This week I acquired an old-fashioned typewriter. Not a late nineteenth or early twentieth century one. Not the black upright ones that writers like Hemingway or Djuna Barnes or correspondents like Martha Gelhorn used. My recent acquisition is a Mid-Century Modern model: a portable BlueBird typewriter made in West Germany of the Fifties, but a handsome machine nonetheless.
Although younger than the Remington and Underwood designs of earlier decades, it has all the characteristics of those elegant manual forefathers. Everything about it is solid, including its colour. My BlueBird’s body is something between battleship grey and air force blue. Its keys, a mix of air force blue and teal blue, respond to a committed strike rather than the subtle tap used on modern devices. And there is something decidedly satisfying about pressing the carriage return lever to the start of a new line and the clicks as the feeder roll winds on the page.
The typewriter’s carry case is probably the most amusing addition and got me thinking. Manufacturers advertised these manual typewriters as portable. They were meant to travel and travel they did. Not necessarily for meetings, which were typically minuted by shorthand secretaries, but writers and journalists travelled with their trusty steel typewriters, and since mentioning my new vintage machine to friends and acquaintances, many of them have admitted to lugging these instruments around counties and countries in years gone by.
Slipping a sheet of heavy paper into the feeder roll and typing out the first lines I have written on a typewriter in years brought back happy memories. I remember sitting at our dark oval table in the kitchen as a ten-year old. After mum had dealt with her monthly bills and correspondence she would let me use her white-bodied typewriter to write up stories spun by my childhood imagination. Years later I would use the machine to type out projects for French and History, carefully adding in the accents with black pen.
Of course, as the years slipped by the heavy white typewriter was pushed to the back of the coat cupboard after dad bought our first home computer. By the time I was at university I would write my essays on a large grey computer using WordPerfect – a programme of the pre-Window days – now adding the Czech accents to the print outs rather than French ones. And in the years since my student days cumbersome desktops gave way to sleek laptops.
Now I am steadfastly a Mac girl. My Mac laptop is a delight. It does everything I need for work and play: it allows me to blog away, edit photos, talk to friends half way around the world and I am even make podcasts from the comfort of my own home (but more about that another time).
As portable as the MacBook Pro is, it is not, however, my main writing instrument on the move. In fact, I have two writing tools when I am out and about and they sit at opposite ends of the technology spectrum. At one end, there are Moleskine notebooks and a fountain pen (filled from a bottle of course). They may be old school but they never fail. At the other end, I have to admit I have invested in an iPad. As I travel a lot and have chronic back problems I could easily justify anything that lightens my load. Apparently the iPad can do all manner of interesting things with photos, music and images, but thanks to a word processing App it is mainly my 600 gramme typewriter substitute. The touch screen keyboard may be smaller than that of my laptop and is definitely smaller than the BlueBird’s one but most of my blog posts start life on this lightweight machine as I sip tea in gallery cafés or travel on metro, trams and trains.
My desk at home is now a picture of a century of mobile writing technology but I have realised since acquiring my Mid-Century Modern addition that each medium has its place. The Moleskines and fountain pen capture shards of ideas and structures and allow them to germinate. The iPad is the birthplace of most of my blog entries whilst the laptop comes into its own for work, copywriting and more extensive creative writing. And the BlueBird? Writing on a manual typewriter is a different discipline all together. It involves the permanent contradiction between crafting the message before I strike a key and a more committed stream of consciousness than on a laptop. As a result, she – because despite her colour my BlueBird is most definitely a lady – is perfect for poetry and micro-writing, like my latest project “Curiosity of Human Memory”.