In the autumn of 1984 I was broke and in between things when I drafted a couple of entries for an essay competition sponsored by the Sunday Times in Perth, Western Australia.
The entries were to be typed or ‘neatly handwritten’. My submissions were in longhand!
Shortly later I moved on and became distracted by other things. Months later I ran into my old neighbour, who had some dead mail she’d saved for me. In the slim package of envelopes was a letter from the Sunday Times, telling me I had won the competition, with a cheque enclosed.
My winning entry was a comment on the set topic of George Orwell’s inevitably tempting dystopian vision for 1984. I don’t even have a copy of the essay anymore, but I dimly remember that I was as disturbed by the intrusion of Stalinist themes into Western social and political discourses as I remain to this day. In other words, it’s likely to have been an impassioned rant.
The cheque was a modest prize, but I spent $35 of it on an Adler Tippa portable typewriter (as pictured), manufactured c 1960 in my native Germany. It was expensive at the time, but in immaculate condition, and worth foregoing the beer, or shoes, or books I could have bought instead. Machines of this vintage, and still in good nick, sell for around $400 to $500 these days; they are now collector’s items rather than the workhorses they were designed and built to be.
One of the first pieces to be pulled from between the pinch rollers of the Adler was an arse-kissing letter to the Dean of the School of English at the Western Australian Institute of Technology (now Curtin University), Don Yeats, explaining that despite having dropped out of a graphic design course in 1981, I was now ready to knuckle under and he should admit me to the BA English (Journalism) course.
Yeats’ doctoral thesis had been on John Donne, and the implication that I might have dropped out to pursue ‘wine, women, and song’ may have swayed him to accept me back into the academy.
The Adler was my most constant companion for the next three years, and seven more. All my undergraduate essays were typed on it, and much more besides.
I had acquired a passing familiarity with my father’s machines, which included Remington and Olivetti portables, and the imposingly big Olympia electric that would have cost me my right hand had he caught me using it.
It was on the Adler that my bad habits were set in stone: three fingered hunt and peck that was once tested at 110 words per minute with 95 per cent accuracy. It was the heavy pressure required to punch out the letters on that machine that have left me to this day with a pugilist’s approach to the rather more fragile keyboards I now use, much to the amusement of younger colleagues who think typewriters were used by Shakespeare’s generation, and my punishing style is an expression of my mood rather than habit.
It was also the Adler I associate with the foundation of my present writing disciplines, even if they were much more likely to have been due to academic strictures, and the tips and tricks I picked up from Humphrey McQueen, Scott Macwilliam and Stephan Millett (later also Bob Pride) rather than any particular writing tool.
Nevertheless, the tool-set also had an impact on understanding the discipline. Starting with the reading, and the handwritten notes, progressing to a longhand manuscript. That’s right. Several thousand words in longhand. Maybe two or three drafts of that before touching the typewriter. Then maybe two drafts of typewritten manuscripts, each with carefully set manual headers and footers, indenting for quotes, and lines left over for footnotes.
There’s just no explaining to anyone who hasn’t done it the sense of achievement at the end of such a process. Moreover, all the young smartarses who tell you that their writing methodology, beginning and ending in a word processing package, is just ‘working smarter’, are actually dead wrong. What they miss is an incomparable process of thinking yourself into the material, and an appropriate diction, that can occur only when you iteratively hone your meaning and vocabulary across successive drafts that require also attention to a physical end product. It’s more like the layering of thin steel in the creation of a katana blade than the more contemporary and contemptuous task of slapping together prefab Macburgers.
The proof of the pudding is that many contemporary, notionally professionally written pieces in newspapers, magazines, and blogs, produced by ‘working smarter’, show the signs of haste, lack of care with grammar and diction, and even the incomprehensible sins of grammatical and spelling errors; a single spelling error would have seen me fail an assignment in my degree, and the spelling had to be OED, not some local variant like Macquarie’s or Merriam Webster. It was an English degree.
While still at university I began to use black-screen word processing packages, and even early Apple Macintoshes, but typewriters were still omnipresent for anyone in the writing game, and for a couple of years in my early career I had an IBM Selectric monstrosity on my desk. The kind with the golfball ‘font element’. My Adler remained a fixture on my writing table at home.
In 1993/94 it travelled with me by car across the top end of Australia. An epic journey from Perth to Brisbane via Broome, Kununurra, Katherine, Darwin, Mt Isa, Townsville, Cairns, and Cape York.
By 1995 the Adler went into semi-retirement when I started to use, and like, WordPerfect 5.1, 6, and finally MS Word. But even then the typewriter was rarely without paper wound across the rollers, ready to go.
By the early 2000s it was mostly tucked away in a cupboard or on a shelf, and in 2008 it went into storage with most of my other possessions. In 2011 it was lost to me, along with journals and manuscripts dating back to the late 1970s, and many other things, in the great Brisbane flood, which deluged my storage unit.
I haven’t used a typewriter for some years now, but I still keep longhand journals as well as the electronic ones. These journals are where I start my writing process for almost everything, though bad habits have crept in with email and Google Plus.
There are times, though, when I fancy I can smell the typewriter ribbon ink, and the acidity of the typing paper. A smell suffused ever so slightly with the machine oil that kept the action of keys passing through the comb smooth and predictable.
A smell that sets in motion nostalgic memories, like the perfume of a former lover that you will never forget, even if it never wafts past your nose again.
It’s a shame I can’t present this reverie in the typewriter font I used in my word processor. Unfortunately the Google hacks and geometricians never used typewriters, and understand nothing about the romance and craft of writing, let alone the love of it.
The image is not of my typewriter, but the machine is exactly alike, including the colours. All photos in which my Adler appeared were lost in the same flood that took the typewriter.