I’ve been in a rather dreamy and dilatory frame of mind over the weekend and in consequence, I am behind on everything. I must apologise to all the friends to whom I owe emails, and I confess I have yet to finish any of the books I’ve been reading. Not that I am entirely to blame there; Miss Marjoribanks, delightful as it is, has 500 pages of small, dense print and takes some reading.

But I found myself thinking today, after a conversation about new technology with Mister Litlove, about the first time that I wrote using a computer. I was a child of the electric typewriter era. Who else remembers those, I wonder? I had one that my father picked up from work that was reminiscent of a small tank, machine-gunning out its letters with stolid intent. And then for a birthday there was a sleek, black number, altogether more sophisticated in that it saved each line up on a little screen and then printed it out on the carriage return. The noise it made was frantic, as if it were beating each line to death. But when I went away to university, I didn’t take these beasts with me; we all handwrote our essays in those days, except for the advanced few who felt they had more chance of outwitting writer’s block down in the dingy basement where a handful of communal computers were kept. It was the haunt of antisocial young men who cared not a jot for their surroundings, and with its formica tables and scrubby carpet, it was the only part of university that hadn’t grown up from school. It was not my sort of terrain.

Well, I graduated and went and worked for a brief while, first in a printing firm, and then when I could bear office life no longer (once again being forcibly reminded of school and its disadvantages) in a bookstore while waiting for my application for graduate studies to go through. And I married Mister Litlove in the meantime and we went to live in a cottage in a small village, a stone’s throw from the riverbank. It was an idyllic little place, whose winding main street stretched away before me when I opened the bedroom window in the morning. Our house was on the end of a row of peach-painted terraces, low-slung, compact, a touch damp if truth be told, but we loved it dearly. Although we lived so close to the river it was the top end of the village that flooded for some reason; across on the other side of the riverbank were water meadows that transformed each spring into a small inland sea, leaving us with our toes mercifully dry. Opposite our cottages there was a large and beautiful house, owned by a rather soulless dentist and his wife who had walked straight out of a Joanna Trollope novel. She was settled in her landscape, charming, the kind of woman who set out in the morning with a wicker basket over her arm and probably gave wonderful dinner parties. Next door to us was an elderly couple, Mim and George, and Mim often looked in on me from time to time, blushing young bride as I then was. Other than that, the tranquility of the village was unbroken, apart from the occasional whirr of an electric zimmerframe, as it was very much an elderly population, as still and silent during the day as in the rural villages of France.

So, anyway, I began my M.Phil and the first thing I had to write was an essay for the core theory course, and already I had a special interest in psychoanalysis. I also loved theory, reading it as if it were a form of fiction, which after all it is, the fiction composed by some terrifically bright person that the world is coherent and explicable. I’d got to grips with a fiendishly difficult theoretician called Julia Kristeva and had decided to reread Freud’s first case study on ‘Anna O’ in the light of her contemporary notions. Well, let’s not get too deep into that; it was fun at the time. Although not so much initially. It had been two years since I’d been in education, and I slaved over my first draft, only to have it roundly trounced by my supervisor. He tore it to shreds, ending up with the bitter complaint that at my level no document should ever be handwritten. I was to do it over again, please, and this time, typed.

Well I was so disappointed, and returned home to Mister Litlove full of that desperate young sorrow that feels like the end of the world over the smallest things. This was all novelty then to my new husband, who was very sweet to me and, to cheer me up, took me out to dinner in the nearby town. We returned to our cottage fully restored and feeling very grown-up for having snatched self-composure back from the jaws of defeat  – although of course it would not be long before I discovered that being really grown-up meant cooking dinner for everyone as usual, no matter what disappointments the day might have held. Now Mister Litlove just so happened to be in possession of a Mac. This was most unusual back in 1993, and I used to tease him that it was one of the big influences in my decision to marry him. To see it now, it looks so quaint and eccentric, a small, chunky box with a titchy screen, but at the time it was pretty cool and desirable. So, I set to work on that Mac, transferring my handwritten pages and rewriting as I went. It was the oddest sensation, so strange that it remains quite clear and distinct in recall. I had never seen my writing on a screen before, and it looked instantly as if it had nothing to do with me; there was a spurious veneer of authority to it, but most important, there was distance. And distance is one of the most useful things you can ever have when writing. I wrote my essay all over again, and it was indeed much better and in fact I went on to publish it in an academic journal a bit later, but I don’t remember how that came about particularly. This ought, I suppose, to be about my first publication, but that sort of passed me by because the following year I had a young son and a lot more to think about.

But that isn’t the end of the saga of that first essay. There I was, finally, with an essay I could be proud of when disaster struck. I was saving each draft religiously, as I had been instructed, little knowing that the disc I was saving it to had become corrupted. I saved it from the computer to the disc, and then went to save it from the disc back to the computer, only apocalypse occurred and the computer crashed. It turned out that the end of file marker in the disc had broken down, and the disc simply could not stop loading. My poor essay was lost.

