Tuesday, April 26, 2011

No more carriage returns

Know what I bought with my first ever proper pay packet in 1980? It was a typewriter. I think it cost me around £20 and I bought it from a branch of Ryman's in Uxbridge, where the bus station is now. Up until that point I'd written everything out in long hand and occasionally used the typewriters at work during quiet night duties to type up my stories. Having my own machine increased my output substantially.

I loved that typewriter but it was living on borrowed time. By 1988, I owned my first 286 PC and from that point on, the old machine was doomed.

In some ways I miss my old typewriter. Okay, so it only did one font and the only colour inks were black or red ink (if the ribbon was fresh enough). To underline or to bold you had to pull the carriage back and type the line again. There was no cut and paste, only Tippex, and there was no spell checking. To copy your document you reverted to carbon paper. And if your manuscript was damaged or destroyed, you had to start from scratch. There was no back up or save option with paper. But there was still real joy in using my typewriter.

Writer Nicholas Jackson captures the feeling perfectly with this paragraph: 'There's something about the large, clunky, mediaeval device that appeals to the aspiring writers among us; they make you feel more connected to your work. When a story is done and has been pulled off the roller, you can still feel it in your fingers.' I do miss that. There is something magical about seeing the direct link between your thoughts and the words. Press a key on a computer keyboard and somehow a character appears on the screen. I have no idea how. But press a typewriter key and you can see the beast's inner workings; the springs and levers, the cogs and switches, the spools edging the ribbon along one character at a time, the satisfying thunk of the hammer hitting the paper. And that's another thing we miss out on with our modern machines - all those wonderful sounds; the kerchunk of the shift key lifting the type basket, the ping and ratch of the carriage return, the thak thak thak of the keys. You can actually buy software programmes - examples include Home Typist and Typewriter Keyboard - that make your computer imitate those sounds and I have at least one writer friend who swears that it makes him more creative. I've tried it and I'll admit that it's oddly comforting.

Typewriters had a kind of personality; my old thing had a badly cast lower case 'a' so there was always a crescent-shaped mark inside the loop. You could tell my manuscripts from any other manuscript in the world by my typewriter's fingerprint. You don't get that from software. It lacks soul and punch, in the same way that jabbing the red button on a mobile just isn't the same as slamming the reciever down on an older phone after an argument. There's tactile pleasure in clunky mechanical stuff. I think it's why we still fawn over steam engines and analogue watches. I reckon that the whole Steampunk genre stems from wishful thinking about what might have been. I mean, which would you rather? That bland uninspired laptop you have or something like this?

I realise that many of you reading this may never have actually used a typewriter and have always known the ease and utility of word processing. Therefore, it may not mean too much to you when I tell you that today Godrej and Boyce, the last company left in the world still manufacturing typewriters, has closed its doors. There will be no more new machines made. The typewriter is no more. I'm a little bit sad about that.

And even though I have absolutely no more use for one than I do a flint hand axe, I honestly feel like I've lost an old a trusted friend.


nightwishfreak said...

I would love a computer that looked like that - it has got personality! I, personally have enough trouble typing on a keyboard (the amount of times I have had to go back and correct mistyped words!) so a typewriter would probably have turned me off writing! Still, it is again, one of those things that do hark back to a more innocent and benign era.

psweetman said...

I only recently sold my mother's old 1935 typewriter, and took my Brother (no, not my real brother) to the tip. I still had the receipt which roughly equates to the same price as a computer in today's money.
It's sad that they are no longer in production. I suspect a few years down the line when we have run out of oil we'll be learning to use them all over again. I love the whole Steampunk thing :)