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A Shout From The Attic: Modernity And Ma

Ronnie Bray's mother's first and last brush with modernity was to acquire a ballpoint pen in the early 1950s.

For more chapters in Ronnie's life story please visit A Shout From The Attic in the menu on this page.

Sometime in the early 1950s, Ma got her first taste of modernity. It was a ballpoint pen – quite a novelty in a time when serious writing, summonses and coal bills, etc, were done either with a steel nib dipped in an inkwell, or, as in professional circles, with a gold-nibbed fountain pen, and less serious matters, including ‘I am leaving you’ letters, Dear Johns, faces on hard boiled eggs, and IOUs, were inscribed with a graphite pencil.

A pair of Hungarian brothers, László and Georg Bíró, invented the first non-leaking ballpoint pen in 1938. László was a chemist and Georg edited a newspaper. The first ballpoint writing instrument was John Loud’s marker for leather, invented in 1888. His marker leaked and was not practicable for use in other situations than a leather room. A non-leaking ink needed to be formulated, which the Biro brothers produced before patenting it and going into production in Argentina in nineteen thirty-eight.

Biro pens did not blot, and they used quick-drying ink. They were extremely useful during World War II because they wrote at high altitudes, on wet paper, and even upside down. Biros were very expensive at first, but as the manufacturing process became subject to new technologies they became, first, affordable, and then cheap.

Mother had a gold-cased Golmet. It was a magnificent instrument and she said it cost a pound. That was a lot of money, being equal to one eighth of a week’s wages for a skilled engineer. Its origin, like its eventual destination, remains shrouded in mystery; something our family was well versed and skilful in.

It was Ma’s first brush with modernity, but it also seemed to be her last, as the remainder of her life has been plagued by being at least ten years behind technological advances that would have blessed her life. Not that it matters, because she is not alone: most of the world’s people fare much worse.

As I grew older and saw Ma from a different angle, I felt sorry that I could not make her life better by getting things for her that would ease her burdens. Perhaps we all feel like that eventually. Now she lives alone in crumbling old age with few comforts, and fewer visitors.

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