Time taps adieu to the typewriter

Writers lament as another maker folds, reports Decca Aitkenhead
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The Independent Online
MARTIN AMIS is not famed for his sentimentality. Neither is veteran hack Nigel Dempster. Yet both writers, who one imagines share little else, shed a tear last week for the passing of an era. Smith-Corona, the last manufacturer of the typewriter in the US, filed for bankruptcy.

It was the end of the production line for a small machine which had defined the workplace for a century. From the industrious clatter of the typing pool to the solitary romance of the author, the typewriter was the Zeitgeist of a 20th-century working life. But this final death toll across the Atlantic signals a demise already all but complete.

"A manual typewriter? Oh, we don't sell anything like that," Westminster Typewriters told me in some confusion. "To be quite honest, we haven't got a new typewriter in the place. We don't go in for that."

Enquiries across London elicited the same story. Ronald Linden, owner of Capital Typewriter Service, thought he might be able to get one on order. It would take a while, he imagines. "I've been in this business over 30 years, and it's changed drastically. It's progress, I suppose. It says in the Bible you must accept the things you cannot change. Computers just knocked the bottom out of our world. Progress - you can't change that."

The earliest typewriter, then the darling of progress, is difficult to trace. It is said that an Italian Romeo devised the world's first model in 1808 in order that he and his faraway blind lover could correspond by letter. The first commercial model came in 1872, when three Americans devised the QWERTYUIOP model and sold the rights to Remington. The first customer was Mark Twain.

The QWERTYUIOP arrangement, which spells out the top row of letters, was designed to prevent keys tangling up at high speeds. Other formats were later posited, but never ousted the original, which survives today on the most sophisticated of keyboards. But the advent in the Eighties of the word processor and personal computer has transported the typewriter from ubiquity to collectors' curiosity.

A formidable core of Luddites persist, however. "When I was eight years old I was given a 1908 Woodstock, and I'd be lost without it. I've done everything on it to this day," cackles the astronomer Patrick Moore. To date he has written 170 books on it. "It's like an extension of my two fingers. If anything happened to it I'd shoot myself.

"I had a lovely letter from Nasa the other day, thanking me for my contribution to a new book, but it said, PS: What the hell did you type it on?

"I tried a word processor once. With my two middle fingers on my Woodstock I do 90 words a minute. On that new thing I did 15 if I was lucky. Horrible things."

Mr Moore is in good company. Novelist Martin Amis, like his father, Sir Kingsley, has remained loyal to the typewriter. "I suppose I'm a hold- out from another era, but I suspect the WP doesn't have a good effect on prose. The little mouse that vibrates away on the screen makes you think you are thinking when really you are not."

It is unlikely that Barbara Taylor Bradford and the Amises are as one on the nature of good prose. Yet the grand dame of the bodice-ripper concurs in their deeply held distrust of the screen.

"When a writer uses a WP, it's like driving through a landscape. When I do it on a tyepwriter, it's like walking through the countryside - you can hear and see and smell everything. When you write creatively, machinery gets in your way - you are so busy bobbing around punching things all the time.

"They have a phrase here in America - if it ain't broke, don't fix it. I've always used a typewriter, and I've written 10 bestsellers on it. That's the acid test, isn't it?"

Such loyalty is still rewarded in some of the dustier stationers off Fleet Street, where carbon paper and repairs are dispensed to a dogged but dwindling few. But the typewriter will surely live on in collective memory long after the final ribbons run out.

It makes the Top 10 list of Desert Island Disc luxuries with ease, and its place in celluloid history is assured. Jane Fonda immortalised the typist's fantasy when, as playwright Lillian Hellman in Julia, she hurled a Smith-Corona through the window. An off-centre key held the final twist to a courtroom thriller in Jagged Edge.

The typewriter's role in real-life courts has been no less dramatic - it was incriminating old ribbon which sealed the fates of both US-Soviet spy Aldrich Ames and high-society jewel swindler Darius Guppy.

At pounds 30 for a second-hand Olympia, a piece of portable social history comes cheap. "They're good old plodders," Globe Typewriters assured me. But the dedicated typist will pay considerably more - Hitler's typewriter, on which he wrote Mein Kampf, fetched pounds 80,000 at auction. Ian Fleming's gold-plated Royal, bought for the princely sum of $174 in 1952, produced all the Bond classics and fetched pounds 56,250 at Christie's last May.

Nigel Dempster, of the hard-bitten Daily Mail school of journalism, grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of Smith-Corona. "Tears flood down my face to think that it's closing. I adore my typewriter - I write all my letters at home on it. I call her Betty. She's wonderful." He is, however, reconciled to the transformation which has taken place in his once-deafening, inky office.

"It is for the better, quite honestly. In the old days you used to find typewriters being thrown at you. No one could possibly hoist a computer at me."