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A Kind Of Music: Kat Lister On The Olivetti Typewriter
Kat Lister , May 17th, 2021 09:49

In our monthly subscribers only essay, Kat Lister discusses how finishing her first book and a year of being locked down alone steered her towards buying a typewriter, only to discover these machines are going through something of a reversal of fortunes. Homepage photograph: the author's portrait of her own Olivetti Valentine

Kat Lister

When I was a child I would often fall asleep to the sound of metal typebars hammering on paper. The clack clack clack of words in motion. A cacophony of heavy blows and jabs that ricocheted from wall to wall like linguistic bullets; scudding and darting, banging and crashing in the room next door to mine. Space was scarce in the small terrace house where my family and I lived in the late 1980s. Consequently, my father's writing bureau was lodged in the only quiet nook he could find: the postage stamp-sized workstation was sandwiched tightly between the far corner of my parents' bedroom and the wooden frame of their bed.

Night after night, my father's thoughts marched and danced to the will of his fingertips. Syncopated rhythms were summoned using the resistive keys of his moss-green Olivetti and released high into the air. Vibrations carried through the brickwork, trembling the plasterwork between us as I lay on my mattress, awaiting sleep. The machine-gun rat-a-tat-tat soothed me underneath my duvet. When I closed my eyes, his assertive drummings pitter-pattered over me like rain against a window pane. It may sound strange, contradictory even, but when I recall the sound of my father's typewriter it isn't a disruptive clatter that I hear, but a reassuring kind of music. The kind of music that can only emerge from a state of complete immersion. An attentiveness that was, I hazard to guess, fuelled by an awareness of how precious time and space is when you don't have much of either, and you're longing to create.

Several decades after my father got rid of his Olivetti, I began searching for it again. My decision to buy a typewriter of my own, a few months ago, came at a time when I was increasingly questioning not only the shape of my words, but the strength of them; the weight of them; the value of the things I wanted to say. On the day that I Googled "Olivettis for sale", I had written a tweet, posted it, and deleted it ten minutes later. I was doing this more often – "this" being self-erasure – and I was convinced that others could see it happening in real time. After nearly a year living alone in lockdown with very little tangible contact, doubt was starting to creep in around the kitchen table where I typed. Hesitation set in, too. Hesitation in voicing my thoughts, hesitation in sharing them. "What are you trying to say?" and "Why are you the person to say it?" were questions that boomeranged as I hovered over my keyboard, refreshing my browser. The delete key was used more and more frequently.

I had just finished writing my first book: a memoir exploring grief and widowhood after the death of my husband in 2018, an accomplishment that should have bolstered me a little. But the writing of something so permanent – 70,000 words destined to be ink on a page – only seemed to have underscored my digital anxiety. Which is, at its heart, an uneasiness with the dueling impermanence and omnipresence of the internet – and, in particular, social media. The way that it creeps and seeps into your day, hour by hour, minute by minute, until you're up to your neck in chatter and debate, slopping around in a sea of voices, none of which are your own. This is a different kind of noise altogether from the hammering of my father's typewriter, and it isn't always constructive. At least, it hasn't felt constructive to me since I completed my book, and was flung back into a fast-moving journalistic world where everyone has something to say. A world where a 280-character tweet often feels like an arbitrary shout from the middle of a noisy construction site, where you're struggling to hear yourself think.

It is interesting to me that the first typewriters were created for blind people, as if by using one of these rattling contraptions, a person's sight might be partially restored. Although the concept of a writing machine can be dated back to the early 18th century in England, the first definitive typewriter that we know of arrived over a century later, in Italy, in around 1808. "Inventor of the typewriter" is an accolade we can bestow upon Pellegrino Turri not because we know much about the machine itself, but because we've been left with the letters that it typed, like trace fossils on carbon paper.

Turri invented the machine for his blind friend, Countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzano, who typed letters we can still read today. "It's proof that it worked," Professor Richard Polt tells me from his study in Cincinnati, Ohio. Type "history" and "typewriter" – like I did a few weeks ago – into Google, and the first name that pops up is Polt's. A professor of philosophy at Xavier University, he is also what you would call a typewriter enthusiast, a vague term for an expert who, when he isn't teaching philosophy classes and writing books about the German existentialist Martin Heidegger, edits his own website called The Classic Typewriter Page. He even published a book, The Typewriter Revolution: A Typist's Companion For The 21st Century, in 2015.

