Derek Mahon: I chose the typewriter over the internet

Blinded by technology, we are in danger of losing touch with real experience

There were three girls and three boys in my mother’s family. The whole bunch retired to Bangor in old age, but my early memories of them relate to Hilltop, above Glengormley, when the grandparents were still alive. Willie, my “wicked” uncle, was the eldest, and died relatively young.

Roy, the youngest, lived to be 90. He and Willie, like others in the extended family, were at sea during “the war” and I must have been four or five before I was properly conscious of this Roy in a Merchant Navy uniform cap I coveted. He was an unimposing figure with a plain, frank, friendly face; but he had brains.

Having left school for apprenticeship at 16, he had little formal education except of a technical nature, but later turned himself into that once familiar type, the self-taught “eccentric”. He worked for an Edinburgh-based marine insurance firm and, when not on his travels, sat scribbling in his study.

His chief interests were science and maths, but he found time for literature: Tolstoy, Gorky, Sinclair Lewis. (Unusually too, for an Ulster Protestant household, he’d an Irish-English dictionary in his shelves.) He subscribed to film magazines, belonged to a film society, and at one stage kept up with European cinema. He was thought to fancy a neighbouring Margerie Laird, but no: with three sisters to spoil him he stayed a bachelor and lived at home.


He knew something of finance and invested their pensions for them, with striking results. He was, of course, resolutely left-wing, and he had a typewriter: an old Imperial, standard size, on which he typed up his insurance reports. I’d often bike up there for left-wingery – to which, perhaps naively, I adhere – and for typing practice, the clunk and clink, the sumptuous black register (even now, though, I only use four fingers and a thumb).

Typewriters in my life: an acoustic Adler; an electric Remington, a present; and now again a manual, also a present. The Remington was great while it lasted. Paul Auster avoided electricals, he says, “the constant hum of the motor, the jitterbug pulse of alternating current vibrating in my fingers”.

She's an elegant old girl who hasn't lost the regal air of her youth, who remains trim and goes by the name Olympia.

I liked the brisk vitality of the Remington, but my working life is calmer now. Staring out over the keyboard, I take longer choosing a word, and pause at punctuation (comma or semi-colon?); the machine is patient, and instils patience. It chatters when it's excited but promotes more generous time values, and its usual mode is a tactful silence.

Unlike the contemporary Playstation it doesn’t beep and it doesn’t hector. A 20th century device, a relic of the industrial era, fit only for derision and dereliction, it’s not to be taken seriously in the age of Google and tweet, yet it still works. Works better, maybe, after so much experience, despite the dust and fluff it secretes in the undercarriage; and it’s not designed to distract. An antique but, like so many antiques, it has personality, even character – which it needs in order to live in a hyper-connected time. She’s an elegant old girl who hasn’t lost the regal air of her youth, who remains trim and goes by the name Olympia.

Analogue simpleton

Roy would have loved the internet. A sucker for any kind of mechanical contrivance, he'd have taken to high tech like a duck to water; but he was too old to think different when the world went digital. Even I, 20 years his junior, was too old; or perhaps too lazy. An analogue simpleton, I couldn't be bothered with all that complicated stuff. (Technology sees me coming and starts acting up.)

Besides, I was suspicious and never trusted the internet for an instant. Something to do with its strategical origins as military hardware, software; the gold rush, the hysteria, the data-mining, the intrusive sense of entitlement. It wants to know everything about everyone everywhere – for commercial reasons and perhaps for more sinister, political ones.

This global bubble has been compared to Borges' Library of Babel, whose polished surfaces "represent and promise the infinite"; and Amazon gave publishers worldwide just two weeks (in August) to opt out of its own vast online library. It ain't ethical; it sure takes us farther down the road to the promised infinity, but infinity is not of this earth.

The commodifiable now includes our own thoughts and daily lives, which we yield up in tribute to the networks with our websites, emails and online conversations.

What we’re talking about here is “reality distortion” (Google-speak) as a marketable commodity. Nothing new in that of course, except that the commodifiable now includes our own thoughts and daily lives, which we yield up in tribute to the networks with our websites, emails and online conversations. Not only our smartphones but our minds are tapped, with “no concept of deletion”. Nothing new in that either.

William Gibson, who coined the term cyberspace – "a consensual hallucination" – foresaw all this as long ago as his first novel Neuromancer (1984), with its techno-spooks and video games, nerve-splicing and bionics. Bionics, though, are as old as body armour, and certainly as old as Myles na gCopaleen: "Remington I knew well. He had the whole of his insides taken out of him, bones and all . . . and had new bones made for him out of old typewriters", followed by a complete typewriter replacement in middle age.

Sometimes, says Myles, “he would accidentally tap down a key or two when leaning against counters or bridge parapets”. Myles can be weirdly prescient when he gets up a head of steam.

Apple ("Think Different") pretends, or used to pretend, to countercultural chic; but, as one former employee put it, "what exactly are Apple countering? They are the culture now". And a profoundly hypocritical culture it is too. The objectionable Steve Jobs, "the original tech hipster, who idolised Bob Dylan and spent a summer in an ashram", says Andrew Keen in The Internet Is Not the Answer (2015), also outsourced the manufacture of Apple products to a notoriously inhumane Chinese megafactory. Apple, like Google, has been playing tax-avoidance games on a vast scale since its inception.

