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Thursday, 17 June 2021

Corona Portable Typewriters of the Chinese Communist Martyr and the British-Mexican Surrealist and Feminist

Two typewriters, both Corona portables, have gone on display in museums in the past few weeks – one, a Groton-made Corona 3 folding, is in Shanghai, and the other, a West Bromwich-made plastic fantastic SCM, is in Mexico City. They belonged to two very different people, though both did much for major 20th Century movements – Communism and Feminism.

The Corona in Shanghai forms part of the centenary-marking Memorial for the Site of the First National Congress of the Communist Party of China. It was, the organisers say, the typewriter used by Li Dazhao, or Li Ta-chao (1889-1927), to type up party documents.  Li was a Chinese intellectual who took part in the New Cultural Movement in the early years of the Republic of China, established in 1912, and co-founded the Communist Party of China with Chen Duxiu in July 1921. However, seven years ago a later model Corona portable (a four-bank) was on display at the Li Dazhao Memorial Hall in Li’s birthplace, Laoting County, Hebei Province.

A film clip of Li.
After more than 18 months of renovation and expansion, the Shanghai memorial, situated in the trendy tourist enclave of Xintiandi, reopened to the public two weeks ago. The memorial includes a 3000 square metre exhibition hall displaying 1168 historical relics, photos and diagrams that give insights into the history of the founding of the CCP. The building is the site of the First National Congress of the CCP, which Li himself was unable to attend. He has, however, been described as the CPC's “first true leader and its greatest martyr”.  

From 1914-16, Li attended Waseda University in Tokyo, but was expelled for taking part in the campaign against Yuan Shikai's imperial endeavors. Li returned to China in 1916 and served as a newspaper editor in Beijing. In January 1918 he was hired by Cai Yuanpei to be the head of the library at Beijing University and became a professor of politics, history and economics there. He influenced students during the May Fourth Movement 1919, including Mao Zedong, who worked as an assistant in the library's reading room. Under the leadership of Li and Chen, the CPC developed a close relationship with the Soviet controlled Comintern. Directed by the Comintern, Li and Chen joined the Nationalist Party (Kuomintangin, or KMT) in 1922 and forged a close tie with Sun Yat-sen to form a United Front. Li was elected to the KMT's Central Executive Committee in Guangzhou in January 1924 and visited the Soviet Union late that year. In 1926 he was forced to take refuge in the Soviet Embassy in Beijing. When the United Front collapsed in 1927, Zhang Zuolin of the Fengtian clique ordered a raid on the embassy. Zhang had Li and 19 others, both Nationalists and Communists, executed by strangulation on April 28, 1927.

Leonore Carrington and Max Ernst in a photograph by Lee Miller.

The much later model Corona portable went on display at the end of last month in the former home and studio of British-born Mexican artist, surrealist painter and novelist Leonora Carrington (1917-2011). Carrington lived there for more than 60 years. It is now open to the public as a museum, to show some of her works and possessions. More than 8600 objects have been catalogued. Pablo Weisz Carrington, son of the late painter and sculptor, sold the house to the Autonomous Metropolitan University on condition it be converted into a museum. The museum in Colonia Roma has on display 45 sculptures and other works and possessions, including the typewriter, donated by Pablo.

Mary Leonora Carrington was born at Westwood House, Clayton Green, Chorley, Lancashire, England, the daughter of a wealthy textile manufacturer. Educated by governesses, tutors and nuns, she was expelled from two schools for her rebellious behaviour. Her family sent her to Florence, where she attended Mrs Penrose's Academy of Art. In 1935, she attended the Chelsea School of Art in London for one year, and with the help of her father's friend Serge Chermayeff, she was able to transfer to the Ozenfant Academy of Fine Arts established by the French modernist Amédée Ozenfant in London.

