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Saturday, 25 January 2020

Vale Jim Lehrer

Jim Lehrer working with a Royal KMM standard manual typewriter
while editor of his college newspaper.
American journalist Jim Lehrer died at his home in Washington DC on Thursday, aged 85.  James Charles Lehrer was born on May 19, 1934, in Wichita, Kansas. He graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School in San Antonio, where he was a sports editor for the Jefferson Declaration. Later he graduated with an associate degree from Victoria College, and a bachelor's degree in journalism from the Missouri School of Journalism at the University of Missouri in 1956. In 1959, Lehrer began his career in journalism at The Dallas Morning News and worked as a reporter for the Dallas Times-Herald, where he covered the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. He was a political columnist there for several years, and in 1968 he became the city editor. Also a novelist, screenwriter and playwright, Lehrer was the executive editor and a news anchor for the PBS NewsHour, known for his role as a debate moderator during US presidential election campaigns. He authored numerous fiction and non-fiction books that drew upon his experience as a newsman, along with his interests in history and politics.

Friday, 24 January 2020

Queueing Up For Typewriters

The manual portable typewriters at the “Yours Faithfully” exhibition at the Museum of Australian Democracy (Old Parliament House) in Canberra have been getting a ton of use. I was over there again this week to do some more running repairs on a couple of the machines. It’s been interesting for me to see that the machine which has stood up best to constant use (and dare I say abuse) is the Hermes Baby. It hasn’t missed a beat in six weeks. Next best performer has been the Nakajima Imperial 200.
The curators tell me that over the Christmas-New Year holiday period people were “queuing up to use the typewriters”.  The evidence that this is true is certainly there. Every time I visit to check on the machines there are groups of children tapping merrily away – and not always that well supervised. With Canberra blanketed in thick bushfire smoke and temperatures consistently up around the 100 degrees mark, families have looked for somewhere to escape the oppressive conditions, and have found not just the air-conditioned comfort of MoAD, but the joy of typewriters to boot. Cool fun encapsulated in a room full of typewriters!
Plenty of adults have availed of the opportunity to type, too, and I have been told of at least two young males who have decided to acquire their own typewriters, so enamored were they by the experience at MoAD - indeed, one of them wants to start his own collection. Up to 70 typewritten letters a day are being collected from the mail box. The school holidays end next week and the pressure on these machines might be eased a little – at least temporarily. 
Kids love the challenge of using a typewriter, but the typewriter doesn’t always appreciate the way they treat it. The most common problem for me to fix relates to the ribbons, and it seems kids can’t resist the temptation to grab at the ribbons and pull them out. It’s not just about the magic of seeing the letters you type appear instantly on a page in front of you, but about how that’s achieved – a computer printer, by comparison, is just a dull plastic box. Little black fingerprints all over most of the machines bear testimony to the habit of checking out ribbons.
The worst thing that has happened so far is that someone decided to try to souvenir some of the keytops off an Olivetti Lettera 32 – not all that easy a thing to do - and in the case of “E”, succeeded.  I’ve also fixed the carriage lever on the Adler Contessa, the spacebar on the Facit TP1, a snapped drawband on the Silver-Reed 100 and some sticky keys on machines on which, seemingly, a child has decided to press all the keys at once (not an uncommon occurrence in my experience). All in all, however, “Yours Faithfully” has already been declared an unqualified success and is one of the most popular exhibitions at MoAD.
Another MoAD exhibition which includes a typewriter (a Remington Model 2 portable) is called “Truth, Power and a Free Press”. Next to it is the collection of the previous year’s outstanding newspaper political cartoons, which also embraces references to a free press. “FW”, who tried to leave a comment on my blog last June about Australian Press freedoms – interesting coming from someone living in a country presided over by Donald Thump – might be interested to see these (except he refuses to read my blog any longer).
The above chart shows how far ahead of the United States Australia is in relation to press freedoms. But New Zealand is also away ahead of Australia.
Anyway, not far away from MoAD is the National Library, where there is an exhibition about the writing of children’s literature - with yet another typewriter, in this case a Corona 4.

