Olympia Monica S. Photograph: Rick Poynor
It has been so long since I saw my old typewriter that I had given it up for lost. I lent it to my brother in the early 1990s so he could type up his archaeology thesis. I assumed it had gone missing during his various house moves and I just forgot about it. Then he revealed that it was stored in his garage. It has taken months to extricate it, but finally I have it back.
What a mixture of emotions a machine can stir. I bought my Olympia Monica S in Croydon, south London, from an office supply shop when I was 20. It was a decisive moment. I wanted to write and a typewriter was the essential tool of the trade, an instrument every bit as vital as a paintbrush is to a painter or a guitar to a guitarist. Longhand was never an option. Acquiring a typewriter, particularly if you had no plans to become a secretary, was a sign of identity, a declaration of commitment and intent. After two failed attempts to teach myself to touch-type on another machine, investing in my own obliged me to get serious and stick with the exercises for a month until I had disciplined my fingers to find the keys without looking.
Examining my Olympia again, I'm struck by how powerfully its form and image embody and express the idea of writing, as does almost any typewriter. Like the telephone at an earlier phase in its development when it still had a distinct earpiece and mouthpiece at either end of a handle, the fully evolved typewriter is a 20th-century industrial archetype. It feels inevitable, almost elemental, like one of those object types, such as a chair or a fork, that simply had
to exist in this universe of forms. Even now (but for how much longer?) a typewriter is the icon to show if you want to convey the idea of a dedicated literary life. The title page of The Rough Guide to Cult Fiction
— just out — shows a portable typewriter on a desk with other writing paraphernalia. Turn the page and the caption reads "The essential equipment of a cult author, as collected by William Burroughs." Burroughs receives the longest entry in the book. The ultimate cult author — the ultimate writing machine.
I did quite a lot of unpublished writing on my Olympia, but by the time I became a journalist in 1984 the PC had arrived. Word processing's advantages were obvious and I was happy to upgrade. You can't just brush the keys of a manual typewriter. You really have to hit them. That character has to arc through the air on its metal stalk and thwack the ink on to the paper. Correcting errors is messy and boring. Redrafting is worse. Typing can be an unglamorous slog. I operated PCs and later Macs at work and bought a Compaq portable computer the size of a small suitcase for a ridiculous sum and used its tiny green screen to "keyboard" the text of my first book. For years, I treated computers as little more than glorified typewriters with a memory and a built-in word counter. The point, of course, is that the computer has never been a dedicated writing tool — writing is the least of it — and everyone uses them. They are somehow both more marvellous and more ordinary. That's why there isn't a shred of romance in the idea of a writer and his or her personal computer.
Since Mark Twain tried his hand with a Sholes & Glidden typewriter in the 1870s, the machines used by famous writers have been a matter of record and a source of affectionate comment: Jack Kerouac's Underwood, Thomas Pynchon's Olivetti, Ernest Hemingway's Royal Quiet De Luxe Portable. There has been a whole book, The Story of My Typewriter
, about Paul Auster's Olympia SM 9, with squishy expressionistic paintings of the fabled keyboard by artist Sam Messer. Consider, by way of digital contrast, the mental image of Zadie Smith toiling away at the screen of her iMac G5, or Jonathan Safran Foer punching the keys of his 17-inch SuperDrive PowerBook. I made those up, but let's face it they just don't resonate in the same way. (Apologies to these authors if they are pounding out their forthcoming bestsellers on trusty Smith-Coronas.)
Today, antique typewriters have become collectables
. Companies dedicate themselves to finding rare machines and restoring them to working order. Olympia
is still making typewriters and, incredibly, there are even a few manual models still in production. It seems I could buy a replacement ribbon for my Monica S, gently ease the "n" which is sticking, blow off the dust that's somehow crept into her during her long years of inactivity, and take her for a spin for old time's sake. For most people, though, typewriters have become museum pieces
— one of the few places you can still rely on seeing them. This wandering Olympia is the first example my 13-year-old daughter has had the chance to examine close up.
I always liked the look of my first and only typewriter, though I barely thought in terms of design when I bought it. Returning to it now, I can see that it is a fine piece of late 1970s modernism. The grey plastic cover, with carrying handle, fits over the machine like a skin, forming a continuous surface with the typewriter's grey base. The carriage return is low, straight and unfussy so it can tuck inside. The light grey plastic shell is reduced to simple flat planes, but the angularity is softened by rounded edges and corners. It has the look of a bigger office machine scaled down to the size of a portable. The mechanism is well protected by its case, though the carrying handle has snapped off since I last saw it. For the most part, the Monica S is rather more durable than it needed to be. Its simplified contours anticipate the boxy designs of the desktop computers that would begin to render it redundant just a few years later. Even so, it has a lot more character than an early IBM PC or a typical recent laptop. The typology
of the typewriter has an expressive richness and a symbolic heft
way beyond the design achievements of even the fanciest digital appliances. They would have to start rationing the electricity supply, though, before I would willingly go back.