In 1936 Carrington saw the work of the German artist Max Ernst at the International Surrealist Exhibition in London and was attracted to Ernst before she even met him. They met at a party in London in 1937. The artists bonded and returned together to Paris, where Ernst promptly separated from his wife. In 1938 they left Paris and settled in Saint Martin d'Ardèche in southern France. The couple collaborated and supported each other's artistic development. Soon after the Nazis invaded France, Ernst was arrested by the Gestapo because his art was considered to be “degenerate”. He managed to escape and, leaving Carrington behind, fled to the United States with the help of arts sponsor Peggy Guggenheim. After Ernst's arrest Carrington was devastated and agreed to go to Spain with a friend, Catherine Yarrow. She stayed with family friends in Madrid until her paralyzing anxiety and delusions led to a psychotic breakdown and she was admitted to an asylum. She was given “convulsive therapy” and was treated with the drugs cardiazol and Luminal. She was released from the asylum into the care of a keeper, and was told that her parents had decided to send her to a sanatorium in South Africa. En route to South Africa, she stopped in Portugal, where she made her escape. She went to the Mexican Embassy to find Renato Leduc, a poet and Mexican Ambassador. Leduc was a friend of Pablo Picasso and agreed to a marriage of convenience with Carrington so that she would be accorded the immunity given to a diplomat's wife. Meanwhile, Ernst had married Guggenheim in New York in 1941. That marriage ended a few years later. Ernst and Carrington never resumed their relationship.

After a year in New York, Leduc and Carrington went to Mexico, which she grew to love and where she lived, on and off, for the rest of her life. She befriended painter Frida Kahlo, future Nobel laureate Octavio Paz and Hungarian photographer Kati Horna, and had a relationship with the émigré Spanish artist Remedios Varo. Carrington and Leduc divorced in 1943. Carrington later married Emerico “Chiki” Weisz, born in Hungary, a photographer and the darkroom manager for Robert Capa during the Spanish Civil War. Carrington died on May 25, 2011, aged 94, in a hospital in Mexico City as a result of complications arising from pneumonia.

Tuesday, 15 June 2021

Olivetti Standard Typewriters: Lexikon 80 and Linea 88

An old Holden FJ  drives through Camden.
In terms of blogging, I've been out of action for the past fortnight, but I've still found some time to fool around with typewriters - Olivetti standards in particular. Two reasons for my lack of oztypewriter posts since the end of May: my wife has been undergoing a series of tests to qualify for a cancer treatment drug trial in Sydney, which has meant a lot of driving there and back, and we decided I should avail of a short break in the testing schedule to fly to New Zealand and visit an ailing elderly sister in a care home in Greymouth. I got back to Australia last Thursday evening and first thing the next morning we were back on the road to Sydney. On our way home we stopped off at the historic (in Australian terms) town of Camden, which Europeans named, imaginatively, "Cowpastures" when they first arrived there in 1795. Ten years later it became the property of John Macarthur, a pioneer of settlement in this country, who named it Camden Park. It became the town of Camden in 1840. 

Wherever we go our first stop is usually an op-shop, and there was a good one in Camden. For the first time in many months, I found there a decent typewriter at an affordable price: a 1969 Olivetti Linea 88 in excellent working order for $10. I like the look of the Linea 88, with its light mauvish mask and deep reddish purple keytops (a couple of which are missing, but no worries). I have a vague memory of using the Linea 88 back in the day, possibly more often than its more popular predecessor, the Lexikon 80. I test typed the Linea in the op-shop and a nice old Italian lady behind the counter said, "You can write a book on that!" But what really attracted me to this Linea was the  panel on the back: "By appointment to High Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh", with the coat of arms seen above left. I've seen a lot of typewriters with the seals of British royalty, from old Queen Vic onwards, but this is the first time I've seen one mentioning 'Phil the Greek' (as we knew him here). Prince Phillip of Greece and Denmark died on April 9, aged 99. It was the unusualness of the panel rather than any sense of attachment to the British Royals that led me to buy the Linea.

A couple of temporary keytops here, making do until I find the right ones.
I was keen to get the Linea home and take it apart, both to clean it up and also to compare its mechanical design with the earlier Olivetti standard. I'd been doing some preliminary work on a couple of Lexikon 80s, both, as a rarity, with the embossed name on the paper plate and the nickel rimmed keptops. Both, as can be seen here, are in very bad condition, but I'm sure I can smarten them up and get them working properly with the goodness of time, and goodness I've got plenty of that on my hands right now.

