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Typewriters of the World: Unite!

If my typewriter had an arsehole, the finger of the senior customs officer at JFK airport would’ve been up it last Tuesday night. My beautifully restored 1973 Smith-Corona was x-rayed, opened up for inspection, held upside down, then carefully prodded and probed with a gloved hand. I think she was suspected of moonlighting as some sort of drugs mule —but that typewriter is completely innocent of any wrongdoing besides being idle for lengthy periods of time. We are, I’m very happy to tell you, reunited once again.

There are friends of mine who are incensed that I choose to write on a typewriter in this day and age (you know who you are) but there’s a ritual to it that I like and it’s yet another healthy reason for not spending more time staring at a screen. I like the way the keys clunk away when I tap away at them and I enjoy the sound of them hitting the page through the wet ribbon. I like the old-school font. And I especially like the way it’s much harder—and time consuming—to go back and delete stuff. You have to commit to every word, in a sense. It sounds trite but I find I have to use my brain a little more while using the typewriter. So, there’s only one way to go: forward. And I like that very much.

In the city of Brnō three years ago I found a shop selling all sorts of junk nobody seemed to need anymore. Unwanted remains from the final days of communism. It was there that I found Zeta, the sleek Czechoslovakian beauty built under Kremlin control. She had a functional keypad, a detachable carriage, and when given closer inspection, seemed to be fast, jam-free and fairly reliable to work with. I snapped her up at the sum of one-hundred-and-fifty Czech Koruna—roughly about a fiver—before schlepping her on tour with me for another week. Portable she might have been, but light she wasn’t. And it was only when I returned to London that I realized what a mistake I’d made: of course, she was only ever fit to function with Soviet-era ribbon spools. I wonder whether there was ever a file on Zeta or her owner back in the day. Her sort were a controlled technology—their output often under surveillance by the secret police of Eastern Bloc states. She alone has a story to tell. I just wish I could get her to tell it. She now sits in a storage unit, her case gathering dust by the day. I can almost hear her crying out for attention as I sit and write this, all these miles away from home.

The American writer Mark Twain claimed to have submitted the first manuscript written on a typewriter back in 1893 (it was Life on the Mississippi, if you were wondering) though he didn’t actually type it out himself—it was transcribed by his secretary. Back in those days typewriters were not written for composing per se but for the very act of transcribing the dictation of other people’s words. When manufacturers began to market machines at the first half of the twentieth-century, they understood they’d be used only by women—every good girl became an office typist.

After the Second World War and into the Fifties, the typewriter became the instrument of choice for first-hand composition. Jack Kerouac is perhaps the obvious example, famously stapling reams of paper together so he could write without breaking his train of thought by having to feed more paper into the bail. Truman Capote, one of nature’s strict pen-to-paper novelists and presumably unable to relate to the despair of a new generation of young, hip, American writers was outraged by this, stating: “that’s not writing, it’s typing.”

The filmmaker Woody Allen is still bashing away at the same clunky-but-comfortable Olympia SM-3 model he bought when he was just sixteen years old. “It still works like a tank”, Allen declares. Almost everything he’s ever written—stand-up routines, sketches, screenplays —has been written on that Fifties manual typewriter, getting around the modern-day “cut and paste” routine with paper, scissors and miniature staples. To hell with Tip-Ex. But it’s a method that clearly works for Woody. It has helped win him fourteen Academy Award nominations so far—including three wins for Best Original Screenplay. Not bad for a forty dollar purchase.

Ernest Hemingway was a man who said that the only psychologist he would ever open up to would be his typewriter and preferred to do business with his while standing up, placing his beloved Royal Quiet de Luxe model on a bookshelf at his home in Havana—now a museum, though with said typewriter glaringly absent. It sold at auction a few years ago for almost three thousand dollars.

I came across my own aforementioned 1973 Smith-Corona—met with suspicion by customs officials at airports the world over—four winters ago at a shop in Berkley, California. She was renovated and brought back to life by the owner of the California Typewriter Company, one Mr. Herbert Permillion III—a man capable of bringing a model back from the brink by rebuilding the anatomy of it, piece-by-piece, with loving and very profitable precision. He even sells the ribbon. All hail Mr. Herbert Permillion III. He’s worth every penny.

The only true material weaknesses I have today are for books and typewriters. The accumulation of these things are not exactly sensible choices if you lead the life of a vagabond—but I can’t seem to help myself. Books are not a luxury but a necessity: they are my education, my downtime and my lifeline when other human beings have become unbearable and when more tolerable people can be found within their pages. The typewriter too is a necessity for me. More than just a simple tool for writing, the typewriter serves as an analog alternative in a digital world: a much needed yet all too fleeting vacation for the twenty-first century mind.

 

Matt Roper is a British comedian based in New York City. His relationship with Lush goes back to 2011 when he appeared before the muddy festival-goers of Lushfest, returning the following year to curate the line-up of the comedy stage. As he travels around the world, he shares his musings with us here in a series of writings - a sifting of thought from a restless but always seeking imagination.

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