Typewriters are having a bit of a moment. When I was eight my parents bought me a toy typewriter and I spent a part of everyday writing up the local news. Not that there was any news in our sleepy suburban village. Nobody talked about fake news in those days so I suppose I concluded that what happened at the tennis club mattered? It did to me. I had the story telling bug. For my 21st birthday, my sister and brother in law gave me a real portable typewriter as a birthday present, one that I loved and took with me to Italy when I worked there for Reuters. I still have it but it too now looks rather like a plastic toy. I can’t possibly give this typewriter away, even though it has been useless for the last thirty years! I’m sentimentally attached to it and it, in turn is irrevocably linked to my youth. I can remember how important I felt using it to write my first story on assignment: the Aga Khan’s One Ton Cup Yacht race in Costa Smeralda, Sardinia, a subject about which I knew absolutely nothing. But I quickly discovered the great joy of journalism was that if you worked hard enough and asked enough people the right questions, you could suddenly become an expert.
Embarking recently on a brief clearing up minute, set me thinking about this typewriter and remembering the pleasure I derived from the noisy physicality of shunting the silver handle across (a sort of 1970’s swipe left) instead of pressing the silent enter key. The pleasure of depressing a key and seeing the black ink emerge on the paper roll. Of course there was much about it which I disliked too. Mistakes involved painting tippex fluid on the offending phrase and literally cutting up and pasting bits of paper spread all over the floor. I was always a reasonably fast typist as I had been sent on a ‘Sight and Sound’ course as a teenager, my parents convinced that the only job I would ever need was a secretarial one. But my hands could never quite keep up with an idea.
However, the other reason for reflecting on the joy of typewriters is a fleeting moment I had last month (almost) meeting Tom Hanks. He was oozing his usual charm and nonchalance to open a literary festival in California where I was also talking. The idea was to tell everyone about his book of short stories, entitled Uncommon Type. Hanks collects typewriters and the link between the stories in this book is that each story has a reference to a typewriter.
Only that was not quite how it happened. Interviewed by the brilliant reporter Maureen Dowd she asked him numerous questions about politics until he commented, only slightly bemused, (Hanks is much too savvy to look seriously bemused) that there were only 60 seconds left to devote to the book! The answer of course is that we should all read it, as I am. Some of the stories are beautiful and even revealing.
But for anyone who wants an orgy of typewriters go and binge on ‘Can you ever Forgive Me’, the desperately sad true story of the failing American writer, Lee Israel who is fired from her magazine job and cannot persuade her agent she is worthy of a new contract. In desperation she discovers she has a talent for forging literary letters from famous names such as Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker. She even steals some originals from library archives replacing them with forgeries. She buys dozens of different ancient machines so she has the correct font for every letter she is creating until, after a year or so of making fabulous money, is suddenly caught out by the FBI and has to throw away in public rubbish bins more than a dozen typewriters she had used to simulate various typefaces.
The film ends with Israel, who is given a suspended prison sentence and ordered to do community service, writing her life story about the forgery and her friendship with the gay chancer played brilliantly by Richard E. Grant. At this point she is using a hideous huge box on her desk which produces green electronic lines. I suppose it was something we called Video Display Units (VDU’s) when it was introduced at Reuters. I remember the NUJ insisting we should not use them for more than an hour or so at a time which resulted in accusations that the union were Luddites. They were probably right about the dangers of sitting staring at a screen for hour upon hour although management did not think so at the time. And in a blink, or so it seemed, typewriters were a thing of the past.