Short Cuts

Thomas Jones

I first got my hands on a typewriter at the age of nine. It was my father’s, a 1967 Olivetti in grey bakelite. He clearly had no use for it: why would a dentist need a typewriter? Whereas I needed it to write a novel, a fast-paced, gut-wrenching, hard-boiled murder mystery set in a primary school. It revolved around a production of Macbeth, in which the hero, the boy detective, was playing one of the three witches. This was an unusually sophisticated primary school: not only were the pupils performing Shakespearean tragedy, they were doing it in drag. I had been inspired, if that’s the word, by seeing the play at Basingstoke’s Haymarket Theatre, which recently lost its Arts Council grant and has closed down. I remember very little about the production except that the actors were wearing heavy woollen costumes, which were no doubt suitable garb for an 11th-century Scottish castle but looked uncomfortably hot and itchy under the stage lights. As for my story, I wrote very little of it, and can remember even less. But my excitement had less to do with the storytelling – you could do that any day of the week with a pencil in an exercise book – than with the typewriting.

The machine stayed in my bedroom long after the abandonment of the masterwork. It was fun to play around with: trying to strike the keys hard enough to rip holes in the paper, for example, or hitting two keys at once and seeing which letter reached the paper first, or trying to get as many levers stuck as possible – all worthy projects for a nine-year-old with an inquiring mind. And then, one Saturday evening, an interfering babysitter came into my room and typed out, repeatedly: ‘Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party.’ The sentence troubled me. What did it mean? Was it the first line of a story? And if so, how did it continue? And what was the nature of this mysterious party? Was it like the party my parents had gone to, leaving me in the care of this quite possibly deranged teenager? I was reminded of her a decade or so later, when I watched The Shining while convalescing from a savage bout of food poisoning, holed up in a small German-run hotel in the foothills of Bolivia’s Cordillera Real – but that’s another story.

There is a wearisome machismo inherent in much of the iconography of typewriting. In The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting (Cornell, £15.95), Darren Wershler-Henry describes the typewriter as ‘the symbol of a non-existent sepia-toned era when people typed passionately late into the night under the flickering light of a single naked bulb, sleeves rolled up … lighting each new cigarette off the smouldering butt of the last, occasionally taking a pull from the bottle of bourbon in the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet’. Replace that evasive ‘people’ with ‘men’, and the fantasy’s spot on.

The Iron Whim (the title comes from a phrase of Marshall McLuhan’s) begins with an account of the making of Ed Ruscha’s Royal Road Test. On the afternoon of Sunday, 21 August 1966 – the year before my father’s typewriter was made – Ruscha drove a 1963 Buick Le Sabre at 90 miles an hour along Highway 91 through the Nevada desert. Shortly after five o’clock, the writer Mason Williams rolled down the passenger window, and threw out a Royal Model X typewriter. Patrick Blackwell photographed the results.

Although Wershler-Henry devotes twenty pages or so to ‘the typewriter girl’ and ‘Remington priestesses’, and notes that between 1870 and 1930, the female proportion of typists in America soared from 4 per cent to 95.6 per cent, the bulk of The Iron Whim concerns itself with the likes of Paul Auster, Bram Stoker, William Burroughs, David Cronenberg, Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, J.G. Ballard and Hunter S. Thompson: in other words, men. He says more than once that he’s less interested in typewriters as machines (once upon a time the word also referred to the people, usually women, who used the machines) than in typewriting as discourse. But this is typewriting as it appeals to geeks who like guns: all those dates and serial numbers; all that metal. Incidentally, or not so incidentally, the first mass-produced typewriter, as Wershler-Henry notes, was made by a gun manufacturer, E. Remington and Sons. And the Tommy gun, invented by a one-time Remington engineer, John Taliaferro Thompson, was known during prohibition as the ‘Chicago typewriter’.

The emphasis on typewriting as rugged individualism (not so much Wershler-Henry’s as that of the tough guys he writes about) is presumably not unconnected to an anxiety that typewriting is a bit girly: I may be sitting at a typewriter, but that doesn’t make me a typist; oho, no – I’m a writer. It’s just possible that a similar anxiety informed my own disquiet at the babysitter’s co-opting of the typewriter in my bedroom. Did she perhaps imagine that it was not so much a manly tool for the conjuring of new worlds as a girlish toy for playing at being a secretary? Shame on her.

Perhaps because of the rise of computers, or perhaps because of a general decline in sexual discrimination, there’s far less distinction between the ways in which men and women type than there used to be. But compare the methods of men and women over the age of fifty or so writing an email, and the difference is unmistakeable. More likely than not she’ll be bashing the keys with all ten fingers, as if she’s still sitting at a typewriter, and still angry that her boss won’t type his own letters. He, meanwhile, will be jabbing out his copy with a savage two-finger action, reminiscent of someone playing the synthesiser on Top of the Pops c.1986, pausing occasionally to roll up his sleeves and take an imaginary slug of bourbon from that phantom bottle concealed somewhere inaccessible on the computer’s hard drive.