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Monday, 28 February 2011

Typing to Everest

On the weekend Sir Edmund Hillary died, in January 2008, I attained my very own Everest. I was on my regular prowl from Mitchell and Fyshwick to Queanbeyan, Hume and Phillip, of the op shops, Salvos, Vinnies, Green Sheds and Aussie Junks, looking for old typewriters to lovingly restore, when for once it looked like I would be headed home empty-booted. Just as I was leaving Revolve, a car and trailer pulled up, and Helen yelled, ”Look what’s here”.

It was an Everest. I knew such a typewriter existed, I’d seen them on Will Davis’s Portable Typewriter Reference Site (photo below). But I’d never touched one in the metal, as it were, until that moment. Davis says the Everest was made by Industrial Dattilografica  in Milan from 1931 until Olivetti, as it had done with so many other Italian, Swiss and US rivals, gobbled it up in the early 1960s.

Will Davis doesn’t dwell on the Everest portable model called the K2, but climbers will know K2 as the second-highest mountain on earth, 237m short of Everest, but the highest in Pakistan. K2 was first conquered by the Italians Achille Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli on July 31, 1954, 14 months and two days after Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the peak of Everest. The Everest which now sits atop my collection dates from about that time.

What Will does emphasise is that the Everest is near the bottom of the pile among Italian typewriters. It is, he said, “inferior in quality [with] a dull, almost dead feel.  Yes, they're durable, but unfortunately they're not great to type on.  They're also more than a little odd-looking … curved and bulged sides [give a] styling treatment that is absolutely unique, one that collectors seem either to hate, or to appreciate as ‘different’.

I eagerly embraced my Everest and rushed it home, convinced  from my brief test type it would prove the exception to Will’s rule, the one machine on which I could comfortably write The Great Australian Novel.  But, as always, Will was proved right. For one thing, the “1” and the “q” have hung out so long together at the top left of the typebasket, they seem to want to dance arm-in-arm all the way to the platen, and stay there, jammed in an embrace at the chapel of the ribbon vibrator. Nothing I do to pour oil on the smooth waters of this relationship will part them.

Thus The Great Australian Novel will have to be written on some other typewriter and a typewriter it assuredly must be. Perhaps a model which was more common to this city in the days when Canberra was, most decidedly, the typewriter capital of the Southern Hemisphere (which is doubtless the reason such treasures keep bobbing up these days at our recycling depots).

It may not be eked out of an Everest, but will The Great Australian Novel include my memories of Hillary? Perhaps. One never quite knows how these things will pan out.

When I was a very young reporter, flying on a DC3 from Wellington to Auckland, the plane passed over the crater of Tongariro (a mere 1978m) and the pilot suggested we might like to avail of the uncommonly cloudless sky to have a look down into the mouth of the volcano. As I did so, I noticed one passenger stayed seated, his nose buried in my newspaper, The New Zealand Herald. So curious was I about such an obvious show of disinterest, I pretended to head for a mimi, and glanced down between paper and man. It was Sir Edmund. For him, by then aged 48, looking into Tongariro was unquestionably passé.

Someone said, when The Big Fella died, that he was New Zealand’s most famous person. I wondered about that. How does one judge true fame, anyway? International renown? Does Courtney Love really, as Wikipedia suggests, qualify as a Kiwi? Please say yes. Peter Jackson, Neil Finn, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Rachel Hunter, Keith Urban, Holly Valance and Russell Crowe are all possibly better known that Hillary, simply because their industry is entertainment and entertainment speaks a global language. Sir Peter Blake, too, as much for being killed by pirates in the Amazon delta while on an environmental mission as for winning the America’s Cup. But knighthoods don’t necessarily count for much. 
Charlie Upham, VC and Bar, has been mentioned a bit lately, as has Nancy Wake. My own favourites in terms of warriors are the the Maori, Hone Heke and Hongi Hika, Te Rauparaha and Te Kooti.

Then there’s the sports people, Bob Fitzsimmons, Bruce McLaren, Burt Munro and Sean Marks, all in this day far better known in, say, the US than Hillary. And Rewi Alley, ardent friend of the Chinese Communists, though possibly forgotten by the hordes today. And Fred Dagg, Wal Footrot and his dog, and Dame Edna’s pal Madge Allsop.

As a child, my dad, who had a particular interest in the fame and worth of his countryman, often used to talk about two, both of whom grew up in the Nelson-Marlborough area, where my father’s family had close ties.

Both, in their own distinctive way, had put man much higher than a foot on the earth’s highest peak. One was Sir Ernest Rutherford, the father of nuclear physics, and the other was Bill Pickering, the NASA rocket scientist who pioneered the exploration of space. Both went to school at Havelock.

A person’s fame is contained within one’s own perspective. I am proud of Hillary, and proud to still hold the first day cover posted to me from Scott Base in Antarctica to mark Hillary’s meeting with Fuchs, which is now more than 50 years old. But in my little world, George Canfield Blickensderfer is most famous. I wonder if I can bang out The Great Australian Novel on a Blickensderfer? After all, John Millington Synge wrote The Playboy of the Western World on one, so Blick-written great literature is possible.**.

*The photo at top is of Hillary typing at the foothills of the Himalayas. I can't identify the typewriter - if anyone out there can, I'd love to hear from them.
**Manuscript and typewriter are on display, along with the Book of Kells, in the grand library at Trinity College, Dublin.

1 comment:

Richard P said...

I didn't know that it was Italians who conquered K2! Obviously that explains the model name. The K2 truly has one of the deadest, dullest touches in typewriterdom. I recently got a model 90 (1939), and it is slghtly more responsive, but chugs along like a contraption that is about to break apart at any moment. These typewriters are pretty pathetic compared to Olivettis.