The good news: there’s a piece in today’s Observer featuring me, talking about my typewriters. It’s part of a wider feature on folk who also like/collect/make use of analogue technology in their day-to-day lives. I was approached out of the blue by the lovely Gemma Kappala Ramsamy, who works on the Guardian/Observer, and asked if I’d fancy doing it, so I said yes. The article also features a very lovely photo of me (and a rather fetching 3-bank Underwood), shot by Murdo McLeod. (Big thanks to both Gemma and Murdo, by the way.) If you want to see the article in the flesh, it’s on pages 12 and 13 of the Review section. Otherwise, you can read it online here.
The bad news: some (in fact, most) of the comments on the article are personal, judgemental and deeply hurtful. There are also — pretty much every one of them — anonymous.
Of course, I know only too well the sort of dross that comment threads on big-hitting websites generally tend to attract. I know only too well that the Guardian/Observer pages seem to play host a particularly nasty breed of commenter — I’ve seen the holier-than-thou brigade hanging around many times before, particularly at the books blog, which really seems to get it bad. These aren’t your standard Youtube-style trolls, either — these commenters are educated, they know what they’re talking about and are at pains to tell you so; these are commenters who know how to blockquote, who’ll recommend you “do your research” by recommending some great-but-obscure book they know (using the Harvard referencing system to give you the link); commenters who have statistics to back up their arguments, and who all have terribly dry, witty screennames behind which to hide while they spit out vitriol. They are, in short, self-righteous — but cowardly — killjoys.
I know all of this, as I say, only too well. And actually, in comparison to some of the other folk featured in the article — the girl who collects vinyl and DJs using gramophones, for instance — I’ve got off pretty lightly in the slagging-off stakes. However, I’ve never been one to just sit back and allow myself to be picked on, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to respond to some of the comments. Many are, of course, just inane and/or ignorant — of the “you’re all hipsters”, “you’re all precocious/pretentious”, “you’re artsy tossers” school of thought. I have the same thing to say to this entire band of sad individuals and it is as follows:
OK, I’m a hipster/wanker/tosser/pretentious bitch/yadayadayada, if you say so. But look, The Observer sought me out to write about, because I am doing something interesting and saying something people might want to read. The only way you can get in The Observer is by parading your sour grapes in the comment thread, with the rest of the folk who are content to use their lives sitting on their arses and bitching. And there aint nothing new about what you’re doing, and there aint nothing interesting about what you’re saying. Finally — my name is in print, right there. You’re hiding behind a screenname and an avatar. Would you say that stuff to my face, if you saw me at a poetry gig or the like? If the answer is yes, you’re a f___ing arsehole. If the answer is no, you’re a f___ing arsehole. So frankly, I’d rather be the most precocious, pretentious, liberal artsy hipster tosser under the sun than one of you.
However, some of the commenters do seem to want to genuinely engage with what I’ve said — albeit, in some cases, in a rather aggressive way. See their thoughts — and my responses — below:
24 April 2011 4:20AM
No I wouldn’t want to go back to using a typewriter - I remember all the fuss with ribbons and somehow never getting it just right, and the hassle of keys getting jammed - and imagine having to retype a whole document for a couple of errors. And banging down hard on those manual typewriter keys. No I love the soft touch of my lap top even though in the sixties I was overjoyed when someone lent me a typewriter and totally embraced it as ‘new technology’.
Fair dos Kenneth. I agree — sometimes typewriters are a massive pain in the butt. Ribbons are messy and smeary, sticky keys can make any document look scruffy and amateurish, and making an error when you’re three quarters of the way through something can sometimes be the worst feeling in the world. My main problem with them (although this is perhaps only a problem because I have a few, rather than just one) is moving house. You have to really love the bastard things in order to put up with all their foibles. I’ll freely admit that part of the appeal of a typewriter for me is probably in the fact that I get to choose to use one as and when I feel like it — I don’t remember the days when your typewriter was your only means of word-processing and some people slaved for hours every day over such a machine. I realise I’m fortunate — and a little weird.
24 April 2011 6:41AM
There’s some art in vintage equipment but it really doesn’t work that well (and its in very poor taste to vandalize old stuff to make something “new” IMO).
It depends what you mean by “working well.” A typewriter is a slower (and heavier, and noisier) word-processing machine than a PC, and yeah, editing is much easier on a computer. But it does the job — and, as I say in the article, has a much longer lifespan. You can spill your coffee on the keyboard and just carry on typing; you don’t need to find a free plug socket or download any upgrades to keep it going. Powercut? Give me a candle and I’m good to go. And I agree entirely with the latter statement. I’m very, very much against people who rip up sought-after typewriters to make daft steampunk-style laptops, for example.
24 April 2011 8:16AM
Whether analog or digital, they’re only tools and only any use if the person wielding them has something worthwhile to say. Nostalgia does not produce good art any more reliably than an obsession with newness.
Good point that man. Check out some of my poetry, then you’re actually equipped to decide whether or not I’m just some nostalgic hipster, or making something worthwhile. Yippee!
24 April 2011 8:59AM
[Part of a longer comment]
Incidentally, writing poetry on a typewriter is no big deal. Some authors write their entire manuscripts longhand, such as Neal Stephenson, many of whose works are over 900 pages long. Perhaps he has his favourite pen, but the pen isn’t the point.
Thank you, sir, for writing a comment using what appears to be your real name. I like the way you operate. Now, if you could show me exactly where in the article I said a) that writing poetry on a typewriter is a big deal, or b) that using my favourite typewriter is totally the point of anything I write, I’d be super obliged. Thanks.
24 April 2011 9:01AM
[Part of a longer comment]
Bollocks to the 20 year old artists. I’m not arsed with “artists” who are not born of the age of vinyl who use it as a gimmick for their own work. To me, a collector is an artist. Anyway, I will never surrender my Mac and my ability to listen and watch stuff on Youtube. Technology is good.
