Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Susan Price: Amstrad and Beyond

At nineteen, using some of the vast profits from my second book, 'Twopence A Tub', I replaced my old cast-iron typewriter with a new, plastic one. It was baby-blue, I remember, and I could carry it in one hand. In truth it was a toy, intended for children, and I used to be asked how I could work on such a tiny thing. I never had problem with it (apart from the enraging task of changing ribbons, but that went with the territory in those days). It was an enormous relief not to have to practice weight-lifting every time I had to put it away.

I used the baby-blue for several years, but then decided to splash out on something for grown-ups. I bought a big, electric brute, but we never got on. Whenever I paused to think, it buzzed at me impatiently. I resented the buzzing. And I still had to change its ribbons.

It was about this time that a friend said to me, "Come upstairs and see my Amstrad..."

The Amstrad was an unlovely thing, but I was smitten as soon as saw how fast it printed off a page. At that time I wrote my books by hand, or pounded them out on a typewriter. The result was a heap of loose pages, full of crossings-out, rewrites, mistakes, notes to self. There would be mysterious signs - stars, arrows and loops - reminding me to hunt down the inserts written on yet other bits of paper. Before I could submit a book I had to turn this heap of jottings into a 'good copy'. It used to take me months.

I repeat, months. Just to copy out what I'd already written. Every single day, the first page I typed was so full of mistakes that it had to be redone. I would muddle the sequence of page-numbers and have to retype them. I had to estimate the word-number, which I hated almost as much as changing ribbons.

When I saw how you could skip about on the Amstrad's screen, changing words, shifting paragraphs, altering names, I was astounded. Find and replace! Spell-check! Word-count! A printer that didn't need a ribbon! I was ecstatic. And when I saw that it could print out a lengthy document in a morning, I had to have one.

But disillusionment always sets in. The first Amstrads never reminded you to save. Many a time I spent all day working on something, then switched off the machine and lost it all. I soon learned to save compulsively, every few words, a habit that's still with me.

The Amstrad printer could also be a trial. If you forgot to put the bale bar down (the bar that held the paper against the cylinder), the printer wouldn't work. It was easy to miss this small detail, and spend hours trouble-shooting, cajoling, phoning friends for help... Unlike modern computers, the Amstrad didn't tell you what was wrong, it didn't offer any hints or suggestions. The printer just sat there smugly, refusing to do the one thing it was made to do. It several times induced in me the kind of rage the early Plantagenet kings were famous for, when they rolled on the floor, foamed at the mouth and bit the rushes. If I'd had rushes, I would have bitten them.

You were also supposed to be able to leave the printer to do its thing, while you went and did something else, but in fact, you dared not leave it for a moment, because it used tractor-feed paper, and it always jammed. Even when you stood over it, watching, it frequently got out of sync and printed over the page perforations. Then there was nothing to do but stop the printer and start again.

Despite all this, I never, ever hankered to return to the typewriter, or pen and ink. I get quite irritated with writers who claim they could never sully their inspired creativity with vulgar technology, and that computers encourage sloppy writing. I think that's quite wrong. I think they encourage fierce editing rewriting and cutting, because they make it so easy. You don't have to retype and renumber pages because you decided to cut one out.

The solution to the Amstrad's drawbacks was to get a better computer, which I did, as soon as I could afford it. I'm writing this post on a laptop (much to my cat's indignation. He's sitting by me, glaring at the laptop, which is in his place. Occasionally he tries to climb on top of it). This light little laptop will check spelling, count words, print in different fonts and sizes, allow me to consult a thesaurus, and point out grammatical mistakes (though I never take any notice).

It connects to the internet, so if I need to check some fact, I log-on and Google. I can plug it into a printer which not only prints much faster than the Amstrad ever did, and never jams, but also faxes, scans and photo-copies. I don't even need to print very often, as I can submit my work by e-mail.

I can play music from the laptop's memory and load up my zen-stone for the gym. I can upload photographs from my digital camera and, minutes later, edit them on screen, and upload them to this blog. I can update my Tom-Tom, which guides me to schools on visits, and brings me home again.

I have more equipment and computer power on my lap than NASA used to put men on the moon. And I shall never have to change a typewriter ribbon again.

I remember my first, cast-iron typewriter with affection, but go back to it? You couldn't pay me enough.


Anonymous said...

This was so fun to read. I started out writing stories by hand and then typing them over on a cast-iron typewriter, but there's no way I'd ever, ever abandon the computer to go back to those days, either!

But it's interesting to watch my 15-year-old write stories. Her gadget-loving dad has found for her an old manual typewriter, a 1980s word processer, and an electronic notepad; she also has a laptop she inherited from her aunt, not to mention numerous paper journals and notebooks.... and she writes obsessively in and with all these tools. I think sometimes she chooses them depending on her mood. One day she's in the mood for the typewriter; another day she's hunched over a paper journal, and another she's tapping something out on the computer.

Lucy Coats said...

Oh the memories--the memories of the tractor feed paper, and carefully tearing off the bits at the edges to make a neat m/s. I too would never go back to the days of writing in pencil--always pencil. My mother (also a writer) still hankers after her Amstrad though.... I hated the bloody things, and the special language you had to learn. My own blissful revelation was when I switched to one of the very first Apple Macs.

Anonymous said...

I went from an Amstrad (which I liked) to a Mac, which was even better. Then I had to suffer years with various PCs, until the computer expert in the family saw fit to revert back to a Mac. Bliss. Now I have my own baby Macbook, and the relief of not having to share with anyone...