On the day of our Zoom call, I asked Polt to give me a guided webcam tour of his home office: not an inconspicuous desk rammed into the corner of a bedroom, like my father's, but a room of his own, crammed full of books and typewriters. "Around 80," he answers when asked how many there are. Black ones, turquoise ones, a hefty German one called a Voss. A nickel-plated LC Smith that was sold in Mexico. A pop of red on the floor and a splash of sky blue on a nearby table. Some are his, some are waiting for others. Polt does repair work to raise funds for a local organisation, he explains, as he swivels his laptop around to show me his prized possession, his very first typewriter. His father bought him this 1937 noiseless Remington when he was 12 years old.

Looking around this cabinet of curiosities isn't so different from journeying through the anarchic history of the typewriter in all its shapeshifting forms. It's a chaotic timeline of outlines and colours and sizes, from studded golf balls and pocket watches to ivory keyboards that look like miniature pianos. In 1861, a Brazilian priest called Father Francisco João de Azevedo made his own typewriter using the only materials he could find: wood and knives. In the early 20th century, tiny Bennett typewriters with the smallest mechanical keyboards ever made, were designed to be carried in an overcoat pocket. Although the vintage typewriter world is now dominated by recognisable manufacturers such as Remington, Olivetti, Imperial and Hermes, the Hansen Writing Ball was the world's first commercially produced typewriter, designed in Denmark in 1865, and affectionately nicknamed "the pincushion machine" due to the 52 brass buttons jutting out from its dome, like a proud, golden hedgehog.

Like me, Polt grew up with the sound of his father's typewriter chattering through the house. They're musical instruments, he tells me. "It's a limited thing with unlimited possibilities." The German cultural studies scholar Friedrich Kittler called the typewriter "a discursive machine gun" – which goes some way to encapsulating the volume and tone of its sound, but not quite the rhythm and cadence. Not quite the musicality. When you thrust your fingers down on the keys you are giving yourself up to the possibility that you could nail it first time, but you could equally make an irreversible mistake – and the sound that those keys make alters itself to the inflection of this confidence or uncertainty accordingly.

"I'm getting used to her and she's getting used to me," I tell Polt. The "she" I'm referring to is my 1969 Olivetti Valentine, a lip-smacking red kiss of a machine with curvaceous lines and a draping of ABS plastic that gives it the look of a shiny Aston Martin, gleaming and glistening on my kitchen table, waiting for action. Designed by the Italian architect Ettore Sottsass, this pop art-inspired "anti-machine machine" soon took on cult status, and its roll call of famous owners reads like a who's who of renegades. It didn't take me long to find a photograph of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor boarding a flight at Heathrow in 1970 with Burton carrying his portable Valentine like essential hand luggage. In 2016, ten months after his death, David Bowie's sold at a Sotheby's auction for £45,000 You can also find one in the permanent collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art. The Olivetti is a special machine, Walid tells me. Walid is the "Mr" of Mr & Mrs Vintage Typewriters: a married couple who restore and sell antique typewriters in the UK. "You know that Leonard Cohen used a pistachio Lettera 22?" he asks me as we discuss the enduring appeal of this Italian brand, founded by an electrical engineer called Camillo Olivetti in the early 20th century. If you hold a Lettera 32 or a Lettera 22, they're around 5 kilograms, Walid explains – heavy by modern standards, but back then, it was decidedly featherweight, and so attracted restless writers on the move. Sylvia Plath's third typewriter was an Olivetti Lettera 22. Marguerite Duras owned an earlier Olivetti MP1 (Modello Portatile 1), although the author Dorothy Gallagher rejected hers. "More toy than tool," she wrote. Too flimsy. Not enough heft. She traded it in for a weighty Royal made of black-enamelled steel.

Olivetti and the Royal Typewriting Company aren't the only manufacturers to have attracted authors over the decades. Joan Didion took a shine to the Hermes Ambassador in the 60s. And Maya Angelou used a white Adler Meteor 12 in the 80s. Ernest Hemingway used to type on a portable Halda, Walid tells me – a Swedish brand often overshadowed by the Royal Typewriter Company when Hemingway's writing machines are discussed. Hemingway fans pay a lot for a Halda, Walid tells me. Cohen disciples pay substantial amounts for pistachio Letteras, too. "It's a wild world," he says breathlessly.

