AT THE AGE of nine or ten, as the shop windows began to twinkle with the approach of Christmas, I sent a ray of hope out into the world. A wish that Christmas would deliver me… a typewriter.
I have no idea where the idea came from – I may have seen someone in a movie, pounding away on an old Olympia, and considered it the coolest thing in the world (I still do, I suppose – my love affair with the Typewriter As Object has lasted to this day).
Santa Claus must have looked at my letter with some puzzlement – because even in 1974, the typewriter was something undoubtedly asked for by a girl.
Maybe I saw one in my mother’s Great Universal catalogue and just fell for the rows of buttons, keys, levers, rollers, the boys-and-their-toys clatter and batter of the thing. The sound of words being physically hammered into the page. Undeletably permanent. A lasting, industrial meeting of steel and ink and paper.
My first typewriter was an object that, to be honest, stopped me somewhat short of the manly, Hemingway-esque ideal of the author at the keys. On Christmas morning, there it sat under the tree – a bright orange, plastic, boxy thing that I believe (looking back) was a copy of the ‘design classic’ Olivetti Valentine.
It came in its own soft carry-case – in imitation faded denim, its snap-button cover accentuated with white piping. There was even an adjustable shoulder strap, to complete the air-hostess-ness of the whole thing.
I can’t begin to image what I put through the machine over the years that followed. Reams of meaningless sentences, no doubt – but no real narratives to speak of. At ten years old, what could I possibly have typed on this object, other than the usual ten-year-old nonsense: ‘Here Iam,, workjking on myt ypewriter’))))
It vanished from my life at some point, maybe gifted to a younger cousin, I don’t know. And at various points, typewriters came and went from my life – my late father-in-law Hugh McShane told me that he had procured one for me, when I was working on my first short stories. He came home from work one day with something that had been made redundant by technology and which was otherwise bound for the scrapyard - an enormous, beautiful black Imperial that weighed a ton and made a racket like a hammer drill.
Later, my then wife Donna had a cute little grey Boots portable typewriter that I used for short fiction, job applications and apologetic letters to the bank from time to time.
By the time I started in journalism in the mid-80s, typewriters were already completely obsolete. From the day I started, we worked on Amstrads – clunky, grubby Bakelite, green letters dancing across the black screen. And later of course, the omnipresent Mac and more recently, the PCs and laptops.
I did rekindle my affair with the typewriter about fifteen years ago. I found an old Smith Premier Chum (left) gathering dust in an antique shop in Coleraine and for £23 brought it home with me.
I have typed many things on it – letters, newspaper journalism (sitting out in the sunshine, typing court reports and council news with a beer), short stories, song lyrics, even some of these blog posts.
There’s something about the physical act of typing, the permanence of the utterance, that makes you pause slightly and consider each word before making the irreversible commitment of keystroke to page. It focuses the thought process. The Smith Premier also has a wooden roller - and the sound of the keys striking the wood is a particular thwack that is indeed vintage.
Recently I made another investment – a Remington Rand No. 5, dating back, I think, to the 50s. I came across this one (pictured above, and on the ‘Blether’ graphic at the head of this web page) in an antique shop in Greyabbey.
I wrestled a little before the purchase, strolling from room to room, past twinkling china and scuffed suitcases, asking myself if I really needed another vintage typewriter. No – I didn’t need it, of course. But I was going to buy it anyway.
I love it – like I’ve always loved typewriters. With the kind of unconditional love that turns the unwary enthusiast into a collector if he’s not careful.