When I was a child I perved over my mother’s typewriters; first, her beautiful olive green Olivetti Lettera 22 with American keys, then later her IBM golf-ball electric which seemed to explode into kinesis if you touched it. I picked up an ancient Underwood of my own in a junk shop and used it to hammer out comedic plays. By the time I wanted to write less childish things, my mother had died, and since she’d been a relatively early adopter I’d inherited her primitive Amstrad PCW 9512 word processor. I wrote my first five books (and plenty of journalism) on that machine and thought it perfectly adequate to the task, but then in the mid-1990s its printer packed up. I invested in a proper PC that could connect to the internet with a loud noise of whistling timpani, suggestive of Alberich forging the ring of the Nibelung. I didn’t find this too much of a distraction, because I only used the internet to file my journalistic copy.
In general I thought computers unlovely things, their functionalist design yet more evidence of the worrying convergence between the British built environment of the period and all the actual – as opposed to virtual – desktops it aspired to encapsulate. As for the computer screen that is nowadays ever before us, I can recall perfectly the primitive holotype with its horse-trough depth and greenish luminescence; surely its lineal descendants’ capacity to display almost infinite imagery has resulted in this unintended consequence: a leeching of aesthetic interest or engagement; the duff skeuomorphic icons denoting folders and programs have encroached, rendering all local space planar. ‘And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.’ Sometimes, if I worked for too long without a break, when I turned away from the screen the blinking cursor would go with me, and hover, heralding, above an ashtray or a mug. Naturally I desired computers – who didn’t? Shinier ones, smaller ones, slimmer ones, more powerful ones; the problem was I didn’t really know what to do with their myriad emergent capabilities. So, during this period I reserved my perving for notebooks and propelling pencils, Post-it notes and file cards.
Then, in 2004, I was invited to contribute to a project in Liverpool: the artists Neville Gabie and Leo Fitzmaurice had persuaded Liverpool Housing Action Trust, the body responsible for dynamiting the city’s council high-rises and rehousing their tenants, to let them have a number of flats in a 22-storey block in Kensington, up the road from Lime Street Station. The idea was that various artists, writers and so on would take up occupancy for a period of months. I was allocated a flat on the 21st floor with astonishing views across the Mersey and all the way to Snowdonia, seventy miles distant. I didn’t have any firm ideas on what I was going to write about in my strange new atelier, but I knew I wanted to mediate living in the building, since the remaining tenants – perhaps a hundred or so, in a street-in-the-sky that had once housed five times that number – were being encouraged to get involved. For some time an urge had been growing in me to write on a manual typewriter. I didn’t know why exactly but it felt a strangely inappropriate lust, possibly a form of gerontophilia. I disinterred my mother’s old Olivetti, dusted it off, and resolved to type my daily word count, Blu-Tack the sheets to the scarified wallpaper of my Liverpool gaff, and invite the other residents up to view them. This I duly did. I found working on the Olivetti indecently pleasurable. I can’t touch-type; even so, my stick fingers produced satisfying percussive paradiddles, in between which came blissful fermatas, devoid of electronic whine and filled instead with the sough of the wind on the windows, down the liftshaft, and wheedling through the Vent-Axias. The new instrument altered my playing style: instead of bashing out provisional sentences, as I would on a computer, the knowledge that I would have to re-key everything caused me to stop, think, formulate accurately, and then type.
It was laborious to begin with, and I had the nagging suspicion that, as so often in the past (I feel confident many will identify), I was seeking a technological fix for a creative problem. But I persisted, and after I’d completed the story in Liverpool (it’s called ‘161’ and appeared in my collection Dr Mukti and Other Tales of Woe), I wrote my next book entirely on the Olivetti. In retrospect, although the decision to revert to a redundant writing technology may have been prompted by the valetudinarian tower block, there was an underlying and more significant cause: wireless broadband had been installed in our house, and now whenever I was writing I was only a few finger-flicks away from all the pullulating distractions of the web. Much later I began to understand why exactly the new technology was so inimical to writing fiction, but to begin with my revulsion was instinctive: and I recoiled from the screen – straight into the arms of Shalom Simons. I’m not quite sure how I acquired Shalom, but as soon as I had him I began to worry about losing him. He must’ve been in his late fifties then (he’s 69 now), and while he’s never spoken of retiring, he has in recent years conceded: ‘I’m not looking for work.’ Apparently there is one other like him in Surbiton, but I’ve never been tempted to make overtures; Shalom seems curiously antagonistic towards this nameless conspecific. I suppose it’s the cosmic irony one would expect; just as the nanny and the Billy that Shem selected to preserve their goatish lineage probably butted and bored each other all the way into his father’s ark, so the last two typewriter repairmen in London are wholly antipathetic.
