The Dream As Advertised
All my life I’ve chased the perfect writing gadget.
At fourteen-ish, I signed up to a school typing course to get the free (loaned) typewriter. I taught myself to type one-fingered. It never occurred to me to attend the typing course — the quick brown fox could jump over whatever it liked; I had The Great Adolescent Novel to write.
At home, that birthday, my Father found for me an enormous metal typewriter with a double-wide carriage. I’m surprised that I can’t remember the make. I had it for years. I can remember carrying it in and out of various halls of residence, rooms in shared houses, flats. It left a deep imprint in the passenger-seat of my first car.
Then I got a job and banged away at news stories and features on one of the office Olivettis. Some time around then, without really thinking about it, I gave up smoking. My other hand took to holding a mug of coffee rather than a cigarette — I still type with my left index finger (and I was, and still am, faster than most — I’d sometimes come out of The Zone to find that a visitor to the editorial office had stopped to watch me).
Start of the digital day
Then I bought an Amstrad PCW 8256. I was still on the Olivettis at work, but when I got home I’d get to grips with the Start of Day Disc and my various word-processing discs and the printer that came as part of the package — because of course writing was all about producing sheets of paper with print on them.
I still have quite a few of those discs, in a box somewhere. I’m in no hurry to find out what’s on them. The Great Transcribed Adolescent Poetry Collection is in there somewhere. [Note to self: find and destroy those discs.]
My favourite gadget of all time, though, my absolute favourite, was my Psion Organiser Series 3. I carried that in the inside right-hand top pocket of my jacket, and I wrote 10,000 words of my first published book on it. Eventually it broke — clamshell; the hinges wore out — and I bought a Series 5. Not so good, but it taught me programming.
When the Apples came
Meanwhile, back in the office, big Apple Macs appeared on our desks. The training course happened, and the Olivettis were stored on purpose-built shelves above head-height around the office — in case “digital” turned out to be a fad. I took my first laptop on a work trip to Jersey — but it was so big I couldn’t fit it into the overhead compartment for the jump to Guernsey.
Then the dream started to be advertised. The shiny silver dream in which photogenic young people stared at their laptops in rapture. They perched in the branches of trees, on logs, on riverbanks, on beaches, staring into their screens as if to say: Look-at-me-I-can-do-this-anywhere-and-I’m-so-cool-about-it. Remember those ads?
Something about that dream filtered into my search. I was no longer simply looking for the perfect writing gadget. In my most impressionable heart I’d fallen in love with — the dream as advertised. Just think how my writing would be transformed if I could become one of those zeitgeisty young people working so happily on their enviably state-of-the-art silver logo-displaying rectangles!
I want what they’re staring at
But I never found anything that would open fast enough to catch an inspiration on the fly.
I’ve scribbled phrases on my hand, daubed perfect opening sentences on paper napkins — while waiting for my beautiful silver laptop to stop grunting and buzzing at me and just [bleep]ing open a Word file. I’ve scribbled whole stories onto fliers unstuck from cafe windows while waiting for my latest-model tablet to get bored with repeatedly unfurling its maker’s name at me.
And that’s where this story goes next. I remember the frustration that killed the dream. I realised that I was sacrificing inspiration for the slow loading of all the functionality I didn’t want.
What’s that partridge doing up there?
At least I’ve got my phone, which means I can make calls and gaze for hours at clips of babies laughing and people unblocking drains on flooded suburban roads. But — never mind tiny house — tiny keyboard. That’s the state of the art for me in 2023, plus or minus a few pictures of cats.
I’ve also got two tablets, three laptops, a drawer-full of old phones, several boxes of discs, one plastic crate of serial, parallel, USB, firewire and other ex-useful connectors, three wifi keyboards, two removed hard drives, one big external drive, a lot of USB drives, three French hens, two turtle-doves and a first-generation Raspberry Pi still in its original packaging.
But I actually write in a Paperblank (paper) notebook. Recently, after much thought, I made the decision to switch from Moleskine. If the new art store ever gets round to stocking Leuchtturm 1917, as several different people have written in their suggestion book, on different occasions, in different handwriting that doesn’t look at all like mine, I might switch again.
That day I hit peak-tech
But I still dream, though. Can’t stop. Consider the Freewrite Traveler, for example. No more affordable than my Psion Organiser Series 3 was, back in the day, but if I found the right table at the right coffee shop…
I don’t know. Would I really use it?
After all, I’m writing this on a very old A4 pad — no, wait, I’m writing these last paragraphs on here for a reason. I went and found this particular A4 pad — it has barcodes printed in the corners of every page, so it’s a tech-enabled A4 pad — because it dates back to the most tech moment of my life. The day I hit peak tech.
That’s where I’m going to finish today.
I was at a fintech conference in Boston. Bill Gates was about to speak. I had a digital recorder and a laptop, and Rob the photographer was with me, and what I needed was — something to scribble down the timings of the most quotable remarks as shown on the recorder. [Note: if you click that link, Bill Gates takes his paper notes out of his pocket at 18:12. I’m in good company.]
I pulled out that A4 pad.
So there I was, with my digital recorder and my laptop, and there was Rob, crouching below the stage with his digital cameras and lenses, and there was Bill Gates, about to speak to a room full of the most connected, most networked people on the planet.
I opened my A4 pad and took the cap off my Biro, and I was ready.
In fairness, I did once write a whole story — this one — on my phone in a hospital bed after waking up from an operation. Yes, I do use Google Docs. Yes, also Microsoft Word, and yes, occasional alternatives. Back on the laptop now.
A Morris Minor 1000, thank you for asking. No, not the Traveller version with the wooden trim. Grey, and not very good on hills. I miss that car.
If you’re reading this from inside a tech ad, here’s a glossary of terms that might come in useful:
Creativity (n): mastery of Spider Solitaire
Consider (v): daydream about
Meeting (n): colleagues, typically young, gathered around a screen in an open-plan office and grinning at whatever’s on the screen. Typically, one colleague will be pointing at the screen.
Work (n): checking messages
Here’s a book. Read it now, on the screen of your choice.