I had reason to make a trip down Memory Lane recently, during a discussion with my wife over whether I am now to be considered “old”. She says No, I say Are You Kidding? I’ve Been An AARP Subscriber For Years Now.
My argument was (and is) that I can remember things that are positively archaic, ergo I am archaic. Here are a couple of examples:
It’s hard even for me to accept, but when I was a kid at school in England, I actually used an inkwell (in my case a Bakelite pot located in a purposely designed well in the desk) and a cheapo dip type pen (not a calligraphic pen, and definitely not a fountain pen, but something that predated that) for writing. It’s a step up from the quill, but not much.
In Douglas Adams’ HitchHiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, every hoopy frood always knows where his towel is. At my school every kid always knew where his blotting paper was.
It sounds like something out of Charles Dickens, but it wasn’t – this was 1962 at Newbury Street Boys’ School in Wantage (which was then in Berkshire; these days it’s in Oxfordshire. The town didn’t move – the county boundaries did) and I was 9 years old.
I was never shown how to use the dip pen; it was assumed that I’d already know (true of so much in school back then). My first attempt to write with one was therefore a total and utter disaster. So was my second attempt…
In my previous school we’d always used pencils, so pen and ink was something knew to me. I did the sensible thing and looked around at the kids nearest to me to see what they were doing. I’d already figured there was some dipping involved, but apart from that, this new-fangled technology fazed me and I hadn’t a clue how to use it (but I did know which was the business end having carelessly stabbed myself with it once already).
It seemed easy enough, though.
Step 1: Dip the pen into the well, nib first (if you were lucky you had a little brass sleeve thingy hooked onto the nib, called a reservoir. This zany piece of technology meant fewer trips to the well. Or so it was claimed).
Hopefully there’d be some ink in the well – there were no lids, so the stuff evaporated pretty quickly, leaving an odd kind of black sludge worthy of an oil tanker disaster.
If you needed more ink, there was a monitor for that (there was a monitor for everything back then: chalk monitor, milk monitor, ink monitor, blotting paper monitor. No hall monitor though – I guess the teaching staff trusted no pupil to undertake that almighty task, so they did it themselves) – some poor kid who obviously needed more ink on his clothes than the average person.
Step 2: Bring the pen out of the well, but – and this is the important bit – make sure you drag the thing over the lip of the well to remove most of what you’ve just picked up (huh?). I learned that one the hard way.
I got my fully laden pen roughly halfway across my exercise book on its way to where I was planning to write my opus, and then splat! A large blob of ink helpfully fell off the tip of the nib onto the unsuspecting surfaces below (sometimes that was your sleeve, sometimes the desk, sometimes your hand), which in my case this time was a pristine blank page (and that explains some – but not all – of the inky blobs you see on really old documents).
In those days it was a capital offence to tear pages out of exercise books, punishable by having your entrails stapled to the ceiling, or so it seemed, so of course that huge splat put me in something of a quandry. I won’t tell you how I resolved it. Well, Life has to have some mystery, don’t you think?
Step 3: Having managed to get close to the target area on the page without dropping a load, you proceed to write smoothly. Yeah. Right. The nibs in those days were not tipped with smoothly rounded surfaces – they were sharp. Stab-you-in-the-eye-and-tattoo-your-schlerae type sharp.
The pen is indeed mightier than the sword – push the tip of a sword against your finger and I guarantee all you’ll get is a small dent; try the same with a dip pen and you’ll draw blood.
So my first attempt to write destroyed the nib. Partly because I put way too much pressure on the pen (I was used to pencils, remember, and soft, mushy, 200B type tools that took some pressure to get a decent imprint), which caused the tip of the nib to not only do the splits but bent both little legs through more than ninety degrees. And partly because I also managed to pierce not only the page I was about to write on but also the cover beneath and thence the wooden desk. Either way the nib was kafungled.
Luckily my desk had a small handful of nibs stored in it – I guess they knew I was coming – so with a bit of fiddling I managed to get the old nib off (sometimes that took pliers) and slid on a new one, which I also proceeded to destroy, having only slightly reduced the pressure being exerted by my huge muscly nine year old arms. I don’t know what stuff they made the nibs of in those days but I think whatever it was, it was designed to boost sales.
As an interesting side effect I became slathered in ink, and not just on my fingers. I think I got a fair bit on my face. Certainly a quantity ended up on all of my books and the desk lid.
And it didn’t wash off. I think the manufacturers had an eye on the nation’s heritage – they must have known that written materials should last multiple generations so that people with too much money could buy original copies of Magna Carta, nail them up in the living room and still enable guests to read haltingly from the archaic English that was used back then. Well, OK, so Magna Carta was written in Latin but the idea’s the same.
Eventually I did sort of master the knack of using the pen, but my writing became absolutely atrocious, partly because such pens only allowed you to write roughly one long word or a couple of short ones before you had to fill up again. This constant need to refill meant that I also moved my exercise book and adjusted my position a little, so the angle at which I was writing changed slightly for each load of ink.
