Belfast Telegraph

My lifelong love affair with the strong and (not so) silent type

Brother has just made its last typewriter, but don't write them off just yet, says Malachi O'Doherty

Have given half my life to bashing typewriters and now most younger people I meet will never understand what that was like. They may know that the letters pad on their smart phone is laid out in an order determined by the invention of the typewriter but will they ever grasp the elegance of that planning?

If we were designing a keyboard for a computer today, we would want to bring closer together letters which were commonly used in conjunction with each other like W and I or P and A. The qwerty keyboard was planned with different considerations, how to space letters so that the keys they flipped up didn't clash and stick, the way they often did anyway.

The keyboard slows you down so that the whole thing doesn't jam.

I was too impatient as a typist. I taught myself on an Imperial portable one summer when writing my first ever article. I was in too much of a hurry to bother with touch typing or the professional approach of using all the fingers.

For a time the College of Business Studies tried to teach me to type properly but the bad habits had been established.

That meant that when I was a working journalist my copy always had corrections, sometimes a couple of lines long, of xxxxx typed over the mistakes. That didn't matter. Every other journalist I knew was as sloppy.

When I started work on the Sunday News, the typewriter allocated to me was probably several decades old. It was of the 'sit up and beg' style. The key sank about two inches under the finger before the lever swinging up actually made contact.

This would have been good training for karate. The roller inched along as you typed and then a bell dinged to warn you that you were approaching the edge of the page and might want to grab the handle and wrench the whole carriage back. I'm aware that I am not using the correct technical terms but I never knew them.

Working on a typewriter was different from managing a computer because there was no pride in the technology. A man working on a computer today would not want to be thought ignorant of basics, like how to reboot, but we had no sense of being personally committed to our typewriters or in any way defined by our acquaintance with them.

It was just a machine. Nobody would mock you or think you any less a man if you didn't know how to change the ribbon. Men who love the kit they work with would have been a mystery to us then.

And perhaps that was because one had a sense that a typewriter was getting in the way of writing rather than making it easier. It would always have been simpler to write in longhand. Today most writers work directly onto their computers, I suspect.

We were demeaned by our typewriters; they didn't just provide a printed reproduction of our words but of our mistakes too.

On the Sunday News we typed all our stories in triplicate. That required two sheets of carbon paper sliced between the pages, something else you never see now.

There were few things as lovely as a fresh sheet of carbon paper straight from the box, unless perhaps the same sheet after it had been used only once, and the impress of the writing could be read off it.

But nothing was a sorrier statement about the dilapidation of a busy office than the old crumpled and punctured sheets of carbon paper with which you would try to make do when it was running out.

Back then, the new electric typewriter was coming in. One of these, instead of using keys had a little metal globe that danced on the platen. My own feeling was that they were too fast.

As with the later computer keyboard, one only had to touch the key lightly. This was difficult for someone whose typing was, until then, vigorous and physical, more a stabbing than a tapping.

And when writing was much like a fight and could hurt, then the emotions which informed the writing had expression in the pointed thumping.

Did we write more aggressively then, or less, given that we were expending our emotions in the thrusting, battering and slinging. Ding!

I took my little Imperial to India with me in the '70s. I had bought it for £16 in Woolworths and I grew to love it. After a few years there the white enamel keys were stained with turmeric, but it travelled with me, on steam trains and rickshaws and tongas - jaunting cars - into grim rooms in the bustling cities or hostels by the Ganges or in the Himalayas.

And it never froze on me or showed me a blank blue screen, never had to be plugged in and never lost my writing.

I never had to reconfigure or even reboot it. Nor did I have to register it online, download firmware or software or worry about viruses.

It didn't remember anything, but then it didn't forget anything either.

A wee drop of oil and a new ribbon was the only upgrade it ever needed.

I didn't have to do the equivalent of an old A-Level to learn how to work it and I never felt inadequate in the face of its unrealised potential.

It was a typewriter.

You typed on it.

It was lovely.


From Belfast Telegraph