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Thursday, 7 February 2013


There would be few people who valued a portable typewriter more than those sports writers who, in the days long before “modern technology”, travelled the world covering international sporting events for their newspapers. As one of them in the late 1960s and throughout the 70s, I thought I’d mark International Typewriter Appreciation Month by telling a few stories about how much we came to treasure our No 1 work tool, and how vitally useful it proved to be on so many unusual occasions. Like Boot in Scoop, we often had to be highly resourceful, yet there was never an adequate substitute for a handy typewriter.
Part One
The Lady of the Irish Lake
Paul D. MacWeeney, that grand old man of Irish sports writing, didn’t learn to use a typewriter until he was 60. That year, 1969, the Ireland rugby union team was to tour Argentina, and MacWeeney learned that, if he was to cover the tour for The Irish Times, he would have to take a portable typewriter with him and use it to write his daily stories, in order to file them back to Dublin through Correo Argentino. He mastered the typewriter in short time.
Yet MacWeeney had known the writing was on the wall for a good many years before then. The evening before Ireland played France at Stade Olympique de Colombes in Paris in late January 1956, MacWeeney went through his usual ritual of writing a match preview by hand and taking the sheets of paper to La Poste close to the Louvre Métro station. He quickly returned to the Saint-Lazare stop and the Ireland team’s base at Grand Hotel de Normandie. There he banged on the door of his older brother, an even more seasoned and travelled sports writer, Arthur MacWeeney, sports editor of The Irish Independent.
“Arthur,” stammered Paul. “The post office says it will no longer accept my copperplate handwriting.”
“That’s awful,” said Arthur. “What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to do nothing,” replied Paul. “You’re going to type my story for me.”
And that’s precisely what Arthur did, as well as his own preview, for the Independent. Later that same year, Arthur covered the Olympic Games in Melbourne, and was one of those fortunate sports writers to receive the gift (or so they called it) of a taupe Olivetti Lettera 22 portable typewriter. He would become, briefly, the envy of journalists throughout Ireland. Mainly for the Olivetti, but also for being the only Irish journalist on the spot when Ron Delany, of Arklow and Villanova University, Philadelphia, stunned the sports world by beating Melbourne’s own mile world record holder John Landy to win the 1500 metres gold medal.
Arthur’s days of relishing this reflected glory were sadly shortlived. He died in 1958, and from the time Ireland’s international rugby players returned to Paris, in the spring of the following year, his brother Paul relied entirely on telephones and on the copytakers back at The Irish Times office on D'Olier Street, Dublin. He would dictate from his copperplate handwriting, rather than trying to file copy by cable. But it was an inordinately drawn-out process: Paul had a pronounced if endearing stutter, and copytakers would be tied up typing his stories far longer than might normally be the case. The Irish Times put up with it for 10 years, until 1969. Given the time difference with Argentina, however, it was not prepared to pay a copytaker penalty rates to come into work in the middle of the night just to take down Paul’s stories from Buenos Aires, Rosario, Córdoba and places in between.
Until then, Paul MacWeeney was quite conceivably the last top ranking sports writer still composing his copy in longhand. The typewriter had long since superseded the pen for the vast majority of journalists travelling around the world and filing copy from far-flung places. It was much more than a mere tool of trade for us. It was a guarantee of having a means of communication, regardless of where one was trying to file from – and an acceptable one, as far as wire cable operators were concerned. In the absence of telephones, for example, it enabled us to still do our jobs, regardless, when no other writing implement, including the pen, would have sufficed.
