When I was thirteen I won £1000 in a competition. It was for naming the qualities that made a Sunsilk Supergirl. A man ran the doorbell at our family house in Wimbledon early one summer’s evening and asked for me. He needed to verify that I was a real person. The prize was £1000 or an open-topped Sunbeam Alpine. With a tiny proportion of the money I bought a grey Olivetti typewriter in a hard case. The prize convinced me anything was possible if you tried (not that listing the qualities was hard). But more importantly it bought me that typewriter.
So, aged 13 I am dressed up in a white dress, clutching a lilac bag, and with sleek hair and white-rimmed shades going to to collect my winnings in London. Meanwhile my 13 year old alter ego Tessa, the anti-heroine of my novel Fire Child, is ruthlessly seducing patronising older men, also in Wimbledon, until her activities cause real trouble. It is she who is in command. I never liked novels or films where women are victims. Give me ‘Kill Bill’ over ‘Terminator’ any time. When I returned from receiving the prize (see pic – hmm, I don’t look that innocent, more Tessa than Sally) I poured my thoughts into my diary, as I have done all my life. I had decided I would become a writer. I would take control. After all, I had money to support me when the time came, and most importantly soon I would have a typewriter. It was the turning point for my life, that day when the man arrived at our door.
At first I wrote my stories in long hand. I wrote stories of a girl whose father’s plane had crashed in the mountains and now she lived wild with animals and stole from the bourgeoisie in the village below. The girl was courageous and didn’t care about social conventions, none of my heroines did, though I was a good girl if you can call wanting to do terrible things being good. I sat writing late at night in my lilac bedroom, looking up sometimes to stare at my reflection in the dark window. I acted out the games sometimes, because what is story writing but a form of make believe? I liked watching my white hand move over the lined paper of the cheap exercise books I used to write in. My handwriting wasn’t good but still I liked, as I still like, seeing the emotion in the shape of the letters, how the handwriting sprawls when I am excited by what I am writing, how at other times it is neat, how sometimes it is in biro, sometimes fountain pen (which we had to use at school) and sometimes pencil. The physical drama of writing was part of the pleasure of writing.
Even writing by typewriter is much less interesting than writing by hand. In the days before computers, before the word processor, before typewriters, before even fountain pens, Dickens wrote his four million words with quill pens and used different inks and nibs, with different ink flows, to give handwriting variations. He did some pretty good work without a typewriter or a computer while Queen Victoria wrote millions of words in her letters and journals as well as ruling an empire. And how very much more interesting to write in that way, with cuttings out and notes in the margin, than homogenised by a word processor. As for scholars reading the words of these Victorian monoliths, the energy and dash is in the forms of their handwriting as well as their words. What will future scholars have to study? Some emails and some Times Roman manuscripts without any mistakes.
But times changed. To submit an article or a story it was necessary to type it out therefore I learnt to type, but badly. But I liked the magic typewriter I had won, ticket to another world. Looking back, I realise I especially liked making corrections with Tippex because of the high it supplied, a little like sniffing glue. As I was untidy and always making corrections, my work would be matted with Tippex and I would often be inspired. Typing was physical. When I wanted to reorganise pages I would cut with scissors the part I wanted to move and place it elsewhere, applying sellotape to attach the pieces. Sorted. Cut and paste, in the old days. There were no ink cartridges to buy, all you had to do was change the ribbons. I liked the noise too, the thumping. It connected you with the outside world whereas the world of computers is eerily quiet as you tap your words into the strange grey world that exists inside the screen. Everything comes out looking the same, so neat, no violet ink or blue ink splodges, no curly letters or dramatic slashes, no typing cutting into the page. When I edited a literary magazine, ‘Books and Bookmen’, a much-praised writer was the first to submit copy that had been word-processed. It didn’t read the same as the energetic, vital copy he used to submit. It was oddly flattened and ordinary as if inside the computer were little factory workers smashing down every verbal flourish or eccentricity.
Of course now I don’t know where I would buy a typewriter ribbon. I don’t know if I could bear to thump at a typewriter. But I do know I can buy fountain pens and I know I can buy inks of all kinds of hues. I began this with turquoise ink in a lined notebook then as it began to write itself I moved onto the computer.
So often through my life it has worked like that, the implements of writing helping the mind to take off, to race, to play. The smooth movement of the medium nib of a Cross fountain pen over lined paper, with no glare from an computer screen, there’s nothing quite like it. It connects you up to all the people who have written like this in the past, so long ago, in Egypt, in Victorian times, a man or woman and some paper, telling the story, watching the words take shape as the writer makes them take shape, up and over, down and down, swirling and twirling, choosing how many words on a line, without anything telling you what to do, how to spell, when to turn from one line to another. That’s freedom, dazzling stuff.