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Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Travels With My (Olivetti Lettera 32 Portable) Typewriter (I)

Sick of the sight of it? Not quite. But sitting alone and seeing my byline flash up on the TV screen yet again, in a repeat episode of the ABC's Australian Story "All the Right Moves", got me wondering whether I'd made any right moves in my life. One slightly soothing positive did eventually came to mind: that having elected to be a "Fan With Typewriter" at an early age, I'd certainly been given the opportunity to see plenty of the world. The reminders were in the datelines, the many destinations from which my byline had appeared during 45 years of sports writing in various parts of the globe.
Crisscrossing the atlas, by air and by sea: These lines give an idea of the extent of my travels with a typewriter, from home bases in Australia, England and Ireland. The 37 different countries to which I have travelled may represent just 14 per cent of the world's nations, yet the distances were often quite vast. Sometimes it involved flying a polar route, and usually through many time zones. But no matter how far I travelled, or where I went, my Olivetti Lettera 32 portable typewriter never once let me down.
Pages from passports;
some samples of my travel documents.
Back in 2000, writing from the Sydney Olympic Games for the Fairfax chain of newspapers was not all that far from my home base of Canberra. Nonetheless, there had been many times when "From Robert Messenger in Sydney" had appeared from as far away as 10,752 miles (17,203km). And when it did, it appeared atop of copy typed on an Olivetti Lettera 32 portable and filed by telephone to a copytaker - in his or her case, usually using a Remington International standard typewriter in some distant sound booth on the outer rim of a noisy newsroom. Sometimes, as in the case of a commissioned feature on Olympic Games walking champion Norman Read, typewritten in a hotel room in Palmerston North in New Zealand in 1976 for the London Sunday Times magazine, it might be more than a 1500 words long. Tracking down the reclusive English-born gold medallist turned out to be the easy part.
Toward the end of this year, 2015, I will mark half a century of travels with a typewriter. I had actually been given my first portable typewriter, an Underwood Universal, back in 1957, but it wasn't until I started a 47-year career in print newspapers, in 1965, that my travels with a typewriter began in earnest. Short distances at first, perhaps, but pretty soon I was moving about the country by train and plane, with my Olivetti Lettera 32 always in tow.
From the beginning, this typewriter never left my side. If I was covering local government or council or board meetings, or any other event for that matter, the Olivetti always went with me, and returned with me to the office early the next morning. I had good reason to appreciate its weight and compactness - my colleagues used Imperials or Brothers, which never seemed to me to be as convenient to travel with as my Olivetti. Even out of its slimline case, it could be carried about with ease and complete safety with just the three middle fingers of one hand holding the solid metal bar under the ribbon spools cover. What's more, my first editor, Russell Nelson, had used an Olivetti Lettera 22 since he had covered the Melbourne Olympic Games for Reuters in 1956, so that was one good enough reason for me to chose an Olivetti portable.
While Russell Nelson's appointment from a small country newspaper to cover an Olympic Games for Reuters was undoubtedly an inspiration, as I look back on it now, the thought of travelling the world with a typewriter never really crossed my mind. The idea was perhaps beyond my full comprehension in 1965. All I knew was that I wanted to be a sports writer, and I had held on to that dream from even before the age of 10. From 1957 on, I was the proverbial "sports fan with a typewriter". What that would come to entail in terms of travel, the opportunities to work in other countries, to see some of the greatest sporting events and performers the world had to offer, just didn't enter my head. If it had, I might not have been as keen as I was to so heedlessly forge ahead down my chosen path. But, then, as a 17-year-old, one doesn't give much consideration to the impact of career choices on one's ability to hold together relationships and families - or even to put a permanent roof over one's head for that matter. Half a century on, and it's a case of "Too late, he cried!" I know now that sports writing, and its associated travel demands, are simply not compatible with steady, long-term partnerships.
Instead of being like most of my old schoolmates, with a home and a steady home life, one marriage which has survived 30 odd years or more, and grandchildren at my knee, I am surrounded by typewriters and the souvenirs of writing sport in lands far and wide. Below are just a few of the awards and medals, the press passes, programmes and plaques. There are even notebooks that date from as far back as 1978. Still, I do have to say in my defence that each and every item here has a story or two to tell:
My start came in an isolated small town in an isolated small country - it sometimes felt like the end of the earth. We didn't even have a proper airport. But it did have its own abundantly-stocked typewriter store, Jim McNulty's on Albert Street, and across the road from McNulty's an extensive public library. It also had back then two daily newspapers, and a radio station staffed by people well able to open one's mind to notions of creativity. I grew up beside the Tasman Sea, and my first job was in the small evening newspaper beside the railway station. The larger world did beckon, in all directions.  And I had the enormous good fortune to live among endlessly fascinating and worldly townspeople. The whole district was alive with people rich in character, diverse in background and abounding in good stories. As for my career path, I simply could not have wished to be surrounded by a better team of mentors - and I mean anywhere in the English-speaking world. Apart from Russell Nelson as editor, the much-travelled author Frank Neate was cable copy sub-editor and the gifted if rather erratic chief reporter was Jack Turner. Other reporters, such as Scott Jones and Kevin Bell, were also well-travelled, full of intriguing stories of the world at large, and Ivan Agnew was to become another noted author.
These guys didn't just take the arrival of a fresh-faced newcomer in their stride. As they pranced to their desks and their portable typewriters, eager to get on with writing their stories, they simply nudged me at the deep end, and left me there to sink or to swim. Little did I realise it at the time, but this was precisely how they'd started their own careers. As it turned out, I swam, but it was almost two years before they let me that I wasn't treading water.
To be continued ...


Richard P said...

Quite an impressive trail you and your Olivetti have left.

Bill M said...

What a great career! It must be a feeling of special accomplishment to see your old by line in a network TV program.

shordzi said...


DonN said...

Ben Johnson's 100 certainly ranks as one of the most exciting moments in sports that I can recall. Even more exciting than typing.. said...

I enjoyed everything except being reminded about the 1979 FA Cup final. I was watching it in the pub at the time (me and about twenty other Man Utd fans)!

M. James said...

What an interesting road you have travelled, this collection of reminisces, once fully transcribed here, will be a beautiful keepsake for your sons and their families one day. Keep it up. It's awesome.