The only way to outwit Big Brother is to bring back the typewriter

Low-tech is best in an age of digi-intrusion, and leaves no record of communication


I’ve just spotted the beginning of the Digital Backlash. Ever since Edward Snowden revealed the extent to which electronic surveillance by the US government has spread through her allies’ and enemies’ intelligence agencies alike – even infiltrating the personal data of heads of state – people have resolved not to be hacked, tracked, inspected, surveyed or followed any more, or have the data of their lives made accessible to the state.  The backlash has now begun. With the typewriter.

No honest, it’s true. In Germany, Patrick Sensburg, the chap running the Bundestag’s parliamentary inquiry into the NSA’s operations, told a TV interviewer this week that he and his colleagues were thinking of abandoning emails and investigating alternative communications – including the Triumph Adler typewriter. Not the version with the management software, though – the old one with the red and black ribbons.

I cut my journalistic teeth on one of these monsters. They’re heavy as hell and the keys, on their long metal flanges, have to be pecked from high above. But you know what?

You don’t need to remember a password to get into one. The text you’re writing won’t suddenly disappear because an Error of Type 216 has “occurred”, nor will alternative words to the ones you’re writing mysteriously appear overhead. When you’re done, you can extract the letter from the machine and send it through the post, leaving nothing to let anyone know what you’ve typed. (Unless you’ve used a brand-new ribbon – but writing two or three missives on the same ribbon renders the words unreadable.)

Avoiding technology, evading the cat’s-cradle of data that’s embedded in your smartphone, your iPad, your credit card, your Twitter feed, is becoming a more and more potent dream. When you know – perhaps from seeing James Graham’s chilling play Privacy – how many details of your lives (where you live, how you shop, where you visit, whom you see regularly) are already out there, to be accessed by anyone, whether in government or out, it becomes a potent dream to stop any more private data becoming public property.


Fiction has caught up with the dream. Five years ago, William Boyd’s Ordinary Thunderstorms watched a man, on the run from police and hit men, struggle to shed all evidence of his identity, from mobile to PIN, to become a 21st-century existentialist hero.

In Andrew Marr’s soon-to-be-published first novel, Head of State, a political activist and a journalist conduct a clandestine affair in 2017 by leaving love letters in books on the shelves of the London Library, alerting each other about the title they should seek out. Stand by for more of this heady stuff. Thriller writers are now obliged to send their heroes and villains into the depths of the countryside or to sea, so that they’re beyond the reach of mobile-phone connectivity.

Typewriters and old-fashioned letters are only the start in a new world of retro-communication. We may return to the humble fax machine – which, I’m told, can’t be hacked into (not yet anyway). We may stop carrying mobiles everywhere with us, now we know that, even when they’re switched off, they emit a signal that can be picked up by GCHQ.

We may give up Oyster cards in favour of single-use tickets that can’t establish a pattern of our daily travel. We might give up online banking, with all its potential for digi-intrusion, and make sure we shop using real money instead of credit cards.

We could stop (for God’s sake) using Twitter and Facebook. And if we’ve a really sensitive commercial or political secret to share with a foreign power, we could take a leaf out of Hitchcock’s version of The 39 Steps and have a music-hall Mr Memory learn it off by heart and travel with it lodged in his brain.

There’s no danger of it being hacked into or interfered with, except by a bullet. Which of course is what happens at the end of the film…  Curses. It was all going so well. Back to the Adler Portable.

Doing the honours with real feeling

I went to Sussex University last week to see my son graduate. It was quite a ceremony – 3,000 former students crossing the stage in two hours – although some parents regretted the fact that the Chancellor, the actor Sanjeev Bhaskar, couldn’t be there in person. He appeared by video link to explain that he was busy filming an episode of Doctor Who, secure in the knowledge that TV fame easily eclipses any footling ceremony about education and achievement.

I learned that the trustees had tried to find another celebrity to shake hands with the winners – and when none transpired, it fell to the heads of each BA subject to do the honours. It was a triumph. The first twentysomethings in their subfusc robes and mortar boards crossed the stage and shook hands formally with their head of study. Then one woman graduate flung her arms around his neck – and a floodgate of emotion opened. Many other women went for the heartfelt-embrace option. Noisy kisses rent the air. The male handshakes grew warmer. The atmosphere grew more relaxed. Some graduates appeared with their children. Parents wept. Smartphone cameras flashed. It couldn’t have been more hearteningly collegiate, more celebratory of intellectual success if – well, if Doctor Bloody Who had been there. No, really.

This poll says what? Oh, come now…

Well, well. So the climactic cries of “Yes! Oh God, yes!”, the raking of talons into the partner’s naked back, and the lashing of the pillow with the hair, aren’t just a girl thing. According to new surveys, by Time Out magazine and the University of Kansas, men are just as likely as women to fake orgasm during sex.

Just over 30 per cent of New York men approached by clipboard-wielders admitted that they sometimes pretended to get their rocks off – but always with the best of intentions. They were being kind. They didn’t want to hurt their partner’s feelings. They wanted to make it all seem simultaneous…

Leaving aside the question of how a man convincingly fakes orgasm when there’s no, shall we say, seminal evidence to prove it, I think the 30 per cent are showing off a bit. Every man knows that sex is a constant battle to stop everything being over and finished before (if I may employ a metaphor) the female kettle has boiled.

Many chaps summon up a library of images in their head to stop them alighting from the train before it reaches Waterloo: images of butchers’ windows, Mrs Thatcher, elderly family members, skeletons and Queen Victoria may all be employed to stave off the climactic moment. I wonder if the orgasm-fakers are in fact men who’ve got stuck in a forest of anti-erotic imaginings.

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