Thursday, 22 November 2012

Tom and Val...

Valerie Eliot died earlier this month. On the day I found out, the last UK-manufactured typewriter was made in North Wales.

In my own Eeyorish introverted way I mourned the passing of both T S Eliot's widow and the machine which gave my life a new futile sense of purpose round about the age of 18.

This sense of purpose survived the usual ups and downs of the Ed Reardon way of life for nearly 40 years until I acquired my own personal computer. The big grey Adler, on which I had pounded out so many immortal masterpieces, was shoved to one side.

T S Eliot, whose long delicate fingers had typed out the manuscripts of The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, The Waste Land, Four Quartets and Murder in the Cathedral, got married to Valerie Fletcher when he was 68 and she was 30. Reportedly they lived happily ever after until the Nobel Prize-winning poet's death in 1965.

Valerie Fletcher's family lived in Leeds. I have a memory of Alan Bennett telling me that his father, a butcher, used to deliver meat to the Fletcher home, but I may be wrong. The thought of TSE - the Pope of Russell Square, as the poetry editor of Faber & Faber was known among his friends - taking the train up to Leeds to meet his secretary's folks used to amaze me. After all he was an institution. It was like putting Westminster Abbey on a bus to have tea with the United Reformed Church in Shipley.

For 47 years Valerie Eliot looked after her husband's literary estate, issuing at least two volumes of his letters and the original typed manuscript of The Waste Land containing Ezra Pound's amendations in red. This volume showed the vital role the wandering Ezra had played in bringing out the essential poem that we know. He cut away swathes of verse and suggested alternative words and phrases many of which Eliot accepted. This publication demonstrated that literature is essentially collaborative. I only wish that Eliot had been able to submit parts of Four Quartets to Pound; but by that time the former editor of Blast was having problems of his own in Italy.

When I was a boy the only keyboard in our house was a piano which my mother dusted and polished regularly. She paid for it on HP. Nobody could play it, properly. I used to stand before it for hours in the cold plonking up and down the black and whites, listening to the sounds reverberating. Years later with a smaller keyboard of my own to play I used to sit before it for hours in the cold, trying to bring to life the shape and form of words tingling my nerve ends. I think I owned only two or three machines. If the first was an Olivetti, the last was my lovely Adler. It was my table-top Messerschmitt - not because I fired withering fusillades of words but because the machine's grey cowling reminded me of the fuselage of an ME109. 

Even when we switched to new technology at work, I kept hammering away at the Adler at home, believing that it kept my wrists and fingers exercised. It was a cheaper way of writing than an electricity-consuming pc. All you needed was a decent ribbon and a supply of paper. Now you need a printer, expensive inks, paper, a keyboard and a power supply to write the works that will be read long after Shakespeare and Tolstoy have been forgotten.

When the power starts to fail and the lights finally go out, the disappearance of typewriters will be regretted. The writers of fin de siecle novels will have to learn again the discipline of longhand to write their apocalyptic epics.

On a brighter note, the end of desk-top publishing will mean vastly fewer books. It's an ill wind.

1 comment:

collectedworks said...

Dear Jim,Thank you for this... I met David around 70/72 in England. I describe the encounter in Geraldine Monk's CUSP anthology. Only a snippet. Im very sorry to hear this news. What an awful way to go. Much to think about. I hadnt been in touch for many years. Ive posted a note on my F/book page just now, and copied the obit from the Bradford newspaper. Is it possible to "share" your reminiscence also? Im off to work now but will read your piece again tonight. Best wishes on this sad day. Kris Hemensley [in Melbourne]