Saturday, 27 November 2021
RIP Stephen Sondheim (1930-2021)
Music, Music, Music (and Kids With Typewriters too)
Zoë Barry and friends typewriting the script for “The Boy Who Loved Tiny Things”, a show Zoë partly created.This snippet was filmed while Zoë was driving into Melbourne in 2018.
Putting typewriters aside for a day, the undoubted high point of the past week was my stepdaughter, Zoë Barry, winning the Australian Recording Industry Association’s award for Australian Music Teacher of the Year. The ARIA Awards are this country’s equivalent of the Grammys. Zoë, a renowned cellist, teaches children – many the offspring of immigrants from South Sudan and Ethiopia – at the Sacred Heart School in Fitzroy, an inner suburb of Melbourne. Zoë is the first Australian Music Teacher of the Year Award winner from a city school. Sacred Heart has about 150 students - 95 per cent of them having English as an additional language and nearly all living in a nearby public housing estate. Some speak Vietnamese at home, others Arabic, others Mandarin, Dinka and Nuer. There are even a few students from Chile who speak Spanish.
Zoë’s win came on the third anniversary of the performance of Leroy Anderson’s “The Typewriter” by the National Capital Orchestra during a concert at the John Lingard Hall, Canberra Grammar School. Percussionist Veronica Bailey, herself a music teacher, "played" my poppy red 1971 Adler Gabriele 25 portable typewriter. Veronica has been the classical percussion teacher for the Australian National University’s Open School of Music since 2010. Like Richard Polt, I’m a little bit “over” hearing “The Typewriter”, but I'm especially piqued when people send me video links to overseas performances. I keep telling them that I’ve seen “The Typewriter” performed much better, and live here in Canberra, when one of my own typewriter was used.
At the end of the 2018 Canberra concert, children interested in music were encouraged to meet orchestra members and take a close look at their instruments - in some cases even to play them. However, by far and away the greatest drawcard for the youngsters was the typewriter, and even long after the musical instruments had been packed away, children were still milling around Veronica as she explained the workings of the Adler to them. The typewriter literally "stole the show"!
It was 65 years ago this month that the Parkview High School in Springfield, Missouri, performed “The Typewriter”. Nathalie Smith was on typewriter and she was accompanied, from the left in the photo above, by Stephen James, Dorsey Dysart, Don Templeton and David Kollmeyer, members of the school’s first graduate class.
Friday, 26 November 2021
Life of a Typewriter Technician (Installment 7 - Training on the Facit 1850)
Continuing my story (last installment July 28, 2020) of a young wet-behind-the-ears school leaver, navigating a career with a Melbourne office equipment supplier, servicing all brands of typewriters, but specialising in the Swedish brand Facit.
One morning, on arriving at work, my boss, the shop owner and salesman, was in a somewhat furtive conversation with my supervisor Norm (the senior typewriter technician and my mentor). I had been at the organisation long enough to know not to eavesdrop on such conversations, as these were a regular occurrence and were often dodgy deals being hatched, so I took the hint and disappeared to buy a cake and drink from the milkbar next door.
On my return, the boss somewhat sheepishly approached me and asked if I wished to partake in a week-long technical training course on the new Facit golfball typewriter about to hit the market. I couldn’t understand what all the cloak and dagger was about, but with hindsight, I suspect my boss was sounding out with my supervisor whether I would be technically capable and if it would be worth the investment in me being off the tools for a week’s training.
Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather – this training offer was beyond anything I had been expecting. Not only had my supervisor given me the tick of approval, which in itself was a huge ego boost, but my boss was giving me the opportunity to become the “golfball specialist” within the company. My supervisor was a very old school typewriter mechanic, having come up through the ranks of what was then almost a full-blown apprenticeship, albeit not a recognised trade. He nevertheless had spend many years with a company called Sydney Pincombe, then later with Philips when they bought out Facit. What he didn’t know about manual and electric Facit typewriters wasn’t worth [type]writing about! However, golfballs always seemed to be a bit beyond him, or maybe he wasn’t inclined to want to learn of their intricacies late in his career. I, on the other hand, was a very enthusiastic young lad at the time, always willing and eager to learn about new mechanical devices and concepts.