Saturday, 18 January 2020

Death of a Great Journalist

                            Bernard Diederich typing his copy on a Remington-Rand portable
                                       at his newspaper, the Haiti Sun, in the early 1950s.
Checking my blog's page views just now, I noted that there had been, in the past few days, 438 views of my December 14, 2015, post on the great New Zealand-born journalist Bernard Diederich. I immediately sensed that Bernard had passed away, and sure enough glowing obituaries in The New York Times and elsewhere confirmed he had died, aged 93, in Haiti last Tuesday. He will be buried today, with a rock from Makara Beach, outside Wellington in New Zealand, in his hand.
Bernard, who braved dictators and disasters in covering civil wars, coups, earthquakes and hurricanes across the Caribbean islands and Central America, must rank as one of the greatest journalists of the 20th Century. He was born in Christchurch, New Zealand, on July 18, 1926.
To my enormous pride, Bernard himself absolutely loved my blog post of 2015. I recommend reading it here.
See also The New York Times obit, which for detail about Bernard's remarkable life relied very heavily on my post, here.

Saturday, 11 January 2020

Tom Hanks Downsizing, Knocks Back Treasured Typewriter

Last week a retired library director in Johnsburg, Illinois, posted on Twitter about an exchange of correspondence she had had early last year with typewriter collector Tom Hanks. Marie Zawacki, 62, had offered Hanks her late father’s Erika portable typewriter to add to an already sizeable Hanks collection. Mrs Zawacki said her father, Josef Metzger, had "smuggled" the Erika out of Germany when he immigrated to the United States as a World War II refugee. Under the International Refugee Organisation, Hungarian-born Metzger (1928-2017) arrived in New York from Bremerhaven in the then West Germany on the USS General M.B. Stewart in early November 1951, and immediately settled in McHenry County, Illinois.
Josef Metzger on the USS M.B. Stewart
On Facebook last February Mrs Zawacki explained, “I found [the typewriter] in the back of a closet when cleaning out [her parents’] house. [I thought it] might find a new home [in Hanks’s collection]. I was able to ask dad about it before he died [in Woodstock on April 24, 2017] and he said he brought it from Germany in his steamer trunk and he wasn’t supposed to.”
Maria Zawacki with her late father, Josef Metzger
Mrs Zawacki wrote to Hanks through the Knopf Publishing Group, which in October 2017 published his book Uncommon Type. Last week she said “I will treasure Tom’s letter forever … It’s in an archival quality frame, proudly displayed near the typewriter.”
In a warm, tactfully written reply, Hanks turned down the offer of the “smuggle-worthy” Erika and said he was downsizing his typewriter collection. He ended his letter with the words, “A typewriter not in or with no personal connection is a story, a tragic one, in and of itself.”

Sunday, 5 January 2020

The Lives Of Us (And Our Lethal Typewriters)

