Brother, can you spare another sheet?

In the mid 1980s I started to become what one might call ‘politically aware’. I can’t say I was ever politically active as I never took part in a protest. In fact, I have made it a point to never join any political organisation (despite being tempted now and again).

As for voting, I vote based on policies – not like I am supporting a football team (Arsenal in case you’re wondering).

Still, despite being a 20-something nightclub DJ, I had lots to say and those in charge were going to hear it. 

Watching me scribble ‘letters to the editor’ on issues that I felt needed the attention of the masses, badger local MPs with pen and ink, and any corporation you care to mention to complain about this, that, and the other, my wife took pity on me. A surprise Christmas gift of a portable typewriter changed my life.

I didn’t get off to a good start as on day one the machine fell out of its black plastic case and bounced down the stairs of our home to crash in the hallway (just missing the cat). The pen may be mightier than the sword, but typewriters can kill.

Thankfully, the local Brother dealer fixed a few bent keys, made it as good as new and, with a fresh new dictionary on my desk – which was to become well-thumbed very quickly – I was free to stick my nose in where it wasn’t wanted and help put the world to rights.

First there were letters to all and sundry – my daily deadline being the 5pm collection from the nearest red post box. Then my CV noting all my achievements as a nightclub DJ (I was so very proud), and then short stories. 

Later, buoyed by watching the TV show Lou Grant, came music reviews faxed to the editor of the Southend Evening Echo (Essex, UK) – which were heavily subbed and printed a week later.

“Please note how we are correcting your copy so that you may learn,” wrote the editor. 

I never learned. 

House style (‘whatever that is’ I thought), basic grammar, and sentence construction came a distant second to what I wanted to say. Night classes in O Level English helped later on, but at the start, what I had to say was far too important to pay any mind to such niceties.

This week, about 30 years after selling my life-changing typewriter to a budding author (having moved on to a new-fangled Amstrad word processor), I began pining for it.

I decided that I am missing not only the clatter of keys on the roller, the frequent rips as I push the carriage back at the end of a run, but – perhaps more importantly – the discipline that writing on a typewriter instills.

There is no delete, copy & paste, alternative fonts, or spellcheck with a manual typewriter. Once written, the words and any mistakes remain on the paper. What you’ve got is what you have and there is no hiding it.  It’s brutal in its honesty.

Tipp-ex to white-out errors and typos can help, but one quickly learns to type with care, thought, and accuracy so as to stop having to stop.

As a young news reporter, I’d basically sit at my desk, read my interview notes, mull the story over, and write the opening pars in my head. I certainly wouldn’t start typing until I knew where I was going with the story. There’s only so many sheets of paper that can go in the bin with one misspelled word on them.

Once ready, it was full speed ahead and I’d type like a mad-man possessed, stopping only to check my dictionary to see if ‘necessary’ had two Cs and one S or two S’s and one C.

By the time my cherished old Brother 100 left my home it had seen many, many, ribbons. Its carriage return lever was tarnished, and its black coloured roller (platen) was pitted with thousands of random letters – echos of years of bashing out turgid copy, and – if I say so myself – rare accomplishments (including the resignation letter to my nightclub boss as I announced my new career).

“I’ll keep a spot open for you…”


Steve Hart is a writer and podcaster.

One For Sorrow

16 August, 2023