Over the decade Shalom and I have consorted I have at times been visited with a terrible (and reasonable) anxiety: that he will shut up shop before I do, leaving me with these battlefield-wounded machines and no one to perform triage. My Wikipedia entry says that I ‘collect and repair vintage typewriters’; the very idea of it! The repairing, that is: a child of cack-handed epigones who never got over the ‘servant problem’, I wouldn’t know how to repair a potato for printing purposes, let alone a typewriter. But I do collect them: soon after Shalom began working on my Olivetti I started buying more typewriters; in part because my nasty habit was steadily turning into full-scale fetishism, but also because I wanted to give Shalom as much work as I could, simply to keep him at it. I’ve always been like this with artisans and workmen I viscerally need: manufacturing employment for them out of transgenerational anxiety and personal ham-fisted desperation. I speedily acquired a second Olivetti and a brace of 1930s Imperial ‘Good Companions’; a friend gave me a serviceable 1970s Adler, and, after long hours spent perving over a US website called The Vintage Typewriter Shoppe, I lashed out and bought an early 1960s Groma Kolibri for $500. This last machine attracted my lustful gaze when it had a cameo part in The Lives of Others, in which East German dissidents behind the Wall in the 1980s jive to bebop and type samizdat.
In the film, the Groma is celebrated by one character as ‘the thinnest typewriter ever made’; this means it can be neatly concealed from the Stasi under a door lintel. I didn’t need my Groma because it was easy to hide – I needed it because I hadn’t seen anything quite as beautiful since my youngest child was born. Yes, it had got that bad: I mooned over the things, I caressed them, and I thrilled to the counterpoint between their blocky inertia and their percussive eruption into creative being. I wanted older and older machines, and seriously considered trying to acquire an example of Rasmus Malling-Hansen’s proto-typewriter of the 1860s, the Writing Ball (so called for its globular appearance, with the keys emerging from the core as pins do from a pincushion), a machine that was used by Nietzsche, among others. Throughout this pell-mell race into the past Shalom was my trainer, offering counsel, wisdom and expertise; although I never really felt he grasped the seriousness of my obsession, how for me the manual typewriter was coming to be more than a writing instrument, but rather a reification of the act of writing fiction.
Shalom grew up in an Orthodox family in Stamford Hill. His father, who ran an office-furniture business, intended him for a synagogue cantor, and when Shalom finished school he was sent to the yeshiva. However, Shalom said to me, wryly, ‘I was a good Orthodox boy and didn’t like the idea of working on Shabbat.’ Instead, he went to train as a typewriter engineer with Smith Corona in Osnaburgh Street, then worked for a dealer with premises near Liverpool Street Station. After that he was employed by various other typewriter dealers: ‘The last one was in Camden Town, but then I got ill, and when I came back they didn’t want to know.’ Shalom went round various stationery suppliers and picked up work that way. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s he kept on: ‘I did a fax machine course and one on electric typewriters, but I had enough work and I really couldn’t get my head round computer technology.’ When he told me this I developed a strange image in my mind’s eye: Shalom’s typewriter world shrinking and shrinking, but always able to contain him; he was a micro-organism swimming in this droplet of obsolescence, one that plummeted through fluvial time until, in 2004, it met me, a writer wilfully submerging himself in bygones.
Not that Shalom’s life is quite as bounded by typing as my own; now he’s in semi-retirement he can devote more energy to his singing. He’s the first tenor for the Shabbaton Choir, which tours extensively; recent highlights include concerts in Israel and Los Angeles. You might have imagined that Shalom and I would clash politically – he being of the Orthodox and Zionist persuasion, me being a Jewish apostate who supports a two-state solution – but we never have. Shalom is one of those given to the homespun homiletic: ‘A happy person is a person who’s happy with his lot,’ he’ll say. Or, ‘Food on the table and your family happy, that’s all you need.’ It’s at this base layer of comity that we tend to communicate, all other potential disputes being incorporated into the tinking, clanking matter at hand: how is this or that half-century-old machine going to be coaxed back into utility? And not just my own burgeoning collection, but writer friends’ old typewriters I’ve encouraged them to let me give to Shalom. They’re often piqued by the idea of manually reverse-engineering their own compositional practices, but I know perfectly well that once serviced and cleaned their Remingtons and Hermes Babies will end up back in the cupboards and attics they were disinterred from, because, let’s face it, hardly anyone writes books on a typewriter anymore.