An early Torpedo 18, the typewriter of choice for East German playwright Georg Dreyman before he acquired a Groma Kolibri in the movie The Lives of Others.
Housebound by blistering heat (111+ degrees, 44 Celsius) and a dense shroud of suffocating bushfire smoke, we have found some brief hiatus in watching DVDs of old movies. First up was the German language The Lives of Others, which I hadn’t seen in more than a decade, since it first appeared on cinema screens. Back then I suspect I was so engrossed by the appearance of the little green Groma Kolibri portable typewriter with a red ribbon – which I had considered to be the true star of the movie - that I missed many of the nuances in this brilliant work of art from Florian Graf Henckel von Donnersmarck. Now, having watched it again and taken in much more of its rich texture, I’ve been looking at reviews which had appeared in 2007. My favourite movie reviewer is Anthony Lane of The New Yorker, and I thought this line of Lane’s - from “Guilty Parties” in the February 12, 2007 issue - especially topical and telling: “This [obligation to write about the terrible suicide rate in East Germany] means smuggling in an untraceable typewriter - more lethal than a gun, in the land of a controlled press - and smuggling out the copy.”
            Some critics had apparently not appreciated the “humanisation” of one of the two lead characters, Stasi Captain Gerd Wiesler (played by Ulrich Mühe). But with the benefit of my much later viewing – the viewing, I might add, of a far calmer, more congenial viewer – I found myself agreeing utterly with Lane’s appraisal: “One of the marvels of Ulrich Mühe’s performance - in its seething stillness, its quality not just of self-denial but of self-haunting - is that he never distills Wiesler into a creature purely of his times. You can imagine him, with his close-cropped hair, as a young Lutheran in the wildfire of the early Reformation, or as a lost soul finding a new cause in the Berlin of 1933.” With 2020 hindsight, it's clear that one could also see Wiesler as a fundamentally decent man in these troubled times, increasingly compelled to resist the forces of blatant political corruption, bastardry and malice.
           Not much has changed in 13 years - perhaps in a unified Germany, but certainly not in the Ukraine and not in the US of A. As Lane went on, See [Wiesler] crouched in a loft above [Georg] Dreyman’s home with a typewriter, a tape deck, and headphones clamped to his skull. Watch the nothingness on his face as he taps out his report on the couple’s actions … Slowly, the tables turn. Wiesler steals Dreyman’s copy of Brecht and takes it home to read; he starts to omit details in his official account; and, for some fathomless reason - guilt, curiosity, longing - he lets the lives of others run their course.” As part of this engrossing process, Lane might have added Wiesler’s listening to Dreyman’s piano playing, of Sonata for a Good Man from sheet music given to playwright Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) as a 40th birthday gift by the suicidal, blacklisted director Albert Jerska (Volkmar Kleinert).
      The superslim Kolibri
The Lives of Others was released in 2006 and was the feature film debut of Donnersmarck (whose name, Lane wrote, “makes him sound like a lover with a duelling scar on his cheekbone in a 19th-century novel”). The movie went on to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.  Its ending is one of the best I’ve ever seen in a movie. Lane summed it up well: “Against all odds, though, the best is yet to come: an ending of overwhelming simplicity and force, in which the hopes of the film - as opposed to its fears, which have shivered throughout - come gently to rest. What happens is that a character says, ‘Es ist für mich’ – ‘It’s for me.’ When you see the film, as you must, you will understand why the phrase is like a blessing. To have something bestowed on ‘me’—not on a tool of the state, not on a scapegoat or a sneak, but on me—is a sign that individual liberties have risen from the dead. You might think that The Lives of Others is aimed solely at modern Germans—at all the Wieslers, the Dreymans, and the weeping Christa-Marias. A movie this strong, however, is never parochial, nor is it period drama. Es ist für uns. It’s for us.”

Not only is it for us, but it is also – as I found to my great delight today – a film very much for our times. It speaks to our present-day fears, in a world where political corruption – in just about every major country one can think of – is more rife and strident than ever before. The film unobtrusively signals the demise of the Communist Bloc with a newspaper headline announcing Mikhail Gorbachev’s elevation to Soviet presidency, but the end of the USSR has merely ushered in of new era of extreme Right Wing Fascism and an almost universal undermining of democracy. The Lives of Others is definitely well worth watching all over again. It very much remains timely.
An East German forensic document examiner demonstrates different typewriter fonts to the Stasi.
A.O. Scott wrote in The New York Times on February 9, 2007 (“A Fugue for Good German Men”), Wiesler and Dreyman, as true patriots, needed to commit treason. And treason is exactly what Donald Trump is accusing Democrats of committing in their efforts to impeach him.  Scott said,  “ … as Georg is driven toward actions that implicate him, for the first time, in dissident activity, Wiesler becomes convinced of Georg’s essential innocence and takes steps to protect him. The plot, as it acquires the breathless momentum of a thriller, also takes on the outlines of a dark joke. The poet and the secret policeman - both writers, in their differing fashions - may be the only two true patriots in the whole German Democratic Republic; in other words, the only people who take the Republic’s stated ideals at face value. But since the nation itself functions by means of the wholesale and systematic betrayal of those ideals, the only way Wiesler and Georg can express their loyalty is by committing treason.” How pointed is that in terms of the republic of the United States and its stated ideals, and a “wholesale and systematic betrayal of those ideals” in 2019-20? East Germany and the Stasi may be gone, but their ghosts appear to be living on, at least in Washington DC.