Life In The Stone Age, or The Lost Art Of Whingeing

30 Mar

Some thoughts by Neil K. Henderson, electronically archived for posterity.

I am writing this now, while there is still time. For all I know, I may already be the last of my kind, but I have decided to put ink on paper (yes! ink and paper – does that shock you, my audience?) in hopes that these words might somehow reach a kindred spirit, that they might know that they are not alone. If it is already too late, then perhaps my text can be used to script some kind of virtual reality exhibit on primitive customs. (Pray gaze respectfully on my hologram – remember, I once was flesh and blood, like you…)

I come from a time before that imp, the Microchip, did make a mockery of our ancient craft. I am of that time-honoured brood of writers, who have laboured to set down the fruits of their imaginations by the process of… well… actually writing them down. I know this must seem an outlandish practice, so let me explain it simply. See, back in the old days, there were still some of us who hadn’t won the Lottery (before it became compulsory to buy tickets), and who didn’t have any of those fancy gadgets like PCs and word-processors. Indeed, even as late as the mid-1990s, it was possible to openly admit this deficiency without fear of persecution. (No doubt, in your ‘Brave New World’ it will be impossible for a writer to be published unless he can supply his work on disk, or whatever is the latest technology.)

In my youth, it was not uncommon for the literate among us (and there was an astonishingly high rate of literacy then) to set down our thoughts on sheets of paper (like the stuff you get with Finger-Lickin’ Chikkin – only bigger and flatter, and without the lemon-fresh detergent), using implements called pens (hand-held tubes of ink – a watery black substance). As often as not, these pens would be cracked and battle-scarred from the ritual practice of pretending to play the drums in time to popular music of the day, in order to summon the spirit of Inspiration during periods of mental blockage. This would lend a delightfully off-balance syncopation to the flow of the prose. Of course, as like as not, this would only be a rough draft in long-hand scribble (an elaborate manual artform) on the backs of old envelopes (torn rejection delivery packets). So, further manipulation would be required to render the words into readable form.

This is where an ancient instrument known as the typewriterwould be pressed into service. The more politically correct among you may wish to avert your gaze from the scenes of violence I am about to describe – but if one wishes to gain a full insight into my erstwhile life and times, it will be necessary to appreciate the levels of barbarism that were commonplace then.

This typewriter contained a quaint embryonic ancestor of the keyboard – but it could not be truly classed as a machine, since it could not, at the time I speak of, be operated electronically. No, my audience – I am refering to the manual typewriter, which required the user to strike the keys in order to force ink from a coated ribbon onto the (paper) page. Alas, this sometimes had to be done so violently that a slight temporary numbness could afflict the typing finger – thus greatly increasing the likelihood of typing errors.

In such a circumstance, the Deity would be implored, and a sacred ointment called Tipp-Ex applied to the stricken text – accompanied by incantations to encourage the fluid to dry quickly. Failure to do this often resulted in a bout of ‘write rage’, in which the Tipp-Ex bottle would be hurled against a wall or door, to shatter messily. Thus, frantic carpet-scraping would be added to the previous problem of smudged re-typing. Veterans often refered to this kind of ‘write rage’ as whiteout – to distinguish it from a similar tantrum caused by having to wind new ribbons onto obsolete spools, since the new spools were incompatible with the obsolete typewriter. Failure to automatically rewind, or the detachment of one end of the ribbon, could lead to a temperamental blackout involving the metal lid of tha apparatus being bounced off the floor, household objects being smashed, apartments dismantled and typewriters tossed out of windows. This kind of ‘write rage’ was once an everyday occurrence, and, in America, members of the ‘hardboiled’ school of typing were required by law to register their typewriters with the authorities as potentially lethal weapons.

It is impossible to accurately convey to a technobonkers posterity just how character-forming all this physical aggravation could be to a wordsmith. How many word-processor operators do you know, who can honestly be described as ‘hard-bitten’? No, life in the Stone Age may have been tough, but men were men and typewriters were bastards. At least we knew where we stood. This is not to say that life was totally without fear, however. The woods were full of ruthless predators, and scribes were often afeared some monster would make off with a child of their endeavours.

