Typewrongers by Tom Hodges
What do the following have in common: a Greek god with wings on his feet, the Parisian press that first published Nabokov’s Lolita, and the editor of The Maycomb Tribune from Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird? The answer is they share names with the three typewriters in the library here at Shakespeare and Company. Can you work out which types of typewriter we have? Answers on the back of a postcard to firstname.lastname@example.org. There will be a small prize, probably a jelly baby, which I shall award to myself. I work very hard.
Typewriters are fascinating objects. Visitors to the shop never tire of prodding our dilapidated antediluvian machines, trying to coax out a sonnet, perhaps just a line, perhaps just a carriage return from their twisted metal hearts. For a little while now, alas, this has been impossible. Like recalcitrant geriatrics each and every one of them has developed a romantic anomaly such as ‘runaway carriage’, ‘stuck ribbon vibrator’ or ‘jammed keys’ …alright, the last one doesn’t even sound interesting. As a typewriter enthusiast it has been a great sadness to me that they have lain dormant for so long.
Would Douglas Adams have constructed the infinite improbability drive without his Hermes 8? Could Hercule Poirot have put his “leetle grey cells” to such effective use without Agatha Christie’s Remington? Might Burroughs have written Naked Lunch without pawning just about every typewriter he ever owned? These plucky machines, the writer’s workhorse for over a hundred years, have been the egress for a billion beautiful thoughts and fanciful ideas, and so many more pages destined for the bin.
My favoured typewriter is an old ‘Imperial’ I pinched from my dad. The great thing about it is that when I’ve written something it stays written. In a computerised world we can continually edit and refine on the screen. As we write we copy and paste and faff around with our text and get distracted by bookshop websites with stupid articles about typewriters. I’d urge any of you with access to a typewriter to try using that for a change: type something, correct it with a pen, and type it again. It’ll cure you of any tendency towards obsessive editing.
Not that you can currently do this at the shop. As I mentioned our three specimens are in dire straits, and there’s no Mark Knopfler coming to save them. Or is there?
A little while ago I was chatting at the till with a fellow typewriter enthusiast called Scott. This gentleman is a collector with a far superior degree of technical knowledge to the dilettante hacking out this article. Lo and behold, Scott very kindly came back a week or two later and proceeded to clean all three machines. With great patience he explained what was wrong with each and how to fix them, before very generously donating an ersatz typewriter servicing kit and a handsome functioning typewriter for the use of our tumbleweeds.
Inspired by his dedication and enthusiasm, I decided to try to fix at least one of the shop machines: the poor beast with the unglamorous stuck keys. So last Monday afternoon you could have glimpsed a tall, sartorially elegant, handsome man hunched over a typewriter on the bench outside as torrential Parisian rain shot off the shop’s green canvas awning and into the green Wallace fountain below. Colleagues hailed me as they walked by, like the fool on the hill I kept cleaning the mechanism with cotton buds before oiling each and every hammer joint and pressing the keys until they unstuck. Finally, after an hour’s work, I had freed the keyboard and reformed the ribbon vibrator (which had become an alcoholic) and it was a working machine once more. I took it upstairs to the studio and reached for the spare ink ribbon. I shone with pride at a job well done as I prised the spools from their cardboard carton. Gingerly I lowered them onto the sprockets…
They were the wrong size. Well if there was nothing more to fix where would be the fun?