Friday, November 23, 2012

Polite and QWERTYous


Apparently I was a good kid. I don’t know what went wrong. But to everyone who foolishly claims that toys maketh the man, let me tell you that the one I craved and the one I was happiest getting was this: I once got a toy typewriter for Christmas. You see? How can that possibly connect with a subsequent career in writing?

Imagine if I'd wanted a football.

No, I'm trying here, but I can't ever imagine me wanting a football.

I’m afraid I can’t remember how old I was but I can see that Christmas morning. All my adult’s clarity of the room and its facts like dimensions and position and all my child’s sensations of warmth and the dark of the early day, the orange glow of the tree lights reflected on our brown, glass-topped coffee table, the books around me and the typewriter if not in the centre of the room then in the centre of my attention.

I don’t know what made it a toy typewriter instead of an actual one, by the way. It was a full-size portable with full-travel keys. (Travel is the distance you have to press a key down before it registers, before it types.) I can picture now the typed “Happy Christmas from Santa” message on it. And I can picture it in part because my little kid brain recognised a problem: Santa seemingly couldn’t type.

That’s not to say that the real Santa isn’t 120wpm, but this note was not the work of a typist, not so much. You won’t know this if you’ve only typed on electric typewriters or computers or touchscreens but the shift key used to be a physical lever: as you pressed it down, typically you were raising the carriage that held the paper. Each key was a lever that sent a letter hammering onto the paper but each key had maybe three different letters (a lowercase and uppercase version of the same letter plus a punctuation mark) and what went on the page depended on which bit struck the paper. The keys and their levers stayed where they were, so it was the paper rising on its roller-like carriage that made the difference.

And Santa didn’t know that.

So the H and the C and the S in Happy Christmas from Santa were there but shift hadn’t been pressed properly, hadn’t been pressed all the way, so you got a capital letter but not quite in the right vertical position. Rather than a straight line with some capital letters, you got a kind of watery wave of text.

I’m, what, less than ten years old? And I know why this has happened, I know it means Santa didn’t do it, and I even know that the right description is that the capitals weren’t on the baseline like the rest of the letters.

I am a very visual man but what I see is text. I’m just awkward. And I also have typewriter DNA.

Last year I was researching a book, a piece I did for the BFI about Alan Plater’s The Beiderbecke Affair, and was just agog as I read his typewritten scripts and notes and correspondence. And read everyone’s replies to him, read Yorkshire Television’s official letters. I got the same this year reading 1970s/1980s BBC memos for my next big book, which I STILL CAN’T TELL YOU ABOUT, where names I knew so well, names that were vitally important to British television, were sending out letters that looked so bad.

But they only look bad today. We’re so used to perfect typescript with no corrections – you can apparently still buy Tipp-Ex, or at least a metric equivalent, but good luck finding any actual use for it – that old typing invariably looks bad. Even Alan’s meticulous letters look bad now.

And it’s because typewriters were monospaced.

Monospaced means every letter takes up exactly the same space so, for instance, a capital 'I' occupies as much space on the page as a lowercase 'm'. The width has a name: it’s called an em, and it’s named after the letter m which is as wide as lowercase gets. Half an em is an en. This is why we have em dashes – like that, for emphasis, and hyphens or en dashes for I-can’t-think-of-an-example.

On typewriters, we just got a dash and we just got all letters taking up the same width. It’s just the way it was. And it meant that an A4 page always had a typical maximum of 80 characters across and 66 lines down.

It looks so ugly now. Today our computers – just as proper typesetters have always done – position letters so that they make the best use of the space and they fit together pleasingly. Look at this word: “Tea”.

No matter what you’re reading this on, which browser or computer or RSS feed, your machine just tucked the letter “e” back a ways under the bar of the capital T. It’s called kerning and it’s beautiful.

It’s also just impossible on a typewriter.

So typewritten letters from the 1970s and 1980s look ridiculously widely spaced: whatever was considered perfect typing then is plainly rubbish today. The difference in type quality now is so great that we don’t even notice it: we see perfect type every day on every letter from the bank, on every email we get. I’m not saying the spelling will always be great and of course the literacy isn’t guaranteed and naturally it’d be nicer if the bank were writing to say that they’d accidentally left a million pounds in my account and would like me to keep it because I’m still a good kid really, but the typing is exquisite. Compared to typewriters.

I did move from the toy typewriter to a Silver Reed Silverette typewriter. I remember being distraught at how expensive it was going to be to repair it when it went wrong: I couldn’t afford it. I bent a spring instead so that I could do a workaround and keep its carriage moving at least approximately evenly.