In 1975 I had occasion to “do an Arthur” and typewrite a Paul MacWeeney story myself. Paul had been unceremoniously elbowed out of The Irish Times the previous year, when he reached 65, but had got himself some casual work writing sport for a new, down-market tabloid, the Sunday World.  This was a shock to Paul’s system. A dapper, impish little man with a sharp wit and a light writing touch, Paul had once proudly responded to the claim he’d been scooped by a Daily Mail correspondent at a golf tournament in Waterville, Kerry, with the memorable words, “Readers of The Irish Times wouldn’t touch the Daily Mail with a pair of ****ing tongs!” Not exactly true, but evocative nonetheless. Paul could not quite bring himself to make the same effort for the World that he had so often and so stylishly done for the Times.
One Saturday afternoon in June, Paul and I found ourselves the only two journalists covering a rowing regatta on Loch Ree outside Athlone, in the west of Ireland. Unsurprisingly, there were no facilities for the Press, no telephone lines within sight, and no makeshift benches upon which to put typewriters. Paul turned up with a notebook and a Biro, but I took along my trusty Olivetti Lettera 32 – I never went anywhere without it.
We both had to file early for our Sunday newspapers. “I think I know a lady who lives in a house somewhere beside the lake,” said Paul, who always seemed to find the most useful of contacts in the most unlikely of places. “She might have a phone.”
We set off along a long overgrown track that wound itself around the lake, me lugging my Olivetti. After some minutes, a tiny cottage came in sight. Paul knocked on the door. Sure enough, it was answered by a lady who instantly recognised Paul and invited us in. We explained our situation. “Yes, I do have a telephone,” she said, “I really need one in such an isolated spot. And you can use it. But it’s a party line. You’ll have to wait until it becomes free.”
While we waited, I availed of this unexpected but much appreciated hospitality to set my Olivetti up on the lady’s dining table, to write my story, ready to dictate it to a copytaker at The Sunday Press once the phone line became available. Paul wrote his piece in longhand. Time ticked by and I expressed my wish to watch the championship eight-oar race, the last event on the program.
Since I’d typed my story, our hostess offered to read it over the telephone. But Paul’s piece presented an entirely different problem – his “story” was a rushed job, made up of just reminder notes, mere disjointed words in a jungle of unintelligible handwritten scribble - hardly his usual copperplate stuff. So while he read it, I had to type it. That way my newfound lady friend could file both of our stories to copytakers in Dublin, and we could return to the regatta, feeling assured our copy would get through. And it did.
This was just one of many, many occasions on which I was so relieved that I’d gone to the trouble of carrying my Olivetti with me. A sports writer without a portable typewriter was a eunuch in a harem. Simply incapable.
*Paul David MacWeeney died in 1983. He is buried beside his beloved wife Eithne Maddock MacWeeney at Kilmacanogue Cemetery in Wicklow. He is often remembered today for the wrong reason. Like Grantland Rice before him, Paul’s brother Arthur had once memorably adapted lines from classic literature (in this case from Baroness Emmuska Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel) for a sports story lede. This has since been erroneously attributed to Paul, who wouldn’t have “touched should a thing with a pair of tongs!”
Tomorrow: The Olivetti on The Nile.


shordzi said...

You wrote this story on thursday. I read it on wednesday. I love our timewarp.

Jasper Lindell said...

Loving these stories, Robert.

And maybe it was a stupid question to ask whether you'd read Scoop...

Robert Messenger said...

Thank you Jasper, this series is dedicated to you for representing the next generation of typewriter-loving journos.
Good night, Georg, sweet dreams of doing the timewarp.

Kellog said...

What a quaint story about Paul. Hi Robert: my name is John Kelly. I live in Leixlip, County Kildare, with my wife Catherine and four kids. I retired from The Irish Times in 2014 after 40 years service. I've written a book called Don't Shoot The Copyboy and was hoping you might agree to me to reproducing some of this wonderful tale about Paul. The book is about my eight-year stint as a Copyboy in the eponymous newspaper in the mid-seventies, when the industry was on the cusp of enormous change. It’s a snap shot of a watershed time in journalism and a city in ferment, and homage to work colleagues and friends fondly remembered. I had the pleasure of working with Paul for just a few months but grew very fond of the great scribe in that short space of time. Roddy Doyle has kindly written the foreword for the book. Ignore that other email address . . . see the one below.