Bare wires, hot copy

A travel writer can file from anywhere in the world - with a bit of ingenuity. By Simon Calder
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Dismantling the average Russian telephone tends to be non-reversible. Once you remove the cover and start poking around in the sad and rusty tangle of electrical spaghetti therein, you know that the Soviet relic will never look quite the same again. So woe betide you if the dezhurnaya (floor lady, for whom the word "formidable" seems too mild) should suddenly burst through the door. She is unlikely to take kindly to finding her hardware in an advanced state of disintegration.

Yet there is a certain equity in the fact that the travelling journalist is a source of constant irritation to hotel staff around the world: the typical hotel is frustratingly inconvenient for any journalist trying to file a story.

Here's the theory. Neither I nor any other travel editor need ever appear in the office again. We can attain that state of professional Nirvana where we are constantly on the move, travelling permanently and writing about the world. All it takes is a laptop computer and a modem. You may be 10,000 miles from home, but to a 14,400 Baud modem that is no distance. Once you've got the connection.

And that's where the fun stops.

You should not be amazed that you can call from Novosibirsk to Norwich, or fax from Wollongong to Wigan. You should be amazed that after more than a century of telephony there is still such discrepancy between systems. The travelling journalist is not asking for much: just the two "hot" wires that carry the dial tone. If you poke around, for example, with a pair of headphones whose wires have been bared, you will find that pins 2 and 5 on the standard BT phone connector are "hot". The problem is that east of Dover the BT plug ceases to be remotely standard.

A diagram of all the possible connectors from Argentina to Zimbabwe looks like a page from a catalogue of particularly painful surgical equipment. Argentina alone has two types of plugs: one looks as if you could pull teeth with it; the other appears to be a gynaecological device. But after a while you regard each as a new challenge, and carefully wrap the bare wires from your modem around the right pins. In formerly Soviet parts of the world, the wires disappear into the wall, which is where a little light surgery with a Philips screwdriver comes in handy.

Once connected, you command your modem to communicate with London, and grit your teeth as it emulates the creaky old clicks of the pulse- dialling system. Slightly more often than you have the right to expect, you hear the happy chirrup of gossiping modems and a message flickers across the screen reading "The Independent, London. Please send your copy followed by four `n's".

At this point you could, were you a more prolific writer than me, key in the story direct (and type nnnn when you've finished - this is a poor printers' pun for "ends"). I prefer to write first, save to hard disc and download the file in strictly ASCII format. The word-processing language itself, therefore, is irrelevant, but I mostly use LocoScript Professional - a hotted-up version of the software employed on all those prehistoric Amstrad PCWs. But every writer should be allowed one eccentricity.

What's wrong with sending stories by e-mail, using the Internet? You would not pose the question if you had ever tried to convince an editor that you did indeed file from half-way up the Orinoco without a paddle, using a local Internet provider. Neither you nor she has any guarantee that it will arrive. In contrast, The Independent's mainframe at Canary Wharf in London responds with the message: "Thank you. 880 words stored in file number xyz". Useful for any subsequent "what-happened-to-your- copy?" conversation.

When it works, it works very well. I don't know where you are reading this, but let me congratulate you on being among the first to see this story on a printed page. I am writing it in Amsterdam, and anticipate a relatively easy run in downloading it to The Independent's computer. I have already checked the fax connector in the cheap hotel here, and see that it is the familiar US plug.

Thank goodness I am not in France, where the dial tone is a hideous Gallic squeak and the connectors Napoleonic. I have sweated for hours failing to file copy through their telephone system, eventually falling back on those fine human transponders, The Independent's copytakers on the 22nd floor. But a 1,000-word story, filed electronically in 10 seconds, takes half-an-hour to read across.

You will note that I have not said what computer I use. That's because it is the least important consideration. Since all I want to do is process words, and have access to a small database of schedules and travel contacts, any old bargain-basement laptop will do - though the lighter and more robust it is, the better.

The trouble is, of course, that sensitive electronic equipment was not designed to be hurled around by baggage handlers, or to have hot beverages spilt on it by Aeroflot stewardesses. In the five years since I made that first magical connection, three of them have died on me. I have not yet lost any through theft, possibly because I stash it in a battered old backpack - laptops are a favourite among thieves world-wide, and the standard case exudes the message: "mug me".

One problem that rarely arises is mains electricity. Power supply units are very forgiving about the volts they are expected to deal with, ranging from a spiky 250v-plus in parts of eastern Europe to barely 100v in power- starved Cuba. With a multi-way adaptor of the kind sold at airports, and possibly a couple of deftly-bent matches, you can usually get the juice flowing.

I suppose I should count myself lucky that no one has yet attacked me for abusing the phone system, though I once got thrown out of Corfu post office for interfering with a Bakelite telephone. The dezhurnaya in the Intourist Hotel was pacified when I bought up her stock of black-market beer, and the editor was gratified when the story on Siberia appeared on schedule. A floppy disk that I had dispatched earlier by courier as a back-up arrived exactly a week after the deadlinen