For something that was so important to me and so key, forgive the pun, to me and my very innards, I’m afraid I don’t know when I stopped using one and I don’t know what happened to that broken machine. I do have my very last typewriter. And I do have an antique portable once owned by a war reporter. That’s lovely. That’s the one in the photo at the top here.

Typewriters moved into computers for me so early and so quickly that I’m surprised how very much I reek of typewriter lore. My own personal typewriter lore plus all the rest of it, all the stories of why we still write on QWERTY keyboards. How you can still type the word ‘typewriter’ using only the letters on the top row.

I’d say that typewriters did that to everyone but maybe it’s just me. Because I can tell you that I used a BBC Micro in easy preference to a ZX Spectrum because it had a full-size, full-travel keyboard. I can tell you that I adored the 102-key IBM PC AT keyboard which became the standard, which became the keyboard against which others were measured. For a while I used a little utility that gave a typewriter-like clack-clack sound to every letter I typed on a PowerBook Duo. I stopped because it was wrong: every clack was the same when I knew that my e should sound different.

It’s not just me, I promise. Only last month I read a review of a keyboard that promises to have the mechanical feel of an electric typewriter but was a bit quieter for the poor sods around you.

I won’t be buying it. I'm not that bound to typewriter memories. I am sometimes tempted by this, though. The iTypewriter. I warn you: the typing speed in this video will take your breath away.

Got your breath back, didn't you? I reckon that's about 10 words per minute. I presume I'm no longer 120wpm myself, but I am far faster at typing than I am at handwriting.

What I've definitely lost is the sheer wallop of my fingers: as guitarists get callouses, so those of us who learnt on manual typewriters developed terrific upper finger strength.

I still press too strongly. When I type on an iPad's screen I actually feel myself denting my fingers on the glass and I can only really muster a few thousand words at a time.

But I enjoy it. I enjoy typing. Writing, for me, is typing. I enjoy fashioning the words, kneading the keys. I need the keys.

So this week’s news of the final typewriter being made in the UK is – well, I was going to say sad, I was going to say bittersweet, but both are true and neither is quite right. You can see that it unlocked me, that it was a little prick of the typing finger that made me bleed out all of this to you.

I am sad it's over. I’m more astonished that it’s taken this long: I can't claim that typewriters will never fade away because they already have. But you can have a wallow in the online Virtual Typewriter Museum. Then if you’re anywhere near my hometown of Birmingham, get to the Pen Room Museum in the Jewellery Quarter.  It’s a pen museum, I can tell you’re shocked, but it also has shelves of old typewriters and there is something terribly special about seeing them all together.

This is a machine that we used to use. That I used to use. A machine from my own lifetime. But you look at the rack of them there and it seems impossibly archaic. You don’t think professional writing equipment, you think Jules Verne and maybe Professor Branestawm. Here's a thing you almost certainly didn't know: a portable typewriter has about 1,000 moving parts. A full-size manual one has nearer 2,000 – and an electric typewriter, which you'd think would have fewer, tended to have around 3,700. It feels like engineering madness: I can only think of two moving parts in a computer – the fan and the hard disk. And the hard disk is going away.

Those numbers of parts in typewriters are as of 1974, the date of "Century of the Typewriter" by Wilfred A Beeching: a very of-its-time kind of book. I say that because it has a list of how terrible things would be if there were no typewriters and one of them is "No female typists in offices!!". (Yep: two exclamation marks. I think one of them is mine.) But it does also have the of-its-time advantage in that it was written when typewriters were still the business. Apple's Macintosh was a decade in the future. Windows 1.0 was eleven years away, so, you know, one step forward, two steps back.

My copy of that book is a 1990 reprint by when you'd think the typewriting would be on the wall but no. The book continues its unspoken certainty of the place of typewriters and it's sobering. The book and the museum together feel like a single moment slowed to a stop. Kind of frieze-dried.

I’m not going to say that you look at these and inescapably feel that you are yourself archaic, but we’re both thinking it.

William Gallagher


laurence timms said...

I am archaic. I learned to type on a turn-of-the-previous-century Smith Corona, which had more travel than Alan Whicker and an end of carriage bell that could be heard throughout the house. Loved it.

Of course, I punish modern keyboards. But at least I make the keys shine before they die.

William Gallagher said...

Smith Corona! Grief, even the names take me back.

I think Smith Corona was posher than Silver Reed, mine.


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