The world of Walid and his wife JouJou has become decidedly wilder over the past 12 months. There has been a significant rise in sales since April 2020, just after the UK's first national lockdown began. Around a 30% increase, Walid estimates. Christmas was a particularly busy time for them. Parents were buying presents for their children. Older clients were rediscovering the typewriters of their youth. Although the majority of Walid and JouJou's customers buy their restored machines to use, there are still those who invest in particular typewriters simply for display purposes. They have a client in Los Angeles – one of many, I'm told – whose main motivation is the machine's visual appeal. He loves bright colours, Walid says.

These machines were originally snapped up by storytellers on a deadline and now they are being procured by treasure-hunters seeking folklore and myth beneath the outer casing. Unashamed romantics who consider the typewriter to be a kind of portal to these stories, a talisman to the past. I guess I'm one of them. I'm looking for magic between the keys again. On the day that my Olivetti arrived, I put my iPhone on silent, hid it in a drawer, and fed a blank sheet of A4 paper into the roller. It crunched like gravel with every rotation, round and round. Over the last few months, I've been craving distance and space. A different kind of connection, away from my screen. Not an infinite expanse of tabs and windows jolting me with alerts and breaking news and trending hashtags, but a single page with a clear beginning and a definite end.

Typewriters are just one way that people are seeking something real and durable in the digital age, Polt tells me – and the coronavirus pandemic has only intensified this existential quest. "We have lots of online connections but they're all very superficial," he says. "We're constantly being distracted and watched, so there isn't real privacy or self-awareness of the introspective kind." Polt first became aware of this digital pushback in 2010. He'd heard about certain individuals who were blogging with their typewriters, a pastime called "typecasting", where words are typed on paper and then scanned online. Not exactly a rejection of the thing it claims to be unplugging from, but something that Polt still calls "a rebelliousness against the digital age". Unedited text is celebrated by typecasters. Typos and errors become part of the work. Mistakes aren't whitewashed over. As the novelist Hilary Mantel wrote in her memoir Giving Up The Ghost, "show your workings". And these typecasters are – they're revealing their sums, even if the published outcome isn't perfect.

"One of my favourite things about using a typewriter is that it builds in mistakes," Brian Sonia-Wallace muses over a Zoom call from his home in West Hollywood. Sonia-Wallace is a self-confessed "rent poet" who writes on-the-spot poetry using his teal Olivetti, travelling around America, typing spontaneously for strangers. It isn't unusual for him to write up to 40 poems at any given time with a queue of people waiting for a signifying verse or two. In 2017, he became the new writer-in-residence for the Mall Of America, a sprawling four-level shopping complex in Minnesota, a place that Sonia-Wallace calls a mall of "intention", because consumers are also pilgrims, because everyone is looking for something there.

Kat and her dad

For Sonia-Wallace, typewriting is like theatre. "If you're sitting on the street and you've got a notebook, that's a social cue for people to leave you alone. But if you've got a typewriter, it's an invitation for people to come up and talk to you." He tours a lot in the midwest – a part of the country he says is "pretty famous for being a little at arm's length". Not so with Sonia-Wallace behind the typewriter – children are enchanted by it and adults want to tell him about the machines they grew up with. "I sometimes think of what it means for poetry to be a service industry – that's a part of my practice," he says. "This is not an attempt to create the next great American poem." More often than not a person simply wants a lyric about their cat.

"When someone is standing and watching me, there isn't the space to sit and think and second-guess myself," he says. "Sometimes the carriage skips and there will be spaces between the letters, or letters type on top of each other." In the same way that the word “computer” used to be a term for the human doing the computing – a woman with a calculator, for instance – the word “typewriter” once referred to the person who sat at the machine. For Sonia-Wallace, this symbiosis between typist and typewriter is what draws him to his Olivetti. "I love this idea that a typewriter is a person. That you kind of become a typewriter when you are sitting at one. That there is a blurring of lines between inanimate and animate, fleshy and mechanical, permanent and ephemeral."

Cynics may say that it's all very well dipping your toes into the water when you've got a MacBook Air to fall back on. That it's easy to find the poetry in a vintage machine that you aren't reliant upon to be a functioning tool day after day. I get the impression that my dad is one of them. When I told him about my latest acquisition, he seemed bemused by it. And he certainly didn't share my whimsy for the past. "It looked like a mess," he replied rather bluntly when I asked about his typewritten radio plays. "The only sentimentality I have is for the clack clack clack, because you knew you were working."