Even so, as the technology takes its final bow there’s been quite a flurry of interest: Cormac McCarthy auctioning his Olivetti Lettera 32 for a quarter of a million bucks made big news. I was approached by Patek Phillipe to write about typewriters for an advertorial feature. I could see the synchrony of watches and typewriters: both beautifully efficient devices wholly animated by human power, object lessons – along with the bicycle – of what truly sustainable technologies should be. Less enticing was the offer from Persol, the Italian sunglasses manufacturer, to advertise their eyewear with a little film that would depict me frenziedly typing my ‘great novel’ on my ‘iconic’ typewriter. True, the money was good (€80,000 for a single day’s work), but the destruction of my sense of myself as a writer would’ve been complete and utter: ‘The End’ in blood-red Courier to the accompaniment of a firing squad of keystrokes.
Beryl Bainbridge, who typed all her first drafts on an Imperial Good Companion (a delicious, steam-punky 1930s machine), went to her grave in 2010, preceded a year earlier by J.G. Ballard, the last writer I’d known personally – besides myself – who took his books all the way to typesetting as manually generated typescripts. One of the last services I performed for Jim was to obtain a ribbon for his 1970s Olympia; after his death, his partner, Claire Walsh, gave me the machine. It’s an unlovely thing, its textured mushroom-coloured plastic casing anticipating the coming CPU towers and printers, rather than harking back – like the Good Companions – to the steel and glass engineering of Joseph Paxton. I meditated on the Olympia for some time, wondering if working on my dead mentor’s typewriter would either lend me some of his strange vision, or, on the contrary, rob my prose of whatever originality it might possess. In the event, after I’d written one piece on the Olympia I had a letter from Jim’s daughter, Fay, who said she was distressed to learn I had the machine, since it had been an integral part of her childhood; and although her chronology was way out (she must have been thinking of its predecessor), I conveyed the Olympia to her with something like relief.
Relief, I now realise, because just as I’d subliminally registered the inception of wireless broadband by changing my own corporate culture, so another transformation was now underway. Finishing my last novel I’d had various problems with the Groma, and since the parts were apparently no longer obtainable I’d bought a second machine. Watching Shalom fiddle about with the deteriorating Gromas I’d begun to have unworthy thoughts: how did I know he was actually any good as a typewriter engineer? It might be argued that the last living individual of a given species should be the fittest – after all, they’ve managed to survive the others’ extinction. But an alternative view is that the others underwent mutagenesis, becoming part of the burgeoning IT genotype, while Shalom, the poor dinosaur, roved the clashing, bashing, hammering lost world of obsolescence. But really my suspicions about Shalom – entirely unfounded – were symptomatic of a deeper malaise: I was falling out of love with the typewriter because I’d found a new old writing method to fetishise.
For some time I hadn’t been manually retyping my first drafts (let alone all of them), but instead had begun to key them into a computer for reasons of speed and editorial convenience. I still thought of the typewriter draft as the ‘first’, but I’d discovered a certain resistance in myself to bashing the keys first thing in the morning, and so had taken to handwriting at least a couple of hundred words which I would then type up. In time the amount I was handwriting increased until I realised I was effectively composing a proto first draft this way. It dawned uneasily on me that I could very well cut out the typewriter stage altogether. And what a relief that would be: no more lugging the machine about when I wanted to work somewhere else; no more – entirely justifiable – complaints from my wife, who sleeps in the room below where I work, and who, despite the interposition of several layers of rubber matting, was still rudely awoken by my early morning drumming; and of course, no more anxiety about keeping the damn things working after Shalom finally retires. I mean, what was I going to do when that day inevitably came? Wander the leafy back roads of Surbiton calling out tremulously for a new saviour?
I haven’t as yet started the next novel, and it may well be that once I begin I’ll recoil from the hard handy-graft, but for now my mind is made up and my heart has begun to sing: for years I’ve had a twinkle in my eye when I gaze upon the slim, silvery forms of the Mitsubishi propelling pencils I customarily use to take notes; finally I’ve decided to go all the way with them. There’s only one problem: as far as I can tell from a cursory web search, this particular model has been discontinued. I’ll have to ask Shalom if he can introduce me to a propelling pencil engineer before he bows out.