Norm took me into the training facility, so that he could introduce me to some of the fellow technicians, who, while they were with opposition companies, he obviously knew by first name. I also arrived late in the morning, when the class had already started, further adding to the mystique around the last-minute decision to send me on the course rather than Norm, who was obviously enrolled in the course originally.
I couldn’t contain my excitement of being there. I may as well have been starting on a rocket maintenance course, such was the regard I held for these complex machines that I was to spend the next week playing with. I was also the youngest chap in the course, which further boosted the sense of self-importance I felt within myself by being there amongst a group of very experienced technicians. Many of the course participants went on to become long-term associates, with one in particular displaying dodgy business practices just like my current employer (more of this in later installments, no doubt).
The IBM golfball was regarded in the industry as something quite untouchable, as IBM had a very tight control of the market for its machine. It was only sold through their own sales channels, and the spare parts and service literature was very tightly controlled, making it extremely difficult for small dealerships such as ourselves to be able to service or repair the complex machines. In fact IBM behaved in many ways similar to, say, a Mercedes dealership does today by restricting availability to service manuals, mechanic specialist training and software diagnostics, so the local mechanic has no hope in being able to service these cars. It was at this time (around the mid-1970s) that the worldwide patent on the IBM golfball ran out, allowing all the other manufacturers to step in and take a slice of a lucrative market. They also had an advantage in looking back on some 20 years of stifled progress and to be able to come out with some very innovative approaches to golfball typewriter designs, by not being shackled to having to keep a flawed design in production to get return on sunk investment costs. Ford suffered the same fate with the Model-T car in that they would not, or could not, change the basic design for decades while new innovations came to market from nimble competitors.
During training, we each had a brand-new machine to play with for a week, under the guidance of an engineer from the factory in Sweden. Facit had just been bought out by the multinational Electrolux group, of vacuum cleaner and whitegoods fame. I spent a week pulling my machine apart and putting it back together and adjusting it to make it all work again. We had the opportunity during that week to take apart components that ordinarily wouldn’t have to be disassembled during the life of the machine. We really got to know the inner workings of those typewriters!
The instructor’s first language wasn’t English, and the class got accustomed to this and managed to adapt so that he could understand us and we could understand him. However, there was a somewhat amusing yet delicate episode when one day the instructor wore his stylish (in Europe, no doubt) suit to the class. It was a VERY lairish shade of green (almost like Kermit the frog), and it was somewhat difficult for the class to contain themselves and to stop sniggering and breaking out into uproarious laughter throughout the day. Towards the end of the day, one of our fellow students made a side joke in what we thought would be a disguised manner, by weaving some Australian slang into the statement to try and hide the fact we were poking fun at the instructor’s dress sense. Well, the instructor obviously had a better command of English than we’d bargained for and he turned somewhat red with rage. Having put up with us whispering about him all day, this last joke was the final straw. Needless to say we toned it down after that episode and didn’t pick on the instructor anymore.
After the course finished, we all said our goodbyes and went out into the world equipped with the knowledge to become Facit golfball typewriter experts. To this young lad, it was a pinnacle of my career path. I was about to embark on what were, to me, very exciting times.
The golfball typewriter was a very expensive item, retailing at around $1800; considering that an average family-sized car cost around $4000 at the time, this will place the cost of the typewriter at probably $22,500 in today’s money – a huge investment for a company, and one usually only made for executive secretaries. There were very few of these machines sold to home users - they were almost purely a corporate business tool. There was good markup to be had on them as well, which led to some very competitive sales tactics amongst the small fraternity that was the office equipment supply market in those days.
We had the advantage of having a large number of Facit service contracts, which also gave us a shoe-in for sales. I suspect that the bulk of the customers we had on the books came as a result of Philips relinquishing the Facit franchise, as staff at our shop were ex-Philips employees. Also, a gift to us was that not many of the other smaller typewriter shops seemed to have anywhere near the range of Facits under contract as we did, nor did they seem to have a desire to step into that space, as it was somewhat a niche market compared to IBM and Remington, who had a huge portion of the market.
