Tuesday, February 22, 2011

From Pen to PC, via the Blue Typewriter: A Writing History

When I was four, I knew how to write well enough to scribble "Popeye" under "This belongs to" in an old family Bible, earning myself a stern telling-off. I couldn't really read and write, however. When I started school in the UK, I had to play catch-up with the other children, who already had a year of learning to read and write behind them.

With help from Mrs Ball -- I think your first teacher always has number one place in your school memories, doesn't she? -- the quaint Janet and John book series, and a half-blank/half-lined exercise book for my jottings, I was quickly able not only to read but also to write, usually stories about meeting dragons and flying around in space rockets.

At the age of nine, perhaps, I wrote my first play. I had just seen the 1943 Claude Rains version of The Phantom of the Opera, and my parents, noticing my obsession, had bought me the double-LP album from the new West End show. The arrival of my own theatrical adaptation of the Gaston Leroux story was inevitable. I still have a very crumpled copy of the script, scrawled across four or five A4 pages. My classmates and I performed it in school assembly, and it was so successful I wrote an action-packed sequel and sprained my wrist rehearsing the climactic gunfight.

For the rest of my childhood, I hardly wrote anything except plays. I got up early in the morning and typed for hours. The plays were usually inspired by films I had seen and plays I wanted to see but couldn't. They were comedies, farces, thrillers, dramas and pantomimes.

I rarely finished them, I admit. There was an exception: Frankenstein. (Yes, horror fascinated me.) I had received a blue child's typewriter as a Christmas gift from Mom and Dad, and I set myself up at the desk that sat in the alcove of our morning room. After months of switching between projects, I was proud to have finally written a full-length play. Unfortunately, though I still have a box of random pages from plays I wrote as a child, the one manuscript I completed no longer exists.

The blue typewriter was to serve me well for several years. Then Mom, a touch typist with responsibility for our Methodist church newsletter, got a very fancy electronic typewriter that showed each line on a tiny screen before typing it out. It became my toy, and the blue typewriter fell out of fashion.

I went through a succession of electronic gadgets after that. Except for brief periods, we never had computers in our household. The first time I had a PC to call my own was in the early 2000s, when life was going badly for me in BC and a close friend sent me an old laptop. It was very heavy, and the cost of shipping it probably exceeded its monetary value, but its true value was in getting me writing again. I later returned to England, and by then my mom had joined the digital age. The household had a PC and an internet connection; within a couple of years I had a new laptop and began writing as a career.

I forgot about the blue typewriter for a long time and only remembered about it recently. I've no idea what happened to it. Perhaps it was destroyed, or maybe it's now some other child's plaything. I wonder if he realizes there's a 33-year-old man who wouldn't be who he is today without that archaic word machine?


  1. I had such a great love of writing plays, as well, throughout grammar and high school! I think it's an approachable medium for kids, because everything is adjustable in the performance, and it's such a blast seeing something you created come to life. It's a little bit of a step back to have to wait for people to read a story or a book, but you get instant feedback when a play is performed.

  2. Yeah, it is very fulfilling. After that first one, my plays were rarely performed, however. Instead, I'd take them to Mr Smith next door, and I'd sit there while he read through them with his red pen at the ready. He was a dear old man. Another future blog post in there, I think!

  3. I love the ending....who knows?
    Maybe for another kid, it's a whole new beginning.