It wasn’t so much the sticky gangs of toothsome sweetie elfs which haunted cut-price photocopy shops, that posed a real threat to Homo Prospectus – though they could provoke a shudder, and the odd spasm of tut-tutting. The real malefactor was dreaded more by its absence than its presence. The Stone Age hack worshipped a gargantuan supernatural mollusc, to which he entrusted his literary offspring, that they may be safely delivered to the headmen of the various publishing tribes. Alas to tell, the shameless Mail Snail would often swallow up the progeny, who would never be heard of again. One distraught begetter was so overcome with grief over his lost manuscripts that he cired out despairingly that he would be “just as well sending them up the chimney to Santa Claus.”

But, unlike biological children, one can always keep copies of intellectual offspring, as with any accompanying messages to or from their proposed benefactors. I suppose by the time you read this, all correspondence will be electronic, with the relevant information stored in a PC database, as I believe the term is. No doubt this is very efficient, for those who want to find  things… quickly. But how can anyone in your era possibly understand the levels of spiritual satisfaction to be gained from keeping handwritten notesin haphazard filing? I suppose the word jotter is no longer in use, but this denoted a kind of writing pad or booklet for keeping notes. Oh, the depths of ingenuity that were required to keep track of submissions and editors’ comments! There was a system, to be sure – submissions being logged chronologically in the jotters, with comments from letters added in red ink later. The letters themselves would be filed – again chronologically – in numbered wallet folders, under the appropriate publisher. In order to preserve the Greek unities, publishers were themselves filed under the date they were first contacted.

In those heady, aesthetic days, it was not thought proper or dignified to use the alphabet for mere filing purposes – its letters still commanding an almost religious reverence. Thus, reminder notes had to be written in the submissions jotters to indicate where the publishers’ letters were to be found, since one couldn’t memorise all the dates. Such was the classic ‘chaotic’ filing technique. Sometimes, I feel quite sorry for the modern writer who is deprived of the thrill of the chase in tracking down such information. In my day, the excitement of using deductive reasoning and convoluted lateral thinking to locate a vital file was considered sport well worth the price of a morning or afternoon’s writing time.

Chaotic filing was just one source of that superiority of moral fibre possessed by the ‘life in the raw’ pre-electronic author. We have already witnessed (in laser-intensified sterophonic holo-vision, for all I know) the harsh realities of ‘write rage’, when allowed to go out of control. But we early pluminids were aware of the cultural benefits of harnessing this anger, and re-channelling it into some less damaging (or, at least, less expensive) form of communication. And, so it came about that a sophisticated linguistic codification of wrath subtly evolved, so that, on the one hand, carpets, windows, typewriters, and marriages could be spared the ravages of destruction, and, on the other, the very species of Homo Prospectus could be protected from the degenerative effects of complacency, and its editorial sub-species saved from extinction through over-enthusiastic mutual back-patting activity.

This verbal safety-valve has become known as whingeing, and, through the near-instinctive use of its varied modes of expression, paleolithic pen-pushers have averted bloodshed and salvaged their egos when confronted with some perceived threat – unreliable equipment, inaccurate printing, editorial hatchet-wielding, another writer doing something the first writer wished he’d thought of himself… but not using proper grammar, and so on. Thus, the need for painful self-destruction is avoided, and any hint of inferiority turned into a ‘moral victory’ by the persuasive powers of whingeing.

I could go on forever… but what’s the point? I don’t suppose anyone in the age of electronic publishing will look twice at this manuscript. My trouble is that I was born out of my time. If only I’d had the breaks, I coulda been someone, Eddie. I coulda been a contender… I’d like to have a good long whinge about it, but the art has been lost completely.  

Author’s note :  This authentic manuscript article was constructed using genuine recycled job application forms, an Olivetti Lettera 22 portable typewriters, and three gallons of A16 Tipp-ex.

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