Over time, we very successfully migrated many of our customers from the Facit 1820 (a very robust workhorse of an electric typewriter) to the Facit golfball - the model 1850. But with success comes some angst as well, as we soon discovered that there was a design flaw in one of the components that controlled the shift function (in a golfball, this is achieved by rotating the ball through 180 degrees, compared to lifting the conventional typebar basket up and down, or in the case of many portables, shifting the platen up and down to make the upper or lower case letters strike the paper). Because of the speed that the golfball operates at, this part was under a lot of stress and would break after about a year in service, and due to the design of the Facit 1850, a complete module had to be replaced. Eventually a better designed mechanism came out in the next model release, but this would have cost our Australian wholesaler a fortune, as it was its responsibility to make good on all of this disaster. We would have replaced dozens (hundreds perhaps) of these modules; it’s not just the cost of the effort in physically replacing the part, the pick up and dropping back of the typewriter to the customer (it wasn’t practical to do this job onsite), but there was probably untold loss of goodwill and the customers’ faith in Facit as a product, after having invested much of their hard-earned capital in a fleet of typewriters.
I don’t know if it was all of this, plus the logistics of the wholesaler having the unexpected impost of having to import all those replacement parts, that contributed to their ultimate demise a few years later, but there were other factors at play with this particular wholesaler. It simply wasn’t a big enough set up to be able to service their network of resellers Australia-wide in the way that Philips used to be.
Bees Invade Typewriter Domain
It has taken the best part of five weeks for us to get an expert to come and take our bee swarm away. There has been, apparently, a massive demand in Canberra this strange spring from people trying to get help in dealing with established colonies of bees. The Canberra Region Beekeepers Association lists 24 contacts on an online Swarm Collector List, but our best efforts in reaching out to them were fruitless until this week, when one man finally agreed to come to our aid. The swarm was on a beam outside the Japanese Studio, where usually the only humming can be heard from a collection of ancient typewriters. For a while, dead bees, trapped inside the studio, outnumbered typewriters. Normal service has now resumed. We gather someone close by is a beekeeper, as queens don't travel too far. Anyway, our majesty is now on her way elsewhere, along with her thousands of loyal subjects.
Optima M14 Standard Typewriter
Wednesday, 24 November 2021
1896 Remington No 6 Typewriter
Tuesday, 23 November 2021
1952 Halda Portable Typewriter
Saturday, 20 November 2021
Happiness is a Warm Typewriter: 10½ Years On, the Story Stays the Same
Eight months ago, under the heading “As Good as it Gets”, I posted on this blog the last part of an article by Ann Patchett called “How to Practice: Learning to Let Things Go”, which had appeared in the March 8 New Yorker. It ended with a wonderful story about typewriters.
Today another typewriter-related Patchett story, “Just My Type”, appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend magazine. Sub-headed “Comic timing: how Snoopy mapped out one writer’s life”, it came a week or so after I’d been sorting through my own “Snoopy’s Typewriter” collection. “Happiness is a Warm Typewriter” was one my first posts here, in March 2011, and I started gathering typewriter-related Snoopy items at about that same time.
The Good Weekend go-first with this latest Patchett’s article is, “The canine star of the Peanuts comic strip taught novelist Ann Patchett about the power of imagination, handling rejection - and co-opting coolness.” Below it is an edited extract from To The Doghouse, which appears in Patchett’s latest collection of essays, These Precious Days, to be published by Bloomsbury on Tuesday. The story goes:
I first found Snoopy in Paradise, California, the tiny town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains that was later erased by fire. As children in the late 1960s and early ’70s, my sister and I spent our summers there with our grandparents. We found it to be perfectly named. “We’re on our way to Paradise,” we would say, and “We’ve been in Paradise all summer.”
After the fire, which swept through 45 years after my grandparents left for Nashville, my sister searched the net to see if their house had been spared, but the street was gone. Everything was gone. The sharp detail with which I can remember that house is overwhelming to me now: the room where my grandparents slept in twin beds, the room where I shared a bed with my sister. I remember the cherry trees, the line of quail that crossed the back lawn in the morning to the ground-level birdbath my grandmother kept full for them, Family Affair and the Watergate hearings on TV.