Four thousand words of psychobabble! Lost! I did not know what to do, and was ready almost to jack in the course, as I only had a couple of days before the deadline and did not think I could possibly write it again. Well, at that time, Mister Litlove was working as a factory manager in a big city and he was on shifts. For the four days he was away, he would stay with his sister, and more often than not, young and inexperienced as I was, I would go and stay with my parents. Even though it was only a little cottage, it creaked like crazy at night, and I never slept well on my own. I had the computer and the disc with me, to mourn over, when the mother of a friend of mine called. Her husband worked in the technician’s laboratory up at the local university and was a dab hand with these newfangled computers. ‘I’ll give it to Geoff,’ she said confidently. ‘He’ll get it back for you.’ And astonishingly, he did. He had access to one of the old BBC computers, a very ancient, early model, and he wrote a programme that retrieved the information from the corrupted disc, byte by byte. That was the turning point in my academic career; I could so easily have given up in the face of insurmountable difficulties. Writing wasn’t the problem, it was technology that had held my fate in its indifferent palm. Seeing as he was a big railway enthusiast, I bought my friend’s father a chocolate train, but it wasn’t really enough to account for my gratitude.

It all seems so long ago, now, another lifetime. By the time I was writing the next essay, oh so much older and wiser, I was pregnant, and then things would be very different. But I remember so vividly being that beginner in my circumstances, the stillness of the village, the little graphic of the cat scratching at the side of the screen on the old Mac, the curious pride I felt at seeing my words appear bold and authoritative, the uncomprehending horror I felt when my essay disappeared. It was, as is so often the case, good luck and bad luck all bundled up together, and a reminder that for all its saving graces, new technology always brings with it new perils.

ETA:  I keep forgetting! I’ve a little article on Marguerite Duras published over at the lovely Open Letters Monthly, if you are interested. Open Letters is always worth a read.


24 thoughts on “Nostalgia

  1. I first used computers in the eighth grade – my school had the kind that used green letters and could do about 3 things – simple math, word processing, and “Oregon Trail”. I didn’t like using them because I could write much faster than I could type, and also I hated the idea of storing “documents” where you couldn’t see them. I had a manual typewriter for a long time, all through college, and I didn’t learn to love the laptop until, oh, 2004?

    I still feel lost and horrified when I lose things – how can you “lose” something you just spent an hour on, just by failing to save it properly? – on my computer.

  2. In terms of the lost art of typewriting, I’m afraid I have one up on you. My first “machine” was an old Remington manual that my father brought home from his office. I was only about three, but learned to type on that thing, sitting at an old desk in the attic of our house by a tiny round window which overlooked the front sidewalk. I vividly remember pounding away up there at imaginary “stories” while the other neighborhood children rode their bicycles on the street below. Yes, I was an odd little duck.

    As I was reading your story about the essay, I had a premonition of the outcome. I am completely amazed that your friend was able to retrieve those words. He must have been quite the techno-geek.

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your reminiscences 🙂 Thank you for sharing them.

  3. What a lovely account – the happy bits I mean! The village sounds nice, but I couldn’t be doing with that tutor – no wonder there are so many dectective stories about murdering university lectureres and so on – yourself absolutely excepted! As to technology, I began teaching with an old BBC megabox, almost bigger than me, probably delivered by Pickford’s, and a data base called Grasshopper with its tedious and unreliable large floppy discs. They really were floppy then! That was the start of many a trauma with lost and corrupted data. The disappearing of endless amounts of information into the computer void finally made me give up on science. How can they possibly say that information cannot be destroyed?

  4. There are few things more terrifying than losing one’s hours or weeks or months of hard work. Which doesn’t happen with paper. I miss the thunk-clank-ding-thunk physicality of typing on a machine and the satisfying catharsis of crumpling up a horrible bit of writing and flinging it onto the floor…instead of simply hitting “delete.”

    But being a two-finger typist, working on a quiet, flat keyboard is easier.

  5. When I was taking my written Ph.D. exam (6 hours), my laptop kept crashing for some unknown reason. I only had six hours in which to give up all my knowledge in some sort of structured framework, and I kept typing away, barely able to see for tears, saving every ten seconds, as it kept crashing and losing half of what I wrote. At the break, I called my husband, absolutely frantic, and he came and fixed it. (Why hadn’t I done that earlier? I don’t know.) That may be the very worst technology-related story of my life. I passed!

    Loved this post.

  6. It might be fun to write an “autobiography” by book. Don’t we think of our lives through books? – oh that Like Water for Chocolate month – remember that The Elegance of the Hedgehog term?

