On a recent business trip to London (to coincide with the marvellous Manet exhibition) I had some ‘extra’ hours and decided to visit the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood. My notebook was at the ready as I was hoping for some treasure to hoard for later use or even a prompt for something new. I didn’t expect a trigger for a personal memoir on writing implements.
This fascinating letter cabinet definitely pre-dates anything in my experience but was worth the photograph.
I continued sauntering round the exhibits in no particular order, and recognising (too?) many items that are now classed as being ‘historical’ I was doing the usual: “Yes, I remember that!” or “My brother / sister / best friend had one of those!” and beginning to feel ancient as it seemed that all my childhood toys were now museum pieces, when suddenly
There it was. In front of me in a glass case, a toy that I’d completely forgotten about owning.
The jolt of recognition was like a physical blow – so much that I reached out and touched the glass case with the palm of my hand.
And I’m about 9 years old, unwrapping a Christmas present, throat constricting with expectation and excitement. Memories crowding in now. It was in a box but the photograph on the outside showed clearly what it contained. A toy typewriter
How could I have forgotten owning this?
Memories flooding back. The delightful chaos of our big family room. The red coals of the fire. The socks hung over the black and gold fireguard. The smell of cinnamon, the sound of the radio and a bunch of noisy children with various assorted relatives. Amid the hubbub I find a quiet corner to sit down and open up this perfectly amazing gift, wondering how Santa Claus knew I wanted this when I didn’t know myself. There was paper in place and the ribbon was slotted through, ready to go. The smell of fresh ink is in the air around me, the achingly new and shiny metal cool and precise under my fingers.
Of course the keys were only pretend, painted on. And it was a complete fiddle having to find a letter by turning the central dial and then press the bar below every time to imprint each letter singly on the paper. But the result was real! Actual type appeared as I worked up a speed. I was writing stories in a proper grown-up way!
When I actually became a grown up my next typewriter wasn’t much better. Spotted on a skip, having been thrown out of a school business studies department, it had the tops of some crucial keys missing. My husband delved deeper and found another machine which we cannibalised for spare keys. These key tops (the less used x, y and z ) were not the letters I needed, but at least I could use them to cover the ones missing from the first one. Then I had a brilliant idea. I used the tiny brush from a bottle of tippex to paint on top of these duplicate lettered keys the correct letter they were now linked to – ingenious, eh? However, as I typed with the machine the tippex came off, smearing my fingers in white blobs and leaving me forever bamboozled as to the exact layout of the Qwerty Keyboard. I did type my first book on this machine. My husband claims that’s how I got it accepted, as I thought I was typing completely different words from what were actually appearing on the paper!
Things have continued in a similar vein in my writing life. I’ve had bouts of RSI and, when I inadvertently ‘hosed’ my ergo keyboard with a cup of chamomile tea thus rendering it useless, I had trouble finding a suitable replacement. Eventually I ordered one from the USA. But my computer is wired UK style, so now when I want double speech marks I have learned to press the @ which is located above the number 2 on my US keyboard, and vice versa (sort of) The hash tag eluded me for weeks. I still haven’t found where the tilde is hiding, yet….
But I’m set to move on again – out of history and into the present day. Helped by kindly Adèle Geras, I am about to venture into the I-World of Pods & Pads
Watch this space. !*!
P.S. I loved Bethnal Green Museum, although I didn’t have time to see half the exhibits. Added bonuses were a café with good food and friendly staff. I’m guessing most HGs have been there, but if not, then maybe a future outing?
The Traveller (from dyslexia friendly publisher Barrington Stoke) is out in March.
Divided City Playscript now available.