Monday, January 30, 2012

My First Writing Machine

True story, I got this hunk of junk when I was a wee teenager, closer to thirteen than to eighteen. Actually, I can't recall so much that it was ever given to me so much as that I was allowed to use it and then effectively (very effectively as it turned out) annexed it.

The crazy thing is that I started using this machine - known as a T Y P E W R I T E R - just as they were about to become extinct. Word processors were already around, and expensive.  And worse, something called a C O M P U T E R was appearing, which, people claimed, could do a lot, including typewriting, a calculating, and digital games (what's that) and a whole lot more.  But, even as the era on this machine was winding down, for a youngster like me, paper, typewriter ribbons and tippex (remember that stuff) was cheaper than a word processor and far cheaper than a computer, which required the machine itself, a separate TV like box, and a printer.  Really, replacing one machine with three, and you had to plug them all in and into each other?
Not that my Olivetti was perfect. I recall keys jamming into each other if I typed too fast. (Funnily enough, there's an equivalent for that sort of thing on some computers too...) I type mostly with two or three fingers, although I've since learnt to type with all. So getting the letters jammed up in those days happened A LOT!
That white tippex smears under 'Olivetti' in the above image - yeah, that was me.  I didn't just take this baby for a spin once or twice.  It got so bad, I remember being threatened that it would be removed entirely if I didn't simply 'STOP'.  On one occasion, when my brother was writing matriculation exams, I went to the far end of the garden and sat beside our aviary under a tree in order to allow him to conduct his studies within a modicum of peace and quiet.  Despite a lawn roughly 30 metres long, it wasn't long enough to drown out the CLACK CLACK CLACKETY CLACK, and despite my self imposed asylum at my Encampment For Writing, my brother insisted that:

a) he could still hear me
and less plausibly b) that it was still disturbing him.

My parents, both of them, came to his aid, and I was ordered to maintain Radio Typewriter silence forthwith, as well as for the remainder of my long suffering brother's exams.

To this day my sister recalls sleepless nights - for the whole family - when a young me, surfing waves of inspiration, would surreptitiously (well, not quite),  softly type a burgeoning masterpiece.
I remember weekends when friends of mine would hover at the door frame, urging me to join  them for a burger or some other escapade, and without turning from my machine, I'd promise as soon as I'm done with this (I promise).  Entire weekends were spent punching these round finger platforms, retyping an entire page after discovering, to my dismay, a glaring error that was beyond tippex, or a paragraph that needed to be drawn and quartered.  Sometimes the work would stop in the wee hours of a Monday morning, sometimes even later, and I'd arrive late at school with no better excuse than that I'd been writing.

Curiously, when I was given essays to write at school, on the occasion that I'd covered the topic before on my own, I'd have to transcribe a typewritten piece to handwriting.  Very quickly, my handwriting (something I won  innumerable gold stars for once upon a time) was going to blazes.  To give you an idea, the word 'the' started missing the 'h' and simply contained a a squiggle with a loop, resembling, I suppose, a spermatazoa suffering from a slight spastic colon in its midrif.  I faced off against numerous teachers who accused me of misspelling 'the'.  I suggested that I place the squiggle shorthand at the top of  a page with an = sign and a painstakingly perfect 'the' beside it, but no one would buy that.  I had to write 'the' and that was it.
But, I digress.  Eventually I wrote my first and second novels on this Olivetti. I soon found that I couldn't write unless it was on the Olivetti.  The deafening CLACK CLAKETY CLACK somehow solicited a constant stream of evocative musings, which were harder to come by in the unstimulating environment of a piece of paper and pen (which felt so arbitrary) or the somehow muted, disconnected experience of a computer (I type it here, it appears there, then I print it somewhere else as long as the system doesn't crash...Save, remember to save...).
So the second manuscript turned out to be partly handwritten, typed and word processed. Each transition took a horrible toll on my creative faculties, but somehow I adapted.   It took 2 years to complete, and I finished the damn thing on the morning of my matric Science Exam (which I passed, barely).

In those late high school years I owned a ZX Spectrum computer (one of the world's first computers), and a Commodore 64 with a printer and monitor (probably birthday and Christmas presents).  That last acquisition permanently ended my relationship with my First Writing Machine, and so it ended up gathering dust in my parents garage for the next 20 years.
Now, an antique, it is curious to pick the thing up.  It weighs more than a television. Its keyboard seems curiously elevated, like the side of a pyramid, and the whole device looks like about 10 notebook computers crumpled on top of each other, but yet, it remains a machine capable only of typing, and incapable of performing the simplest task (such as 'delete').  Caps lock it can do.  And typing in red, blue or black.  But you can't change a font. On the plus side, it doesn't need electricity to work.
As simple as this device is, it has a beauty about it, doesn't it, that many ancient contraptions have, and let's face it, modern devices lack.  You may gush about Apple machines, but if you think about it, it's enthusiasm over clinical white surfaces, sterile, glossy cubes and disks.  Do these machines have a soul?  Or do they merely entertain?  Are they merely functional?  Oh, that's an accusation that isn't fair, the Olivetti was built to be functional too.  As time goes by, our fondness for the old seems to appreciate.  Right now, some computer systems are being retired, like Windows XP.  I know I will miss that old processor, just like this one, with a fondness that came with using it plenty, and getting the job done.