  7. I took a typing class in high school using typewriters (in the mid ’90s, not that long ago!) and then the next year it was all computers and the focus wasn’t even on learning to type anymore, just learning the computer programs. I lost a big final project for the class and didn’t bother redoing it, so I barely passed and it did put me off computers for a while! I’m still a good typist though, my mom was a secretary and I would do the practice exercises she’d do. I wonder how many bloggers can touch type?

  8. I love this post, LL. You write so eloquently of real life, no wonder I lap it up whenever you share something of yours, and your eye for a telling detail is absolutely unerring. Thoroughly satisfying reading. Yep, I too was a uni student in the dying days of the handwritten essay… I got my first computer, a gigantic second-hand clunker, with 21st birthday cash from my granddad. The change had a huge impact on my writing; I’m very grateful to have experienced both hand- and typewritten forms.

  9. A very beautiful post. I like being dreamy. I could comment on a lot. I will just pick one tiny thing. Is Julia Kristeva not as widely read anymore? Or is she not as known outside of France? While doing my post graduate studies at the Sorbonne some ten years back Kristeva, Lacan and Irigaray were still in everybody’s mouth. One tiny other thing. I wonder if I know the place where your cottage was. My boyfriend is from Cambridge but bought a little house in St.Yves. There are many lovely places like the one you describe in that area.

  10. Lovely post. My first computer, in the late 1980s, was an Amstrad. I transferred my whole PhD thesis onto it from my handwritten and very messy notes. I was due to submit it at the beginning of January, and just before Christmas I had just typed in a very long chapter when suddenly I discovered that it had been too big for the floppy disk (no hard drive here) and the computer had dealt with this by removing every fifth word or some such thing. So pages and pages of gobbledygook. That was a very stressful Christmas trying to reassemble it all and find ways of making it fit.

  11. Lovely post. I agree with Di about your eye for detail. Brilliant. To remember the small details of the Mac like that for example. Wow. If this is part of your biography / autobiography exercise then I’m all for it!

    And lovely memories of typewriters and those old computers. Typewriters remind me of my granny who could make hers purr and tick over very smoothly. And when I got a BBC all I did was play games on it and do incredibly basic programming. But our first real computer was a Mac and we still have that cute little box-shaped thing.

  12. Electric typewriters? I remember the manual ones! Then came the electric… my fave: the IBM Selectric with the correction feature. And I thought what an ingenious invention. Thanks for a wonderful post. You sure have incredible memory power. I look forward to reading your memoir. 😉 BTW, you might like to check out the current film recommendations I’ve included in reply to your comment on my post.

  13. Great Duras essay, LL – I read it aloud to Baby J and he was extremely attentive – in fact, he looks like he would like to discuss some of the finer points with the author.

  14. I used electronic typewriters too, through college and a little bit into grad school. I remember realizing that 20 pages in the courier font of my electronic typewriter is not quite the same as 20 pages in Times New Roman of the computer I switched over to! I’m curious to hear about Miss Marjoribanks when you finish. Should I mention that there are a lot of Oliphant books available for free online and good for ereaders? Probably not 🙂

  15. Ella -Oh! oh! I know – HOW can it be lost, after all that time and effort? Surely if one goes back a page or checks the header and footer bars, surely it is still there? Your instincts to distrust saving something precious in an invisible location were undoubtedly good ones! Like most artists you probably have nice handwriting, too!

    Becca – the thought of a real Remington! How wonderful! And I would have been typing right alongside you. I did have a manual typewriter I learned on, that was given to me the Christmas I was 12 (I recall it vividly). I could never quite get a satisfactory ‘a’ though, because I couldn’t hit the key hard enough. I could have kissed the feet of the man who saved my work – really, it was a miracle that he produced for me that day!

    Bookboxed – lol! It gets destroyed very efficiently by my computer, even today, if it is in the right sort of mood. And I did love your description of the BBC computer arriving by Pickfords. I remember hearing a report on the evening news that said everyone would one day have a computer in their own homes, and thinking, nah, whatever for? I can ever remember floppy discs, dreadful things that they were. I still don’t trust science – one day someone will pull the wrong plug and we will all be in a great deal of trouble.

    Caitlin – I did so enjoy your comment! You know, that is exactly what is missing from my life – the possibility of ripping a sheet out of a typewriter and flinging it away in disgust. You just can’t act out with a laptop in the same way.

    Jenny – I FELT for you, reading this! What a complete and utter trauma. I am so very glad that your husband could come and fix the computer, and naturally you passed. But what terrible circumstances to have to do it under!

    Mary – when I was first blogging, I did a post like that! It sounds like a wonderful idea for a whole book project – does it tempt you to do it?