My grandmother had a stock of mass-market Peanuts books she’d bought off a drugstore spinner. Titles like You’ve Had It, Charlie Brown and All This and Snoopy, Too were exactly my speed. I memorised those books. I found Snoopy in Paradise the way another kid might have found God.
Influence is a combination of circumstance and luck: what we are shown and what we stumble upon in those brief years when our hearts and minds are fully open. I imagine that for Henry James, the extended European tour of his youth led him to write about American expatriates. I, instead, was in northern California being imprinted by a comic strip.
When the morning newspaper came, my sister and I read the funnies together. Always Peanuts was first. My formative years were spent in a Snoopy T-shirt, sleeping on Snoopy sheets with a stuffed Snoopy in my arms. I was not a cool kid, and Snoopy was a very cool dog. I hoped the association would rub off on me.
That was pretty much the whole point of Charlie Brown’s relationship with Snoopy: the awkward kid’s social value is raised by his glorious dog. Anyone could see what Charlie Brown got out of Snoopy, even when Snoopy was blowing him off - he raised Charlie Brown’s social stock. But what did Snoopy get out of it? I’m guessing it was the loyalty, the dog-like consistency that people want in a pet, which of course makes Charlie Brown the dog. I had no problem with this. I would have been thrilled to be Snoopy’s dog. I was already his student. Snoopy was a writer, and it was my intention to follow in his path.
Did I become a novelist because I was a loser kid who wanted to be more like the cartoon dog I admired, the confident dog I associated with the happiest days of my otherwise haphazard youth? Or did I have some nascent sense that I would be a writer, and so gravitated towards Snoopy, the dog-novelist? It’s hard to know how influence works. One thing I’m sure of is that through Snoopy, Peanuts creator Charles Schulz raised the value of imagination, not just for me but for everyone who read him.
Snoopy was a famous World War I flying ace who often found himself in dogfights with the Red Baron. He quaffed root beer in the existential loneliness of the French countryside, then was Joe Cool on campus. He pinched Charlie Brown’s white handkerchief to become a volunteer in the French Foreign Legion and was a leader of the Beagle Scouts, a motley flock of little yellow birds. He was a figure skater and hockey player in equal measure, an astronaut, a tennis star, a skateboarder, a pugilist and a suburban pet whose doghouse contained oriental rugs, a pool table and a van Gogh.
This wasn’t just a dog who knew how to dream, this was a dog who so fully inhabited his realities that everyone around him saw them, too. Snoopy heard the roar of the approving crowd as clearly as he heard the bullets whizzing past his Sopwith Camel. Having ventured fearlessly into the world, he could come back to the roof of his doghouse and sit straight-backed in front of his typewriter, to tap out the words that began so many of his stories: “It was a dark and stormy night.”
Wait, am I seriously discussing Snoopy, a cartoon dog, as a writer? Am I believing in him as he was drawn to believe in himself? I am. I did. I do.
“Theoretically, my older brother should be my role model,” Linus’s brother Rerun says. “But that blanket business takes care of that. Which forces me to look elsewhere, and maybe ask the question. Can the neighbour’s dog be a role model?”
The answer is yes.
I once published a long essay in The Atlantic and found myself at the mercy of a smart, zealous young copy editor who told me that it went against the magazine’s style manual to use “it” as a syntactic expletive that has no meaning. “Are you telling me Dickens wouldn’t have been allowed to write, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ ?”
“That’s what I’m telling you,” he said.
“You wouldn’t let Snoopy say, ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ ?”
“Not if he was writing for The Atlantic.”
Why wouldn’t Snoopy be writing for The Atlantic? The first time I’d ever heard of War and Peace was when he performed a six-hour version with hand puppets, just like the first time I heard of Christo was when Snoopy wrapped up his doghouse.
Snoopy didn’t just write his novels, he tried to get them published. In those dark days before electronic submissions, he taught me what it would mean to stand in front of a mailbox, waiting to hear from an editor. He taught me - I cannot emphasise this enough - that I would fail. Snoopy got far more rejection letters than he ever got acceptances, and the rejections ranged (as they will) from impersonal to flippant to cruel.
