I of the beholder – Frank McNally on having an existential keyboard crisis

An Irishman’s Diary

During my days as a struggling writer in Paris – there have been at least five now, up to and including last Wednesday – the challenges have often been more technical than artistic. Typically, they centre on lack of an electrical adapter. That’s why, before leaving Dublin this week, I made sure to pack one. Then I arrived to find that what I had packed was an Italian adapter, with three pins, not two.

The problem was compounded unwittingly, when I still had time to buy one locally, by my very helpful hotel manager, who insisted on saving me a trip to Monoprix or Fnac and gave me an old one he found in a drawer.

Thinking this was one less problem to worry about, I went off to attend some Ulysses centenary events and only on returning, when my deadline loomed and there was now no time for a trip to Monoprix or Fnac, did I realise the hotel’s old adapter had developed hardened arteries or something. My plug would not fit in it.

A waning phone and computer battery, plus the usual slow wifi and a hastening deadline would have made for a tense enough situation. But to cap it all, this time, I was also having issues with the laptop itself. In a problem unprecedented for me, even in Paris, the keyboard was undergoing an apparent existential crisis, the main feature of which was an inability to type the letter “i”.


This began some months ago with a more general sclerosis in the upper right quadrant. The letters u, i, o, and p, all started to get sticky, so I cleared whatever debris there was underneath, which helped a bit. But I still often had to hit the keys hard, and repeatedly, for them to work. And I confess there were moments of frustration when I may have assaulted the keyboard’s affected area with a violence that only made things worse.

More recently, the problem became mainly confined to the letter “i”, the key for which had fallen out altogether. But in a surprising development, I then discovered that by hitting the letter “t”, a little harder than necessary, it would sometimes type an “i” too.

This was odd, because “t” and “i” are not adjacent on Qwerty keyboards. Even so, somehow, it worked. Whenever I needed an “i”, I now just hit “t” and then backspaced. Except that if I hit “t” too hard, it would unleash a whole fusillade of “i”s that filled a line in seconds and didn’t stop.

This always caused me to panic and hit the backspace button, with the constant risk that I might miss and engage one of those other mysterious buttons that lurk on the outer edges of the keyboard, or worse, a sinister combination of them that would do something irreversible.

It all became so stressful that I abandoned the laptop for a time in favour of an emergency back-up. But I couldn’t bring the back-up to Paris because my son needed it. So there I was on Wednesday, in the home of existentialism, wrestling anew with a computer that was by turns self-denying, refusing to recognise the existence of the “i”, and then an egomaniac, typing “i” to the exclusion of all else.

For a while, I tried avoiding words with the letter, which was interesting. You'll have heard the motivational mantra, beloved of David Brent: "There is no 'i' in 'team'." Well, as I was grateful to realise this week, there is no 'i' in "James Joyce" or "Ulysses" either. (On a separate note, which seems philosophically instructive, there is also no 'i' in "Jean-Paul Sartre", although Simone de Beauvoir compensated by having two).

In general, however, you won’t get far on Irish literature without the vowel. So eventually, I developed a coping mechanism whereby I thumped the letter “t” hard, then immediately hit backspace, by which time I had usually stockpiled half a dozen “i”s, to be distributed as necessary.

Still, suffice to say that by the time I finally pressed the “send” button, my laptop battery was down to 10 per cent, my phone was in the red, and my nerves were in the same state as the keyboard.

Strange to say, there is a form of literature devoted to deliberate omission of letters, usually vowels. It's called "constrained writing", the greatest exponent of which was a Parisian, Georges Perec. His most famous example was a novel without the letter "e": a denial of the self for him because his own name had four "e"s. Dependent instead on the letter "i", his book is entitled – and excuse me while I thump the "t" key one more time – "La Disparition".