I went home to visit my parents in Oxfordshire last week, which was lovely (although my dad began the visit by claiming to have given up alcohol, which left me wondering what we’d do with our evenings*).
Anyway, let me paint you a picture. I am sitting in the kitchen with my mother on the first evening. I am complaining about the complications of the modern world, and in particular about having to grapple with social media. I am showing her the Twitter app on my phone. I am most likely wearing some lurid green pyjamas.
‘And it’s sort of part of being a writer these days,’ I tell my mother. ‘You have to learn how to use it, and how to appear normal.’ I show her an unsuccessful tweet. ‘Look! This is going to follow me around forever. If I become Prime Minister, people will bring up this tweet and they will laugh at me.’
My mother reassures me that I am never going to become Prime Minister. Then she says, ‘It could be worse. You could live in a time where you would have to write out everything by hand.’
‘Ha!’ I respond. ‘What an absurd situation that would be! But I expect they were used to it. They could probably write for hours and hours without getting cramp in their hand.’
‘No,’ my mother says pointedly. ‘It wasn’t that easy.’
I wonder why she is being so defensive on Jane Austen’s behalf. I say, ‘Why are you being so defensive on Jane Austen’s behalf?’
My mother looks baffled and says, ‘Why are you bringing up Jane Austen?’
‘Because we’re talking about the days of yore.’
‘We are not talking about the days of yore,’ she spits at me. ‘We’re talking about my day.’
‘Ah.’ I cunningly conceal my wonder. ‘Of course. You didn’t have computers.’
‘You had typewriters.’ However hard I try, the wonder is leaking out of me. Fitzgerald used a typewriter. Hemingway used a typewriter. It seems incongruous to file my mother amongst them. She is still young, especially compared to Fitzgerald and Hemingway.
‘When I started my career,’ my mother says, ‘we only had one precious word processer in the office and only one person was allowed to use it. The secretaries had typewriters, and we dictated to them, and if they made a mistake typing up a will, they had to start all over again.’
‘But just on the page they were working on, presumably.’
‘No!’ my mother says, greatly exercised now. ‘The whole thing! It was a nightmare!’
‘Didn’t you use loose bits of paper in the typewriters?’
‘No, not for wills,’ my mother says. I can see she is struggling with herself.
‘We used parchment,’ she brings out at last.
This is too much. I have to leave the room.
It does put the Twitter thing in perspective, however.
* Fortunately this turned out to be, if not a lie, then an optimistic elongation of the truth.