I came across the first of these on April 5, in Bungendore.
I have a replacement badge for the front.
Here is the second one, which came from Parkes with a longer carriage
and a lot of rust and dirt.
I've done a little bit of work cleaning up the second one, but there's a long way still to go.
I did give this one a "bubble bath" just to get some of the grime out of it. The dirt just dripped off:

Once I got the Linea apart, I noticed that the foam rubber sheets inside the sides of the mask had turned to powder and were making a mess inside the machine, sprinkling tiny bits of dried foam everywhere:

Given it was last serviced by "Speedie Typewriters" in Liverpool, which we had visited earlier in the day, I'm inclined to leave this sticker above the paper bail:

The Linea is considerably lighter than the Lexikon and the mechanical design had changed a great deal in the 20 years between them reaching the market (The Linea is on the left; the Lexikon shown here is not one of those with the embossed brand name, but a spare parts machine I bought last year to complete another project):

Monday, 31 May 2021

William Faulkner, the Two-Fingered Typist, and AI, 1962-Style

A year before the Nobel Prize-winning writer William Faulkner died, aged 64, at Wright's Sanatorium in Byhalia, Mississippi, he was the subject of a special report by journalist and novelist Elliott Chaze for the July 14, 1961, edition of LIFE magazine, titled "Visit to Two-Finger Typist". 

In a September 1962 edition of LIFE, Chaze took an amusing look at the advance of artificial intelligence, after coming up against an "electrically operated typewriter".

Sunday, 30 May 2021

C.J. Dennis and his Empire Typewriter: Bringing The Sentimental Bloke* Back to Life

*In Australia, a bloke is a unique masculine archetype associated with the country's national identity. The "Aussie bloke" has been portrayed in important works of art and associated with famous Australian men. "He's a good bloke" literally means "he's a good man".

I hadn’t realised, until after watching a brilliantly restored version of the 1919 Australian silent movie The Sentimental Bloke, that the verse novel upon which the movie is based was written by C.J. Dennis on an Empire thrust-action typewriter. The screenplay was also typewritten, in part by the movie’s female lead Lottie Lyell, using a Remington.

C.J. Dennis typescript.

It turns out that in early November 1988, West Australian media magnate Kerry Stokes (a former rugby teammate of mine, and owner of The Canberra Times when I joined it in 1997) paid $8500 for Dennis’s Empire typewriter at a Leonard Joel auction at the Malvern Town Hall in Melbourne. How the South Yarra company had come by the Dennis typewriter is unknown, but the provenance is beyond doubt. That Dennis used the Empire at his home in Toolangi in rural Victoria was confirmed by his illustrator and friend, Harold Frederick Neville (Hal) Gye (1887-1967). The Empire is now part of the Kerry Stokes Collection, and features prominently in a video of Australian actor Jack Thompson reading excerpts from The Sentimental Bloke at

Clarence Michael James Dennis (1876-1938) published The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke in October 1915. It was an immediate success, requiring three editions in 1915, nine in 1916 and three in 1917; by 1976 57 editions had been published in Australia, England, the United States and Canada, covering 285,000 copies. A very human story, it was simply and humorously told in dialect verse which could be as easily spoken as read. Dennis said of this verse “that slang is the illegitimate sister of poetry, and if an illegitimate relationship is the nearest I can get I am content”. He had “tried to tell a common but very beautiful story in coarse language to prove - amongst other things - that life and love can be just as real and splendid to the ‘common’ bloke as to the ‘cultured’." The timing of the publication was important, as it reached a public depressed by enormous  casualties at Gallipoli.

Our renewed interest in The Sentimental Bloke was piqued when we got the chance to see the restored movie last weekend at the National Film and Sound Archive's theatre in Acton in Canberra. What a brilliant job the NFSA has done with what it describes as our first rom-com. The images are crystal clear, the acting is wonderful, and the new narration by Rhys Muldoon is fantastic, as is the new score by Paul Mac. The film is mostly set in Woolloomooloo, Sydney

The movie was directed by Raymond John Walter Hollis Longford (1878-1959), but much of the credit for it must go to his long-time partner Lottie Edith Lyell (real surname Cox, 1890-1925), who plays Doreen, the Sentimental Bloke's love interest. Bill 'The Kid' is played by Arthur Michael Tauchert (1877-1933), and his friend “Ginger Mick” by Gilbert Charles Warren Emery (1882-1934), who moved to Los Angeles in 1921 and stayed there for the rest of his life, teaching in an acting school.

