10 November 2012

Typing Up a Storm

Typewriter in the house of Robert Graves, Deia, Mallorca

Writing in longhand.  The impulse from your wrist to form letters.  Ink flowing like blood, like dark milk, like grape juice.  Sufficient delay to dredge your depths.  Notebooks covered with splotches and underlinings.

Versus typing on a keyboard.  Torrential clicking when ideas flow and you must keep pace.  Reams of churned paper that already have the look of something organised and official.

Both approaches are useful, depending on context and type of work. 

When I decided, back in the mists, that I wanted to be a purveyor of words, it was essential to learn to type - using all ten fingers as swiftly as possible.  Although the advent of word processors and PCs was just around the corner, my first writer’s tools were a Remington typewriter and a gallon of correcting fluid.

But I lacked speed and technique, and so enrolled for three months at a secretarial college in west London.  The classes crammed with non-native speakers, the shabby premises, and the whiff of unregulation were reflected in very reasonable fees.  Students came and went, and there was always room for more in that quirky establishment - where it appeared the tea lady ruled the roost by the quantity of tea or biscuits she awarded, and where the typing teacher was clipped and meticulously English.  “What is your Christian name?” she would habitually ask new Arab arrivals, much to their bewilderment.

One day I came to college forty-five minutes early, seeking warmth and the possibility of getting ahead with my work.   Within ten minutes, the assistant principal marched in.  An octogenarian, she wore a wig which had fitted her head thirty years before, but which had long since shed bits of itself down to the webbing.  It was now a patchy-haired beret skewed at a worrying angle.

She was stiff with anger.  “What on earth are you doing?  Classes don’t begin until 9.0 a.m.,” she shouted.  “You foreigners are all the same.  No concept of correct behaviour.” 

I stood away from my desk, stretched up to my full five-foot-four-inches, and responded through clenched teeth:  “I’ll have you know that I was born in England, so I’m not exactly a foreigner.   And how dare you suggest that they or I don’t know how to behave.  For your information, I happen to have been brought up correctly.  In any case, the college was open.  I wanted to do some more practice.  This is actually important for my career.” 

Or words to that effect.

News of the altercation soon spread.  The tea lady sidled up to me with a fresh brew in her huge aluminium teapot and an unprecedented three Rich Tea biscuits.  She asked what I was hoping to do in life.  I told her I wanted to be a journalist. 

“I think I can help you,” she said. 

“Oh?”  My ears pricked up. 

“My nephew works at the Daily Express.” 

It wasn’t the paper I had in mind, but a start is a start.   

“What does he do?”  I asked.  Even a junior reporter might be able to put in a good word, or smuggle me in as pencil-case holder on a celebrity assignment.

“He’s the car park attendant,” she said.

That afternoon, I was summoned to the principal’s office.  Preparing myself for a dressing-down, I sat…(demurely I was going to write, but it was more nail-chewingly)…in my chair.

“The assistant principal…” she began.


“The assistant principal is retiring in two months.  Would you like her job?”

Gentle reader, I’m pleased to tell you that etiquette held good and I managed to turn down the job without resorting to words like stick and sun and don’t and shine, before packing up my 63 wpm typing skills and heading off into the west London streets.

But thanks to that school, ever after there’s been that delicious choice:

Slow contemplative doodle?  Or energetic word tumble?

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