Aged 18, I decided that the first step on the way to becoming a writer was to learn how to type. So I did a secretarial course at Plymouth Technical College. We sat in rows in front of the epitome of a perfect secretary (grey-haired, retired and precise) and clacked away on tall and ancient typewriters. Each machine resembled the auditorium of a theatre in miniature: 1234567890-+~ in the Upper Circle, down the rows to \zxcvbnm,./ in the front row of the stalls. Clickety clack clack, at increasing speeds over the months, punctuated with the satisfying ding! at the end of lines, signalling the need to push the lever on the left to make the paper roll up a notch on the cylinder. Who remembers this?
Typing was easier to learn than shorthand. But the puzzles of shorthand held one compensation. There were wonderful letters in the book of exercises: polite but pained requests for attention, addressed to clearly recalcitrant Dear Sirs, referring to orders not fulfilled. The writers awaited the dear sirs’ earliest attention. I found that, even when I couldn’t read my squiggles, I was able to compose a letter from memory. This served me well when I was taking dictation from one of the editors of Thames and Hudson. “Did I really say that?” he would sometimes ask, with a quizzical eyebrow raised.
Unlike shorthand which I’ve never since used, the ability to type fast without looking at the keyboard has stood me in good stead. Even if I don’t need to glance at it, I find a keyboard is still vital for getting words from the brain onto paper via a screen. I cannot abide the virtual variety on smartphones and tablets. I watch with amazed admiration people who can hold a phone and pump out messages, using their thumbs like manic grasshoppers.
Although I’m not at home with phones, I’ve kept up with the developments in typing. In the mid 1980s I invested in something called a Screenwriter, which was a Rolls Royce of a typewriter which had basic word-processing capability built in. I found it useful for writing the text of the book Peter and I did together about the landscapes, flora and fauna of Greece.
Then came the Amstrad. In my memory it sits on my desk in our house in Papingo, north western Greece, looking like a squat, extra-terrestrial creature, blinking green messages from a screen the colour of butterscotch. During the 1990s, my writing tools became more sophisticated as computers developed. I’ve written on a series of desktop computers, as well as laptops taken to New Zealand and France.
My present desktop I’ve had for many years. Its box – tall and black – hums beside me, holding a labyrinthine memory of all my wild goose-chases. It’s recorded everything I’ve written since the 21st century began. I rarely bother to back things up. I print out any work I would hate to lose. Now I’m experimenting with a new way of writing in parallel with the old way. Each time I complete a section I print it out. I also copy and paste that section onto a page on my website. The text of my present book – The Garden of The Grandfather – is mounting up on a Page of that name on my site. As yet, I’m not sure how this will work out.
I can see the dangers. It is a first draft, so perhaps it shouldn’t be shared publicly like this. (But who’s going to read it? Just a few special friends. I don’t expect my website to be found and followed by many). Another risk is that I can never run my eye over anything I’ve written without wanting to make it better. That means that my website copy may not be exactly the same as the one on my computer or the one I’ve printed out. All this could lead to an unholy mess. But never mind – all can be corrected when I’ve arrived at the end of this piece of writing. Whether it will ever be traditionally published is a question with a large question mark. I’ve been writing too long to be really bothered about that. What I have in mind as an end product is something interactive – something that can be played, read, listened to, looked at. A new kind of book. That is my new experiment.