September – licence to buy new writing utensils

No idea what happened to my Underwood typewriter.

No idea what happened to my Underwood typewriter.

I must admit, the first day of September always gives rise to a most insistent itch. Not my regular kind of irritant that medics have successfully linked to pollen and the furrier members of the family. Not even the kind that unerringly takes root under the most inaccessible spot of a plaster cast. No. This is an itch that can only be scratched by high-tailing it into a well-stocked stationery store to drool over and choose from the new season’s selection of pens and notepads. If only I could justify a new pencil case too, but alas, with two large mugs of pens on my desk and two empty cases in the drawer, even I must admit that another case is surplus to requirements.

This Pavlov-dogged response to a flip of the calendar is, obviously, a throwback from childhood and the start of a new school year.

I can still vividly remember the milestone moment when, at roughly aged seven, I was promoted from using a pencil to using a pen. A standard grey school biro with blue ink. And along with the pride of the promotion came the cold realisation that erasing an error was no longer an option. Mistakes were to be crossed out neatly and placed within parentheses, or brackets as we called them then. But the love of that pen soon outweighed the fear of error exposure, and quite possibly fuelled my lifelong love of writing utensils.

And there have been many.

My eighth birthday netted me the gift of a second-hand typewriter from my aunt. It was wonderful — an Underwood with shiny white keys and an inky ribbon that smelled just like my father’s Olivetti (needed for his business and out of bounds to me). My machine was solid and perfect, and would have been even perfecter if the u had worked — bit of a bummer when your name’s R th — but then again, a u could always be added afterwards and, with hindsight, I suspect the lack of u was why my aunt’s employer was replacing the machine and letting her give this one to me. Either way, I was stoked, and dinging the lever to drop down a line was little short of a Doctor Who experience. Sadly, I have no idea what happened to that machine. But I do remember how it made me feel. Grown-up.

The next milestone in my happy history with writing utensils came with the advent of felt tip pens. Remember those? They dried up in a heartbeat and the tips went fuzzy, but they were a huge step up from wax crayons and coloured pencils. These little sticks of innovation did not require sharpening and made it much easier and far more fun to colour in. Until the tips became fuzzy.

Grammar school, of course, meant learning to write with a fountain pen. From Day One. My first pen was a true fountain pen — requiring a brand new bottle of blue Quink and large sheets of pink blotting paper. Inky fingers were proof of industrious activity, but the mess-free cartridge kind beckoned and inkwells in desks were slowly phased out. End of another era before I truly got started.

Meanwhile, typewriters too were moving on. By the time I began my working life, whiteout ribbons had been introduced, as had electric typewriters…

In 1988, I was running a Stockholm branch of Berlitz International. Our trusty typewriter was on the blink, so Head Office — in their dubious wisdom — equipped us with the latest all-singing, all-dancing, do-it-itself typewriter. This machine of modern promise could be programmed to write letters automatically. Well, three anyway. Then the memory was full. So we typed in three standard letters and pressed Start. The typewriter chugged into noisy, spluttering action. Did it save time? Barely. It took a lot of setting up and left no room for the slightest deviation. Any letter that wasn’t a straight standard required typing manually anyway. In short, it was big, heavy, noisy and a regrettable purchase.

That autumn, we suffered three, repeat, three, break-ins at the office. In addition to ransacking the cupboards and stealing cash, the reprobates stole my heels, spare suit, monogrammed time management system (and there’s another blast from the past) and leather briefcase, but never once did they take the dang typewriter. Even the thieves recognised it for the dud that it proved to be.

Because by then, computers were beginning to become viable options as small office machines.

I can still remember watching with awe when a pal showed me word-processing on an Amiga. Not only did the text automatically continue on the next line, it could even align the text down both sides. No more stopping to work out whether the next word would fit onto a line, no more fiddling with whiteout ribbons — or black ribbons for that matter. Letters could be saved as templates, altered as required and printed. We could cut and paste bits from several texts to create a new one. Now we had everything we needed. Or?

Well, that depends on what we mean by need. Microsoft, Adobe, Apple and all the other hardware and software producers were quick to prove that, no, we didn’t have everything. We also needed to be able to produce presentations and make calculations, and tap into the infinite creative and timesaving possibilities that specialised software can offer. Not to mention that little detail of portability. Enter the laptop, smart phone and tablet.

And yet, and yet.

In the grand scheme of writing technology, the pens I eventually bought to stock up my supplies and scratch my September itch are remarkably similar to the original grey pen I learned to use as a seven-year-old.

I can sling one in my bag, carry one behind my ear, and leave them carelessly dotted around the house. And I do.

But as I sat in Starbucks drafting this blog — with paper and pen — and contemplating our migration from graphite to graphics, I did wonder whether any other generation will ever experience as many different kinds of writing implement as we have.

And despite the best efforts by the lads and lasses in Silicon Valley and other numerous development offices around the world, I seriously doubt it.

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