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U3A Writing: Going Modern

In this computer age John Ricketts is thinking about pen and ink.

The first writing implement that I used when I started school was a stick of chalk on a slate. I was probably a generation after the one which used a squeaky stylus on slate which made everyone’s teeth go on edge. We each had a square of cloth which ,with the aid of spit, we used to wipe the slates clean.

From chalk we graduated to crayons and actually had paper to draw one. We were even allowed to take the used papers home where they were… I was going to say admired, but I’m not sure if that’s the right word.

Next came pencils which we used until the last year at primary school where we were introduced to the dreaded pen and ink. The pens were a rod of wood with a ferule at the bottom into which was fitted a nib made of bronze which had a slit up from the pointed end to allow the ink to flow. At the top of each desk was a well into which a pot full of ink fitted.

How those pens scratched and blotted in spite of the green squares of blotting paper with which we were supplied. Boys found the nibs fascinating. If you broke the point you found that at the side there were two little points left. By carefully squeezing the top of the nib on the desk lid you could make a split. Flights were fixed into this slot and a wonderful little dart was made. The usual result of this ingenuity was the cane.

By secondary school we were using fountain pens which were a favourite Christmas or birthday present. It was not until after the war that the ubiquitous ballpoint came into common use. Do you remember the adverts which claimed that it could write under water, though they never explained why anyone would want to do so?

Later I learned to type and have had a series of typewriters ever since. But a few weeks ago one of my sons turned up with a word processor, in an effort to pull his dad into the modern age. He set it up for me and showed me how to load the instructions into the machine and then put in a blank disc. I was rather taken aback when another son warned me not to be put off if I came across some notes written by Noah on the ark.

I persevered and found that I could work the thing. A few days ago I sat down and wrote solidly for three and a half hours. I scrolled back to the beginning and read it through. Not bad I thought. Even though I say it myself. It needed a bit of editing but I decided to reward all my hard work with a biscuit and a cup of coffee before I pressed the E for Edit key. As I stood I almost fell. It’s strange how the wires always seemed to gather round your feet!

After I had enjoyed my coffee I returned to the machine to be greeted with a blank grey screen. I saw that the wire was loose and pushed it back in to see a blank green screen. I fiddled but it gradually dawned on me that I had lost all my three and a half or was it four hours work.

I aimed a kick at the infernal machine. Fortunately the computer in my head was more reliable than the one in the machine and I was able to resurrect the piece that I had written, though I am sure it lacks the incisiveness and bite of the original piece. This was typed on my trusty machine.

When I had finished typing this I realised that the ribbon will soon need replacing. What if they tell me that because no-one uses typewriters any more no ribbons are available. What will I do?

That night I had a nightmare. Everything was done on the computer. There were no pens available, not even ballpoints. Still I suppose I could always buy a goose, extract a feather, and sharpen my own pen point.

Wait a minute, does anyone know how to make ink?


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