    Carolyn – if I had lost my essay, I don’t think I would have had the courage to do it over again. There is something so utterly debilitating about one’s precious work going down a black hole. I’ve lost posts before now, and comments on posts, and I always give up and walk away because it’s too painful to do over. I’d love to know how many of us can touch type. We should get bloggers to put their hands up to be counted!

    Doctordi – aw you are a real darling. And thank you SO much for reading the article at Open Letters. Now that is very precious solidarity! Isn’t it interesting to have experienced both the old typewriter and the word processor. It made such a difference, didn’t it, and in unexpected ways, with the timing of a piece, and so on. I’ll bet authors are less economical with words now than they used to be, because the thought of retyping with all those carbons must have been so daunting. I must say that I was a bit of a rubbish typist and always made loads of errors, so the backspace key is a dear, dear friend of mine.

    • It wasn’t exactly a hardship, sweetheart – it was a great read. What a character! Reminds me a little of Dorothy Parker, what with the sour alcoholism and doomed love affairs… I think one of her husbands even had an eye for the fellas. I do envy you your French language skills, too.

  16. Caroline – You are so right about Kristeva (and Lacan and Irigaray). She was all the rage 20 years ago, but less so now. Although she is still publishing very good work (I still enjoy it!). But then everyone seems to be doing film studies, so maybe she is just not so useful as a theorist in that arena. As for the location of my cottage – you get five gold stalker points!! 🙂 I do hope you find that funny, I was laughing while typing it. You are spot on, in any case.

    Harriet – oh no! I remember those Amstrads and the fact they could do bizarre and unwarrented things. What a dreadful trial that must have been. If it’s any consolation, my other computer story concerns the first 43 pages of a novel I had written, which in a moment of poor dexterity with the mouse I sorted alphabetically by paragraph and then saved that way. It was like a French experimental novel. It took forever to put back the way it was, and naturally, like taking a motorcycle apart and then restoring it, I was left with a handful of paragraphs that never found a home again….

    Pete – aw hugs to you! It is somehow easy to write about the past – the problem is finding events that are worth writing about! I can imagine your granny – I think it was such an incredible skill that old-style touch typing on a manual. When someone could do it fast it was like being in the presence of genius. And so cool that you know exactly what those old BBC and Mac computers looked like. We still have the Mac in a cupboard somewhere – can’t really bear to part with it!

    Lilian – I am so looking forward to that!

    Arti – oh I remember the correction feature! I had completely forgotten it until you mentioned it, but yes, I remember thinking it was a form of salvation (I did make a lot of mistakes typing!). And bless you for making me film recommendations. I came over and read them this morning, and as soon as I have another little moment I will leave you a comment.

    Doctordi – oh and tell Baby J that I am completely up for that discussion whenever he’s in the mood. And tell him also that if he can’t sleep nights, I have any number of old academic papers that might be just the trick for that! 🙂

    Dorothy – lol!! I would so love to read those Oliphant novels, just not on an ereader. Maybe someone will take pity on me and produce POD versions! I am halfway through Miss Marjoribanks (she says wiping her forehead) and it is consistently amusing and jolly, but it is a slow read, and one that comments on everything that happens, even when not much happens. I am enjoying it, but I will need something superspeedy to whip through next, for the sake of variety!

  17. And it is at this moment that Em goes to pick up her USB drive to save all her drafts.

    Nice story. I was relieved to hear you were able to retrieve the essay. Oh! the horror of having to write it again!

    Funnily enough, I have only started writing directly on the computer very late in my studies. I finally realised it would save me a lot of time. I still need the hardcopy to revise my drafts; otherwise I just spend hours scrolling up and down while I scratch my head. Nothing like a red pen and even a pair of scissors!

  18. My aunt had a computer when I was a little kid, and she let me use it to learn skills like typing and saving documents regularly to external back-up systems. Which did not, of course, stop me from losing many a story over the years to carelessness and computer error. I have three typewriters at home though. I like the noise they make. I have two manual ones and an electric.

  19. I got through high school typing up essay on my mom’s behomoth of a Selectric that was quite top of the line for its day. When I went to college I got one of those little black typewriters that saved the line like you had. I got a PC in 1990, a bootleg copy of Windows 3.0 from my brother-in-law, and a dirt cheap copy of Word Perfect from my mom with her educator’s discount. typed my master’s thesis on it and got my first taste of computer tinkering when my advisor objected to the straight up and down quotation marks the thing produced and told me I had to make them curve properly. An hour and half on the phone with Word Perfect tech support and they helped me figure out how to do it, a maneuver that required overriding every set of quotation marks with an individual piece of code. Oh, those were the days!

  20. What a lovely post. I can still remember typing my essays and papers in college on a wonderful little portable typewriter. I didn’t use a computer or word processing programs until I began my career. You have given me some lovely memories of those wonderful days of my early experiences with computers.

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