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.