According to Tony Allan's illustrated book, The Typewriter: The History, The Machines, The Writers, almost all typing took a lot of finger-muscle until IBM created the 1961 Selectric – the most successful electric typewriter in history. At the close of its first year, it had orders for 80,000. By 1986, more than 13 million had been sold. Although my memories of my dad's Olivetti are rooted in the late 1980s, this decade would come to mark the decline and fall of the typewriter. In 1991, IBM sold its typewriter division. A year earlier, Tim Berners-Lee developed HyperText Markup Language (HTML), paving the way for the World Wide Web. In 1998, the colour-popping iMac arrived.

A few days before my conversation with Sonia-Wallace, I came across a prophetic dispatch written by the American critic Hal Crowther in 1992. It was the last essay he would write on his ageing and "ugly" green Smith Corona: a sentimental machine that was bought for him by his wife for $10 at a garage sale. He held on to it for as long as he could before the factories shut down and the repair shops went out of business. Like this one, Crowther's essay is a love letter to his typewriter, only his was written on the brink of a brave new world that he was reluctant to join – and which we are all now citizens of. "I'm sure there were defenders of raw meat and dark caves who lodged similar objections against the discovery of fire," he quips – although beneath his playfulness, Crowther demonstrates an extraordinary prescience.

"Eventually there will be more publishers than readers," he wrote about the burgeoning computerised age he now found himself in, "better than a one-to-one ratio between the sources of information and its consumers. Besides dilation and a loss of focus, there will be a tendency for consumers to eat what they like and ignore what's nourishing."

I scribbled this paragraph in my notepad and kept on reading. Typewriters might not make a comeback, he proffered. "But triumphant surfers should be warned that it doesn't matter what share of the information market they control, or how many billion units of information they can summon at the touch of the key marked ‘Enter'. They'll be judged by the quality of what they produce and preserve."

“Dilation” and “nourishment” are sparring words in a world where “doomscrolling” and “FOMO” have become such prevalent terms. I tell Sonia-Wallace that we differ slightly in our approach to our machines. I bought an Olivetti to disconnect from an audience. He bought his to bring himself closer to one. "I think, for a lot of us, what has been held up as success in our generation is that you have a bunch of people passively watching you on social media," he replies. "And actually, it's not about a thousand people reading your thing. It's about a connection with one person. It's about the quality of attention rather than the quantity."

I've been hiding my iPhone in a drawer because the loss of focus that Crowther predicted is a very tangible reality for me. I bought myself a portable typewriter because the social isolation of lockdown has left me pining for physicality and movement, and when I hear the clack and clunk of those keys it reminds me that I am a portable entity, too. My thoughts, not my feet, are keeping me moving these days.

Last weekend, I plonked my Valentine on to the kitchen table and began to type. Faint words at first. So faint, in fact, that I questioned whether I'd correctly replaced the worn ribbon spools. It was only after I'd written a few more lines that I realised that the ghostly indentations were due to my lack of pluck. And so I punched harder on to the plastic squares, bashing downwards and downwards, until dove grey turned to ebony, and my finger pads pulsated like they’d been pressed onto a guitar fretboard. Thirty minutes later, my forearms were really working, I'd gained momentum, and even when the lower band of my red-and-black striped ribbon accidentally sucker-punched flecks of fire at the tips of my charcoal-smudged type, I smiled and kept going.

"People can develop symbiotic relationships with their machines – especially ones that are driven by their muscles," Polt says. The connection between a cyclist and their bicycle is the same. "It becomes a part of your own body, and what happens in your interaction with it is special because of that." Sure, this may sound fanciful, but isn't that the romance some of us are still seeking in these clunky instruments? I defy anyone to sit down at a typewriter and not feel the invigorating pull of their tendons as language dances ahead and the metal fists thwack against the page.

The novelist and playwright JB Priestley described typing as "a muscular activity". Dorothy Gallagher called the typewriter "the barest intervention between hand and paper" because "like handiwork, it forgives no mistakes". In a 2020 collection of essays, Stories I Forgot To Tell You, Gallagher dedicated one to the ivory-coloured keys, steel rims and ornate gilt lettering of her beloved Royal typewriter – "Royal in name, Royal in elegance". She may never return to the typewriter, she wrote:

"But if an amputee still feels the missing limb, I still hear the clack of typewriter keys, the ching of the bell at the end of a [line], feel the satisfying strike of my fingers on the keys, the reach of my arm to return the carriage…"

I thought about these words the last time I typed at my typewriter and, as I did so, memories of my father echoed from wall to wall. My faint lines still might whisper, I am uncertain. But at the end of this Olivetti, I'm beginning to hear a roar.

Kat Lister's first book The Elements: A Widowhood is published by Icon in September