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  • At sixteen I received from my parents, for Christmas, a typewriter. It was an Imperial 70, a huge majestic monster of a machine that weighed more than a wardrobe. I had recently become interested in the theatre – I mean really interested, interested enough to consider doing it as a university subject, which was pretty radical in 1979 when Drama had not established much in the way of respectability as an academic subject. So, I suppose I probably harboured pretensions as a writer. Which was why I asked for a typewriter. I can’t be sure about that last bit, but it will do. So, I harboured pretensions as a writer.

    To be honest, it was a pretty big ask. Typewriters were not cheap and my parents struggled financially – that much I knew. The best I could have hoped for was a small portable – one of those rather flimsy machines that came in a leatherette carry-case. Certainly, I did not expect anything like the serious writing machine that was the Imperial 70. That was a machine for real writers. Serious writers.

    We lived in Bolton. My father worked in Wigan at the time and he didn’t drive. So his journey to work involved two buses and a half mile walk from our house to the bus stop. It would take about one and a half hours during the rush hour. The walk from home to the bus stop in the morning wasn’t too bad (I know – I did the same walk myself every morning on the way to school), because it was downhill. It was the walk back after a long day’s work that was the killer – having to drag yourself uphill for half a mile.

    My father worked as an accounts clerk and the company he was working for was getting rid of all its old manual typewriters and replacing them with electric ones and my father was able to buy this Imperial 70 for a knock-down price, even cheaper than a second-hand portable might have normally cost. That’s how they managed to afford to get me this typewriter for Christmas. But more than that – as I said, it weighed a ton. I used to struggle carrying it across the room. My father carried that Imperial 70 from his office in Wigan, on two buses and then up that final half mile one December evening. His arms must have been falling off by the time he got home. God knows how he managed to smuggle it into the house without my knowing.

    My father was not a man of heroic tendencies, but this he did in his own quiet way. For me, yes, but also for himself in a way. He was what used to be called a bookworm, an avid reader and I know he would have loved to have been a writer if he hadn’t been such a shy man, so was thrilled that I wanted to write as well. Now I think about it, we probably harboured the same pretensions.

    One of the first things I wrote on that typewriter was a short story that I entered into a competition run for 6th Form students by a High Street Bank. I was one of fifty winners (along with broadcaster Mark Lawson, Guardian film critic Pete Bradshaw and novelist Ali Smith) who spent seventeen days of the following summer travelling in luxury around Europe – London, Paris, Brussels, Antwerp, Heidelberg, Lucerne, Bologna and Venice. And that typewriter accompanied me during my undergraduate days and the first few years of my professional career. I knew the feel of every individual key, the weight of the carriage return and every little idiosyncrasy in its mechanism. If I close my eyes I can recall the precise sound of the bell that rang at the end of every line of text and also that of the ratchet of the roller as it moved the page up a single line. I can feel the temperature of its metal casing and I can even smell the ribbon. Writing on that typewriter is the nearest thing I have ever come to manual work.

    I kept my Imperial 70 for many years after I stopped using it and had moved onto computers, justifying its continuing presence in my office as a reliable back-up for the day the computer failed. It was only when we finally moved house from Devon to Wales that I finally agreed to relinquish it. By that time my father had already been dead for six years and the keys on the old machine had become rusted and jammed. Furthermore, we simply couldn’t fit it in the removals van. We were beginning a new, exciting phase of our lives on that day, and it seemed as good a time as any to move on and leave my old Imperial 70 behind.
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