Later, I could see we’d been building up to this. It wasn’t as if he’d won all those tennis matches. The Sopwith Camel was regularly riddled with bullet holes. He was willing to lose, even in the stories he imagined for himself. He lost, and he continued to be cool, which is to say, he was still himself in the face of both failure and success. The whole writer’s life had been mapped out for me.
First, the importance of critical reading: Charlie Brown to Linus: “I’m sorry … Snoopy can’t go out to play right now … he’s reading.”
Linus: “Dogs can’t read.”
Charlie Brown: “Well, he’s sitting in there holding a book.”
Snoopy in his chair: “There’s no way in the world that Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky could ever have been happy.”
Then, imagination, work, rewriting, being alone, realising that all the good titles had already been taken - A Tale of Two Cities, Of Human Bondage, Heart of Darkness, Snoopy came to all of them too late - sending your work out into the world and facing rejection, which Snoopy internalised and used to his own advantage. He lived through all of it.
Linus rings Charlie Brown’s doorbell and says, “Ask your dog to come out and play ‘Chase the stick’.” Snoopy comes out and hands him a note: “Thank you for your offer to come out and play. We are busy at this time, however, and cannot accept your offer. We hope you will be successful elsewhere.”
Snoopy taught me that I would be hurt and I would get over it. He walked me through the publishing process: being thrilled by acceptance, ignoring reviews, and then having the dream of bestseller-dom dashed: “It’s from your publisher,” Charlie Brown tells Snoopy. “They’ve printed one copy of your novel. It says they haven’t been able to sell it. They say they’re sorry. Your book is now out of print.”
There was more work to do, other books to write. What mattered was that you knew how to love the job. “Joe Ceremony was very short,” Snoopy types. “When he entered a room, everyone had to be warned not to stand on Ceremony.” At which point Snoopy falls off his doghouse backwards, cracking himself up, only to climb up again and look at his typewriter lovingly. “I’m a great admirer of my own writing.”
Oh, beagle, isn’t it the truth? That moment when you write a single, perfect sentence is worth more than an entire box of biscuits. When I didn’t get into the MacDowell Colony [artists’ residency], I remembered Snoopy telling his bird friend Woodstock, “I think it’s an illusion that a writer needs a fancy studio. A writer doesn’t need a place by the ocean or in the mountains: some of our best books have been written in very humble places.” It was enough to send Woodstock back to his nest to type, and to send me back to the kitchen table. Snoopy dedicated his first book to Woodstock, “My friend of friends.”
I probably would have been a writer without Snoopy. I know without a doubt I would have loved dogs. What I don’t know is if my love of writing and my love of dogs would have been so intertwined. Snoopy wasn’t just my role model, he was my dream dog. Because he had an inner life, I ascribed an inner life to all the dogs I knew, and they proved me right. I have lived with many dogs I considered to be my equals, and a couple I knew to be my betters. The times I’ve lived without a dog, the world has not been right, as if the days were out of balance.
“You know what my grandfather says?” Linus tells Charlie Brown’s sister, Sally. “He says every child should have a dog … He says that a child who does not have a dog is like a child deprived.” To which Snoopy, lying on the roof of his doghouse, adds, “The actual term is, ‘Living without benefit of beagle.’”
I’ve never been able to name a dog Snoopy, in the same way I couldn’t name the piglet I got for my ninth birthday Wilbur. It would be to set him up for failure, because no matter how great he was, his ears would never turn him into a helicopter. I did, however, name the dog I have now for Charles Schulz, whose nickname was Sparky.
Sparky has exceeded every expectation. A small, grey-and-white rescue, he comes with me to the bookstore and stands straight up on his back legs to greet customers. Surely he has the talent and the patience to write a novel of his own; I’m just glad he never wanted to. I’ve accepted the fact that my dog is cooler than I am, but it would be hard to deal with if he were also a better writer.
The girl I was in Paradise could never have imagined what life would look like a half a century later: how much would be lost and how much gained. I learnt how to shape myself into who I was going to be with the guidance of a dog in the funny papers. People ask me about my influences, but really it was just the one: Snoopy was my aspiration, my role model. I heard the dog whistle, silent to everyone around me, and followed.