Agreed — I say so myself in the article. Now, have you ever heard the expression “horses for courses”? And collectors — I collect typewriters. I also collect vinyl records. I don’t believe I use either of these things ‘for’ (what do you mean? To promote?) my work. Are you saying that simply because I am in my twenties, my interest in these things is not legitimate?
24 April 2011 9:09AM
Lord look down. Somebody whose ‘art work’ (oxymoron) is so unrecognisable as such that they have to use a cheap gimmick to get noticed actually gets noticed. Who pays for you bunch to eat?
I do. As well as reading a totally unfunded (i.e., I pay for it myself) PhD, I work full time in further education, higher education and community outreach. I have never asked for or received money from a funding body and when I do poetry gigs I’m lucky if I get my travel expenses paid. What do you do? (Oh, and you spell it Jekyll.)
24 April 2011 9:40AM
Re: Claire Askew. The poetry is somehow improved by using an old fashioned typewriter?
I have vellum screeds prepared by an ancient, toothless farmhand from Kincardine. These are pigskins which are soaked in a mixture of brine and manure for 6 months and then scraped to wafer thin with a rusty knife. I commission a fellow to kidnap geese at night; I select the stiffest feathers, order a young lad to trim them and fashion nibs. With a mixture of soot and the crushed shells of certain crustaceans, my ink is made by a phalanx of blind beggars from Banff.
Now, even my most post-modern brutalist tracts read like they have come from the 18th century, and are much improv’d.
I said my poetry is improved by using a typewriter. Obviously, I would never dare make generalisations on the writing process of poets or writers in general — everyone’s different. But since you bring it up, I think I can safely say just from looking at this comment that you can vellum screed yourself til you’re blue in the face (in fact, I wish you would)… but if you think this shit is funny, you’ll never be a decent writer.
24 April 2011 1:32PM
It’s interesting that they all seem far more interested in the technology than in the end product, which does seem to be very much a contemporary phenomenon. I’m fairly sure that all the thousands of writers who used typewriters - or quill pens or papyrus or tablets going back - didn’t find the tools themselves interesting, but what they could be used to create. Technology, from stone tablets to the latest gizmo, is only ever the tool of production, not the creativity and not the product.
Shockingly, because it’s an article about analogue technology I was asked to talk specifically about the technology. Had it been an article about just my work in general, typewriters would barely have featured. Yes, I find typewriters fascinating — and beautiful — but I am primarily interested in producing good poems. And actually, I think I talk a fair bit about my actual writing and the ways in which using a typewriter facilitates (rather than dominates) my creative process. But it’s an article about the technology. I was asked to talk about typewriters, so I did. You’re essentially saying “why are they all talking about what they were interviewed about? I want them to talk about something entirely different!”
24 April 2011 4:36PM
This is very frustrating. It appears that these people are not choosing alternatives to digital because of any apparent benefit, although I would argue that certain analogue objects do have their merits when compared to their modern-day counterparts, but from a shallow desire to appear ‘rad’ or somehow different to the ‘plebs’ using perfectly decent modern equipment. Thanks to these people everyone else who occasionally dabbles in the past (I for instance like using old cameras, but purely out of enjoyment for the process and fun of it, I hold no doctrine that my methods are superior to those using digital cameras) is branded in the same category as these pretentious hipsters.
Imagine, if you will, having numerous snide and personal assumptions made about you, based on about 600 words of (heavily edited) text; having someone put quote-marks around words you never actually said; having someone accuse you of holding views you absolutely do not in any way espouse. Imagine this happening to you in a public forum, in which your identity is exposed, but in which your attacker is able to remain anonymous while passing judgement on you. You think you’re frustrated? Give me a damn break, baby.
So, now you’ve seen some of the stuff I was greeted with when I raced to my computer to get a first peek at the article this morning, after weeks of waiting. I daresay some of you may think me infantile for responding in this fashion. I daresay some folk will go away smugly thinking “well, we obviously upset her — she’s devoted a whole post to us.” Infantile? Maybe — but as I say, I’ve never taken being picked on lying down — particularly not when the bullies in question are ignorant cowards who’ll chuck stones from a safe distance but not come out and actually square up to me. And upset? You’re damn right I’m upset. Thanks to these ignorant commenters, my excitement at being involved in the piece was quite severely dampened, and yes — for a while, I felt pretty darned hurt.
HOWEVER. I was and still am chuffed, flattered and humbled to be asked to comment in The Observer. I was really happy to get the chance to talk about something I’m genuinely passionate about, and to collaborate on the piece with such fabulous people (thanks again to Gemma, and to Murdo for the photo). I’m still really proud of the fact that I’ve been featured in a national newspaper (again), and I’m really pleased with the job Gemma did in cutting down the contents of our hour-long interview into (I think) a tight, snappy article. And the best bit: in the twelve-or-so hours since I went and picked up my copy of the paper, I’ve received heaps of emails and messages from folk I’ve never met or spoken to in my life. People have emailed me to tell me stories about their own typewriters, to show me their typewriter poems or to share their thoughts on the writing process. Some people just seem to want to geek out, asking me which makes and models I have and telling me about their collections. I couldn’t let the small minority of comment-thread wankers slide by unanswered, but I am now quite happy to give them all a great big screw you and forget about it. I’m off to forge some positive new working relationships with the awesome folk flooding my inbox. What — “Drust”, “TomTomSweeney” and friends — are you doing right now?
Are you an angry Observer commenter? How about you drop the wanky screenname and fight like a man. Alternatively, maybe you think typewriters are awesome and trolls are stupid and you’d like to say hello. Either way, I can be found at firstname.lastname@example.org.