So how do we think differently? We fight these giants with regulation, and with the determination they themselves deploy in the furtherance of their aims. Either that or disconnect, secede. Secede, or never get involved in the first place. Were Roy alive today he'd be in an electronic file somewhere.

My own solution: the steam typewriter, though I admit I have friends who can look things up for me online when there's something I don't know (rare, but it happens). Even the innocent typewriter is technology, granted (William Gibson bashed out ice-breaking Neuromancer on an old portable); even the pen – which, said Marie de Sévigné, "has always a great part in what we write" – and even the pencil. Slow and tactile, these make for greater consideration and intimacy, a more personal medium.

It may come back to that in time, the Bic and the speckled Conway Stewart; meanwhile my 13mm black nylon ribbons, made in China and distributed from Germany, I get from London (Ryman’s) to cover me with ink as I figure out, yet again, the proper way to install them. They have their frustrations, or perhaps I mean the writing does. Typewriters have been violently abused by temperamental authors; but Olympia knows no such theatricals.

Cognitive dissonance

“Ineluctable modality of the visible . . . Signatures of all things I am here to read” – Joyce. But high tech introduces, if we let it, a cognitive dissonance between subject and object.

Rewired for electronic information, blinded by science, we’re in danger of losing touch with primary experience; the unmediated sea wrack on the strand is even stranger to us than it was to Joyce. Whatever the dire economic and social consequences of the “digital revolution”, and they are many, it’s the commodification of thought that’s most alarming, that and the robotic invigilation; but there’s nothing “ineluctable” about it.

Olympia and I commune with each other in private. I post and receive unopened mail – letters, you know: it can still be done – and nobody taps my phone as far as I know (why would they?). A friend in New York took one or two Arabic lessons before a trip to Dubai, so maybe they tap his: who knows? “Just because you’re paranoid,” as Delmore Schwartz said, “doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you”. Sure they are, they want everyone in the system.

In the US I've been reproached, impatiently even, for not being online, as if this was a serious solecism.

In the US I’ve been reproached, impatiently even, for not being online, as if this was a serious solecism. To engage with the topic at all is to play an insidious game. It’s not neuroscience, much though it claims to be (the ghost eludes the machine), nor is it the new way of thinking and being that the system likes to pretend.

The brief space age is over, at least for now; and the internet too will implode in time if not properly regulated: an old model of production masquerading as new. Its infinite magic is mostly commercial hype, a recreational mysticism for ever breaking down. It has its uses of course, and might even help reactivate the radical politics we left behind with the typewriters. Olympia agrees. She doesn’t do hegemony or coercion, preferring her own slow pace and modest achievements; and she can boast a distinguished cultural provenance.

Most 20th century literature, after all, was written on typewriters, and they've had an artistic history too: Hopper's Office at Night (1940), Warhol, Hockney. Also a filmic one. Joseph Cotten, in Citizen Kane (1941), wakes from a drunken stupor with his head in close-up on a clicking typewriter; Diane Keaton, in Reds (1981), throws hers out the window; and Ciaran Carson, in The Star Factory (1997), reruns in his head a scene from an old science-fiction dystopia where "phalanxes of nearly identical typists are overlooked by huge art-deco clocks with blips for numerals, and are overseen by white-coated centurions with clipboards. The typing pool is the size of an aircraft hangar or a movie studio, and all the girl extras who are acting the typists want to be Hollywood stars".

Just as the pen, according to Mme de Sévigné, has always a part in what we write, so too had (has) the typewriter. Henry James’s periphrastic late style, for example, has been ascribed to dictation. The typist had her work cut out:

Not yet so much as this morning had she felt herself sink into possession, gratefully glad that the warmth of the southern summer was still in the high florid rooms, palatial chambers where hard cool pavements took reflexions in their lifelong polish, and where the sun on the stirred sea-water, flickering up through open windows, played over the painted "subjects" in the splendid ceilings . . . all toned with time and all flourished and scolloped and gilded about, set in their moulded and figured concavity (a nest of white cherubs, friendly creatures of the air) and appreciated by the aid of that second tier of lights, straight openings to the front, which did everything, even with the Baedekers and photographs, to make the place an apartment of state. – (The Wings of the Dove, 1902)

William Burrough's aleatoric methods must have been suggested, at some level, by his family background: a grandfather who founded the Burroughs Adding Machine Co (St Louis), later the Burroughs Corporation. Truman Capote, asked about Jack Kerouac's On the Road, snapped: "That's not writing, that's typing". Concrete poems, typewriter-inspired, have been around for ages; and now we have computer verse written on, to and about computers, besides the old manual stuff. Poetry, that strange persistent art made up – ideally – of soul, song and formal necessity, survives and even thrives in the digital age; thrives, perhaps, because of digitisation. It's a form of resistance, or should be, an insistence on private truth and fantasy in the face of a dominant paradigm that, increasingly invading public space, drives us indoors to paper and pen.

And Olympia? After the chatter she is calm, her keys at rest, perhaps a little tired from all the things she’s written, perhaps bored by the hard copy she’s been turning out today and which she’s been the first to read.

This essay by Derek Mahon is from his new poetry collection, Olympia and the Internet (The Gallery Press)