mysterious beauty of the I Ching; he had begun to research a full-length book on the ancient oracle, and this was taking up most of his time. In the summer of 1996 he made a hard decision, and resolved to sell the Adana along with all the type and equipment. I was in a position to buy the type (although I declined to take the Gill Sans on moral grounds), and the machine was sold through an advertisement in Loot! It had been a short adventure, but a very individual one. The five small books published by the Herculaneum Press achieved a remarkably high standard of design and typography, and consisted wholly of original work by Biroco and his collaborators. Joel also achieved the best quality which any truly private press can hope for – he developed a style all his own, and made books that have a distinct Herculanean odour. He is still writing, and his book on the origin of the I Ching is now complete and seeking a publisher. Under his “real” name, Joel Biroco is an editor on The Lancet.


Bibliography of The Herculaneum Press

The following list describes the five books published by Joel Biroco at the Herculaneum Press. It does not include the two periodicals Chaos (later Kaos, 1985–1989) and Kwatz! (1990). All the books are A5 format (211 × 148 mm).

1 (June 1989). Che Sara Sara. Cover-title: “CHE | SARA | [in red] Joel Biroco | [in black] SARA | [Chinese seal in red]”. Pp. [i–ii], 1–7 [8–10]. Type: Perpetua (14-pt), with Albertus (48-pt) and Pepita Script (24-pt) on the cover. Paper: laid cream (“vellum”) Conqueror. Perfect bound in cream Conqueror card wrappers with red cloth spine-tape, titled as above. 175 numbered copies. There is no title-page. The linocut frontispiece is printed in black on a yellow stencilled ground. The colophon, which is printed in blue and red, notes that there is “No copyright, may be freely pirated ...”. The Chinese seal on the cover is “Joel” in Chinese, beside “Chou I”, an early name of the I Ching. This seal was originally cut in marble for Joel in Chinatown, and a relief block was made for use in printing. The majority of copies were given away, but a few were traded for other books or sold at £6.

2 (November 1989). Yip-i-addy-i-ay!. Title-page: “[within a grey border] Yip-i-addy-i-ay! | by | JOEL BIROCO | [fleuron] | With a linocut | by the author | [fleuron] | The | HERCULANEUM PRESS | 1989”. Pp. [1–18]. Type: Perpetua (14-pt), with Garamond italic (24-pt) on the title-page, cover and cover-label. Paper: laid cream (“vellum”) Conqueror, with pages [1–2], [5–6], [14] and [17–18] on laid pale grey Conqueror (pages [13–14] are made of a cream and grey leaf pasted together). Perfect bound in cream Conqueror card wrappers with red cloth spine-tape, titled “Yip-i-addy-i-ay! | by | JOEL BIROCO”; with a red marbled paper dust-jacket with a cream paper label repeating the cover-title. 75 numbered copies. There is a hand-coloured linocut on page [13], and a Chinese seal (as used in item 1) printed in red beneath the colophon. The paper for the jacket was marbled by Sarah Amatt. Most copies were given away, but a few were traded or sold at £8.

3 (October 1991). Epoch. Cover-title: “EPOCH | [in blue] Ed: Joel Biroco | [Chinese seal in orange]”. Pp. [1–20]. Type: main text set on a computer in Gill Sans, Palatino and other faces; cover in Albertus (48-pt) and Garamond italic (24-pt), half-title in Garamond italic (24-pt), and colophon in Blado (12-pt). Paper: wove white Conqueror, with pages [1–2] and [19–20] on laid pale green Conqueror. Stapled into cream Conqueror card wrappers with dark green cloth spine-tape, titled as above. 150 numbered copies. There is no title-page, only a half-title reading “EPOCH” in blue. The seal generally used on the cover means “my home is deep in the white clouds”, while that on the colophon, printed in red, means “find a practical solution by facing facts”. A few copies have a smaller seal on the cover, printed in red instead of orange, and reading “to receive no visitors is like living deep in the mountains”. Only the covers and first and last leaf were printed by hand. The text consists of “Good advice for Satan’s kingdom” by Biroco (pp.[3–5]); “CORRESPONDENCE” by Norman Jope, Steven Holmes, S.E. Parker and Biroco (pp.[6–16]); “NOTEBOOK” by Biroco (p.[17]); and an outlandish “(SELF-PORTRAIT) 7/9/91” of the author. “Good advice for Satan’s kingdom” was William Blake’s description of Bacon’s Essays. Around 50 copies were destroyed by the author. All the surviving copies were given away.

4 (July 1992). Old Sourpuss. Title-page: “[in red] Old Sourpuss | [in black] by | Joel Biroco | HERCULANEUM PRESS”. Pp. [1–22]. Type: Garamond (14-pt), with Bodoni Heavy Italic (18-pt) on the title-page and page [17], Gill Sans (18-pt) on the title-page and colophon, and Bodoni Heavy italic (48-pt) and Garamond italic (24-pt) on the cover. Paper: wove cream Conqueror, with pages [1–2] and [21–22] on laid pale grey Conqueror. Perfect bound in cream Conqueror card wrappers with dark green cloth spine-tape, titled “Old Sourpuss | [in green] JOEL BIROCO”. 40 numbered copies. The Chinese seal on the colophon (shown here) is printed in red and reads “the clouds wander out from peaks and caverns”. All copies were given away.

5 (September 1993). Slow Volcano. Cover-title: “Slow volcano | [stylised drawing of a grasshopper in green]”. The title continues on page [i] with “The | HERCULANEUM [Chinese seal in red] PRESS | 1993” and on page [iii] with “[in red] Written | by | Joel Biroco”. Pp. [i–iv], 1–16 [17–20]. Type: main text set on a computer in Palatino; cover in Bodoni Heavy italic (48-pt), imprint and colophon in Garamond italic (14-pt) and page [iii] in Albertus (24-pt). Paper: wove cream Conqueror, with pages [i–ii] and [19–20] on wove yellow paper. Stapled into cream Conqueror card wrappers with dark green cloth spine-tape, titled as above. 99 numbered copies. The seal used on page [i] reads “very grand and gorgeous”, and the symbol on the colophon, printed in purple, is a Taoist talisman for protection of the body. Only the covers, and the first two and final leaves were printed by hand. A head-piece on page 1 reproduces a linocut by Joel of the “Nembutsu”, reading in Chinese “Na-mo-o-mi-to-fo”, which is a Buddhist prayer. Although not explicitly mentioning Buddhism, the text is a “personal portrayal of Buddhist experience”. All copies were given away.





1. Number 13 of KAOS was printed in an edition of 400 copies, 100 of which were said to include an extra colour plate, although only about 30 such copies were issued. The plate shows Amodali, a priestess of “Walburga Abbey” (annexed to a Satanic sex club in Amsterdam), who was the muse for that particular issue. [Ed’s note – The editorial of KAOS 14 contains further information about the Walburga Abbey and Amodali.] [Back]

2. This is an old misunderstanding, based on a misreading of the colophon of the first book to be printed in Lodovico degli Arrighi’s second fount, on which Blado is based. [Back]


Originally published in The Private Library (Fifth series, Volume 1:2, Summer 1998). The Private Library is the quarterly Journal of the Private Libraries Association, eds: David Chambers & Paul W Nash. Paul W Nash worked for thirteen years at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, where one of his duties was the compilation of a list of private press books held by the library. He is proprietor of The Strawberry Press, with Alison Felstead.