For the newly restored version of the movie, the NFSA had to search for and identify multiple sources to work from - including a digital scan of a pristine fine grain print from the George Eastman Museum in New York. The film was painstakingly brought back to life by NFSA experts and postproduction partner Vandal.

Saturday, 22 May 2021

Let’s Get it Straight: Seeing Pictures Isn’t Knowing, Reading Typewritten Word Pictures Is Knowing

Definition of word picture: a graphic or vivid description in words.


The 10-week Falklands War from April-June 1982 was probably the last inter-continental war covered by correspondents using manual portable typewriters. Above right is A.J. McIlroy of the London Daily Telegraph, using an Olivetti Lettera 32 to write his description of the decisive Battle of Mount Tumbledown on the night of June 13-14. Armed with just a typewriter, McIlroy was able to reach the front line and file the only full report of the battle. Such a feat would be virtually impossible with today’s technology. Below, Max Hastings, of the London Evening Standard, also armed with an Olivetti Lettera 32, was the first journalist to enter Port Stanley during the war. On the morning of June 14, Hastings trudged past abandoned Argentine positions and sat down to type his latest despatch on his Olivetti. He then hitched a lift on a tank to the lip of the ridge, and looked down on to the road leading to Stanley. While paratroopers rested outside the town, Hastings walked into Stanley, clutching a white handkerchief and his typewriter. He passed lines of Argentine soldiers and found the Falklands’ lone hotel, the Upland Goose. He plonked down his Olivetti and was greeted with cheering from the 20 people inside the bar. “Would you like a drink?” asked the landlord.

Few of those of us committed to the Typewriter Revolution might consider that their rebellion against the information regime, their escape from the data stream and their choosing of the physical over the digital has any connection with events in Gaza City in the past two weeks. Yet the May 15 Israeli air strike on the al-Jalaa Tower, which housed news organisations Al Jazeera and Associated Press, once more underlined the complete, if vulnerable, dependence of such groups on the modern news media paradigm. Just as Richard Polt pointed out on his May 9 blog post about a cyberattack on a pipeline in the US showing typewriters remain necessary equipment for the 21st Century, so too did the scramble to get equipment out of the al-Jalaa Tower raise questions, at least in my mind, about digital writing tools. I was, for example, stunned to hear AP’s president and chief executive officer Gary Pruitt, sticking plaster on nose, say, “The world will know less about what is happening in Gaza because of what happened today.” This was an alarming concession, one that would have left many old form journalists absolutely gobsmacked.

Almost without exception, news coverage of the Gaza air strike stressed the need for Al Jazeera and AP to get cameras out of the tower after an Israeli advance warning. Not people, not writing machines, but cameras. Bodies and brains apparently meant little by comparison, cameras were everything. Today, it seems, news is not considered news without vision. Mere words just don’t cut it anymore. The more the media depends on moving pictures, the more that great art of creating detailed word pictures is lost. Am I alone in being unable to make head nor tail of most news stories online these days? Reporters no longer seem capable of writing stories that tell the reader everything he or she needs (and wants) to know. Vital details are invariably lost in the rush to get unchecked articles online. But, hey, there’s always a video or a picture, not that they necessarily actually help much.

So, in effect, when AP’s Gary Pruitt was saying in Gaza, “The world will know less”, what he really meant was “The world will see less.” Seeing is not necessarily knowing. Knowing does not rely on pictures. I can’t image the late 19th Century equivalent of a Pruitt telling Lionel James, “We have to have pictures” when James, typing on a Blickensderfer 5, rode camelback into the Sudan with Kitchener. Nor when James, on a warship in the Yellow Sea, filed blow-by-blow word pictures back to London during the Russo-Japanese War in 1904. Journalists of James’s calibre needed no photos to enhance their stories. Someone back in London drew dramatic images based on what James wrote, so evocative were his articles.

