We have to make our own entertainment in the fields, here in Suffolk, so part of my Monday, for the past fifteen years or more, has been going to the auctions. It’s mostly stuff people don’t want anymore, but because a fair number of people who live in these parts are seriously wealthy, old and have more than one house then sometimes you can find not just bargains but really interesting stuff as well. If you’re lucky you can find interesting bargains too, now and again.
The best thing I ever found, or at least the most profitable, was a Moulton folding bicycle. They’re rare. I was hoping nobody else knew what it was but two other people had an idea and bid it up from the £30 I was hoping it would go for to the £140 I paid for it. I folded it up, put it in the back of the car and ordered two new tyres, two new inner tubes and a pair of folding pedals. I had a spare Brooks B17 saddle in the shed, so that went on and the test ride I gave it told me what I thought anyway – I don’t like tiny wheels because they feel unstable. I put it on Ebay and it turned out the Japanese person who bid it up to £1,200 plus £250 shipping wasn’t kidding. It paid the mortgage that month.
The last of the line.
A month or two ago I found something similar, a Freiburger sextant. I’d first seen one – or at least, a picture of one – about twenty years ago, when I was running half a business information research agency and we had a load of maritime work for companies like Inmarsat, Cap-Gemini, Jeppesen, UK Hydrographic Office and I had to spend a lot of time getting up to speed with a whole hidden world of Big Steamers and dealing with a linear descendant of Captain Bligh, which gave me an insight into exactly why the mutiny on the Bounty happened. It saw me elected to the Nautical Institute and made a member of the Honorable Company of Master Mariners, as well as propelling me around the world to conferences every couple of months in Miami or Limassol, Oslo or Hamburg or Sydney or interviewing in San Diego or D.C.. The walk I did there on a frozen February Sunday morning, and the appalling scalping I got in a barbershop when they heard “I’m interviewing at Coastguard Headquarters” and took it as “I’m being interviewed at Coastguard Headquarters are both going to have to be another story. Jesus, my head was cold though.
Last week I found a thing I didn’t know I was even looking for. A typewriter. But not just any typewriter. It looked like the best typewriter you could think of, so utterly well-designed that if I asked you to draw one it would look like the one I bought. An Olivetti Lettera 22. The absolute high-water mark of mechanical inky ribbon-smacking perfection.
It was designed in 1950. In 1959 the Illinois Institute of Technology nominated it as the best design product of the past 100 years. Now, OK, that was a while before the Ipod, Ipad, the Iphone and this MacBook Pro, and even before the Mach One Mustang, but you can’t type a letter or a novel on any of those things anyway. I paid a ridiculously small amount at the auction for it, paid another £2-something for a new ribbon, stuck the airline at the garage into it and blasted out 70 years of skin flakes and grime and started typing this evening, just like those other famous Leterra 22 users, William S. Burroughs, Will Self, Gunter Grass, who had three of them, one in each house and Jan Morris.
It was odd. I haven’t typed for years. Not on a typewriter, anyway. And it’s very different. Not where the keys are – they’re in almost exactly the same place, apart from the inverted comma key. But the pressure is different. When I first started using computer keyboards in an office my boss used to tell me I didn’t have to hit the keys so hard. What did he know – I’d learned to type on a proper type-writer. My first novel, A Day For Pyjamas, was written on a type-writer. I lived in the modern world, baby. I had my radio on.
Immediately before I started typing this evening I’d been reading old airfield records from 1945, sent to me by the ever-helpful US government archive office. And obviously typed. Some pages were sharp and clear, some not so much and several showed typing like mine, where individual letters looked faded and indistinct. The biggest difference isn’t working out where the backspace key is (apparently there is one but obviously it isn’t marked, to make things more fun, presumably), but consistency. If you don’t put the same amount of pressure on each keystroke the letters won’t come out the same.
It didn’t help that I hadn’t screwed up the caps on the ribbon spools tightly enough; with a new ribbon everything was clear and sharp, but six lines in it had all started to look as if it too, had been hammered out on a slack afternoon at Neibiberg airfield one October day nearly 80 years ago, the war over and almost everyone already sent back to the USA, the biggest problem being how to get enough civilian workers physically onto the base when a) you don’t speak German and b) you aren’t supposed to fraternise with them anyway. I knew a story about one airman who did, and found his evening took a turn for the worse after kissing his fraulein goodnight – as soon as she’d stepped inside her house someone loosed off a magazine full of Schmeisser 9mm at him. He never found out who did it, some jilted boyfriend or the Werewolf revenge squads he’d been warned about, but he didn’t stop running and hiding long enough to ask. He kept a cocked and locked Colt automatic under his pillow the whole time he was there, he said. Most folks on the station did.
I don’t know whether it’ll help write his story or if it’ll just turn out to be another excuse not to finish it, and it’s taken nearly two years in different formats already. Obviously, if I type it then it’ll all have to be typed out again on a laptop anyway, but maybe that could be part of the editing process. It hurts your back, sure. But it feels like writing. It sounds like it, too. There’s nothing remotely like it. Joan Didion would tell you the same.
A thing of beauty and a joy forever…
“To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed… The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind,” she wrote. and all of that is true. But there’s also something about the literal impact of the word, the click, the ‘ting,’ the sound of the carriage-return that alters the meaning and the arrangement too. You find yourself writing “it is” because it’s simply physically easier than levering up the Shift key.
But the ghostly imprints are still in my mind, from reading my own musings on typing which I used to try out this old machine, to the mis-hits and key-tangles and faded ribbons that described the 357th Pursuit Group’s move to Germany at the end of the war, telling how on 8th July 1945 the first group of 30 officers and 65 men left Leiston, how at midnight July 19th the main convoy of trucks left and took until 31st to get to Munich, and steam heat and running water, all of that a big improvement over the coke-stoves in tin huts they’d all been used to in a field outside Theberton.
I found the name of the old pilot I’d met and got to know in the records several times. Some of his stories fit the dates in the records, and I haven’t read all the records yet. I can see the date he got promoted, the date the group got told it wasn’t part of the 8th Air Force any more, but the 9th now. The date he got transferred out to the 14th Liaison Squadron. I can’t see the date of the incident he told me about, barrel-rolling a Mustang aircraft around a lumbering B17, then finding the B17 was carrying someone ten ranks higher than him, who went predictably ape about it, but I can see a date where I would have expected to see his name and finding it not there, which might coincide.
I miss him.