Enough that a single line of text probably changed slope half a dozen times, from upright to italic to reverse italic and back to upright again, over and over again. I became (in)famous for it.
My legibility didn’t improve, oddly enough, until I had to control my writing in order to mark up plastic test tubes with marker pen during my time working in what today are usually called wet labs.
It was during this period (roughly 17 years) that I finally gained control of my writing style, when I transitioned through various types of nib tip made from various materials including fibre, felt, plastic tube, and even metal tube at one stage (Rotring Isograph, in case you were wondering, during a lengthy period when I produced graphs, diagrams and technical drawings by hand on Kaolin-coated paper, applying legends and other supporting text with sheets of LetraSet and the occasional bit of stenciling).
Sadly the need for such skills fell to almost zero with the advent of cheap computer-aided drawing applications in the 1980s. I know, because at a job interview in 1990 I confidently let the interviewer know that I could hand-draw typeset-quality charts and diagrams and he dismissed my proudly-held skills with “There’s no call for that these days; we use computers for all our graphs.”
(Also known as Wringers).
Some years before I encountered the New Technology that was the dip pen, I used to help my Mum with laundry whenever I couldn’t get out of it.
We had a fairly old single-tub top-loading washing machine with a massive knob on it. This knob had only one function: it timed a four minute period during which the paddles in the machine beat the crap out of the clothes inside. It wasn’t even electronic – it was clockwork but at the end of its travel it would disconnect a circuit and the paddles would cease agitating.
The paddles just rotated backwards and forwards half a turn – nothing too sophisticated – but it was enough that the saving in physical effort by not having to use a washboard or a couple of stones by the river bank made the purchase justifiable.
Water temperature and the filling process were controlled by something far more sophisticated than today’s microprocessor-controlled neural nets: my Mum.
She had to gauge the quantity and ratio of the hot and cold water by turning the sink hot and cold taps on and off (to which were attached two hoses into the machine), and woe betide her if there wasn’t any hot water available. Even in the middle of Summer most houses had to have a fire going somewhere, to provide the hot water necessary for luxury living. Well, 1950s luxury anyway.
Equally, the process of emptying the machine of water was more reliant on natural processes than is today’s pump-driven marvel of sophisticated technology: there was another hose that had to be kept hooked up high at the back of the machine, and if you unhooked it and allowed it to fall to the floor, gravity took over and emptied the contents of the drum while your Mum wasn’t looking.
That is, I mean, you carefully laid a bowl on the floor, below the lowest level of the drum inside and filled it by lowering the hose just long enough not to overflow the bowl, before raising it, and then lifted each bowl carefully up to the sink and emptied it, repeating the process until the drum was empty.
But the marvel of the age was the process whereby the water was removed from the clothes after they had finished their four minute thrashing.
At that point in our life the spin dryer version of the machine hadn’t been available in our price range, so ours had a special attachment that clipped onto the machine above the drum. It consisted of two rubbery rollers, one held against the other by huge springs that could be adjusted using a big knob on top (Wow! Think of that! Adjustable!). There was a wacking great handle that was detachable (Wow! Detachable! Whatever will these boffins think of next!) that allowed the rollers to be turned by hand.
You fed sopping wet clothes straight from the drum into the gap between the rollers and turned the handle so that they were drawn through and the water squeezed out, to fall back into the drum, for possible re-use.
The theory was that the pressure could be slackened off by turning the knob and thus bulky clothing could be put through the wringer without snapping the rollers and equally without requiring arm muscles the size of thighs.
There were three problems. One was that you couldn’t feed the clothing and turn the handle at the same time unless you had four arms (with accompanying hands, of course), hence my involvement. I got the handle turning position and not the clothes feeding position. I explain why below.
Another problem was that sometimes the bedsheets would prove too bulky for the wringer and you’d have to back them carefully out – while keeping them held out of the water in the drum – grab another corner and feed that into the rollers and then out again, and repeat for each corner and hope that somewhere in all this you managed to include the middle in the wringing process.
The other problem was that because there was no heater in the drum, the water had to start out pretty hot to begin with (mainly to clean the clothes) and after four minutes it could still be scalding hot – too hot for little hands to get into without causing burns. We did have rubber gloves, sort of, but they would have fallen off my hands. Much safer to leave the handling of the hot water to Mum. Her washday red hands were more a product of constant mild burns rather than a reaction to the soapflakes of the day.
And then, providing it wasn’t raining, the still quite damp laundry would be hung our to dry on the ubiquitous clothes line in the garden. If it was raining, the clothes horse got pressed into use.
And so I rest my case.
But if the need arises, I can write about my experiences with the starter button, a rather neat little device on the floor of old cars that predates the start/ignition combination via a key (I used one to drive a car when I was a toddler – not once but twice. The first time was a police car – oops – and I caused some damage (about £15 I think, or about three weeks of my Dad’s wage at the time)), and the indicator arms (trafficators) that used to flip out of the side of old cars like miniature semaphores to signal turning intentions.