Some of James’s successors were just as adept in so accurately setting scenes in print. A.J. Liebling for The New Yorker described D-Day on his Royal portable in such a way that, anyone who had read his articles could watch Saving Private Ryan and say, “No need for computerised special effects, for cinematic technology and digital bullet hits and 40 barrels of fake blood, no need for 25 days of filming, a thousand extras and $11 million to capture it. I’ve been there. I read Liebling, for the cover price of The New Yorker.” And before Liebling, of course, there was the Pennsylvania-born British knight, Sir Percival Phillips, capable of scooping the world with a manual portable Corona in isolated Abyssinia. That took real skill. To suggest someone like Phillips could only cover a warzone with the aid of photos is simply laughable.

In 2003 I stood on the rim of an “elephant’s cemetery” in Johannesburg, overcome by a sense of déjà vu, having been taken there by the words French sports writer Denis Lalanne had typewritten on an Olivetti Lettera 22, on that very spot 45 years earlier. It was uncanny. Not photographs, no video I had seen of the scene had captured it the way Lalanne had. Photographs and video couldn’t, because they were one-dimensional. Lalanne made his readers feel the thrill and the tension of being there, looking down on that huge arena, listening to the sound of ghostly silence, breathtaken by not just the vastness of the place but its history. Now that was a picture, a word picture par excellence. The typewriters of Lalanne, Liebling and James were nothing more or less than time machines. They took you places through time and distance, to let you see, and know.

No, the world need not know less about the conflict in Gaza without cameras, or without modern communications. It would have known an awful lot less without A.J. McIlroy, Max Hastings, Lionel James, A.J. Liebling and Percival Phillips and their typewriters. Good journalists with typewriters never failed to get their stories out, one way or another. They always clearly understood, and mastered, their dual prime objectives: to get the story and to get it out to the world. Would damaged television cameras have impaired their ability to do this? Not one bit. The absence of any type of camera only heightened their sense of the challenge they faced, their obligation to accurately record history, and eked from them the very highest levels of their abilities as wordsmiths.

Just today Al Jazeera reported accusations from Palestinian non-governmental organisation 7almeh that social media companies had closely cooperated with the Israeli Government to censor pro-Palestinian content after Israeli attacks escalated. “There was a massive crackdown by Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and other social media companies on posts relating to [peaceful protests in the occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood of] Sheikh Jarrah,” said Nadim Nashif, director of the Palestinian digital rights group. The ability to control news coverage of a conflict would have been impossible in pre-digital days.

In the past few weeks we have had comments on this blog from Ron Yates, for 20 years a foreign correspondent for The Chicago Tribune, and a professor emeritus of journalism at the University of Illinois and dean of the College of Media. Ron said he had used an Olivetti Lettera 32 all over the world, covering “war and mayhem from Vietnam to Latin America … It never failed me … I took it to some pretty awful places and abused it in all kinds of situations.”

In a post about the Olivetti on his own blog, Ron described taking his typewriter from the jungles of Cambodia to the central highlands of Vietnam, jumping on and off helicopters, bouncing down rutted roads in jeeps and trucks, and exposing the Lettera 32 to 110-degree temperatures and monsoon rains. Like Hastings in the pub in Stanley, Ron’s typewriter was “irrigated more than once with Vietnamese ‘33’ beer”. “Its solid, blue metal shell behaved like armour plating. No matter how much I threw that typewriter around or how often I dropped it, when I unzipped the vinyl case and pulled it out, the platen always held my paper in position, and the keys always worked. In 1975, this was state-of-the-art technology. Tough. Dependable. Cheap. Easy to maintain.”

Ron said he had occasionally used the Olivetti to shield himself “from airborne shrapnel and the other fluttering detritus of war”.  Ron weighed up the pros and cons of typewriters versus laptops, mentioning the need for electricity for the latter. What he overlooked was the vulnerability of digital communications. Manipulating Public Telephone and Telegraph telex copy in transmission to Chicago was not the simple matter it is with digital matter today. And then, of course, there’s the question of the word picture. Oh, yes, in the digital age, that’s taken care of by photographs and video. Without those “the world will know less”. Or will it?