In my mind, it would be dark. And musty. The sounds outside muted as the door swung behind you. Once eyes adjusted to the dark, one would become aware of tables and shelves hosting irregular ranks of typewriters, not mustered to attention but cluttered and jumbled, tilted at angles and piled high. Towards the back, bisected carcasses, frames and rollers, disassembled ingenuity.
As Mel and James described this fantastical shop, lurking in the East of Singapore, images cascaded into my mind: a secret treasure, the joy of discovery. James described layers of meaning: glimpses further back into the shop for as yet undiscovered territories. To Mel, aficionado and collector, clearly more a pilgrimage than shopping trip.
There’s something visceral about typing on an old typewriter: an inherently outdated technology, nonetheless, for those of us old enough to remember, the sounds and sensations, the clacks and dings, the rattling of the carriage as you swept your hand to the left are embedded deeply in our subconscious.
Whilst we worry about the permanence of our digital selves, that permanence was written in ink on these old machines. Literally: James recounted discovering traces of a letter from the twenties inked onto a roller when the paper had run clear but the typist was swept along in the glorious momentum of writing.
I remember hearing that the CIA developed skills in reconstructing typing from discarded ribbons, like reading some kind of negative image and juggling the letters back into order.
Deletion consisted of XXXing the word out. You could still read through to the older version with the transparency of a Wiki, but you knew the bars were meant to keep you out.
Typing, today an iterative and fluid process used to be much more linear: i remember the sensation of discovering this particular joy when i went digital. The sensation of liberty to dot up and down within a text with ease as i sat at my old Dell 386 in the second year of University. A new found freedom.
Today though, manual typing has acquired a sense of craft, of retro value. It’s somehow more grounded: if you haven’t felt the sensation as the arms triggered by two keys wedge together at the typeface, you have’t really experienced the essence of what it is to type. Fingers tentatively struggling to free the recalcitrant letters F and J as they lie locked in a metallic embrace.
Whilst some people could type at machine gun speed, maybe there was generally a more reflective feel to typing back then: a more considered activity. Or maybe that’s the thin sheen of rose tinted romanticism clouding my memory.
Today, original typewriters are historical artefacts: many dismembered to make jewellery from their pearlescent keys. Individual letters divorced from their alphabetical cousins and mounted on rings or chains.
I declined the kind offer to join them on their quest: for me, the mental image must surely suffice. Perhaps reality would displace my memories. Perhaps to reminisce is reflection enough. And anyway, it would never fit in my luggage when i fly home tomorrow.
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