Hang Ups

21st July 1995 at 01:00
This column nearly didn't get written. With the deadline only hours away, I was locked out of my house. I knew I could try to force an entry but I also knew that if I started tampering with the windows, I'd set off the burglar alarm. If I did that, and still failed to get in, I'd have the Neighbourhood Watch around wielding their baseball bats and taking no prisoners.

I am aware that many of my readers are of a nervous disposition. So rather than keep them in unnecessary suspense, I will at once reveal that a happy ending ensued. My wife, bearing a spare set of keys, eventually came home, and after a long and fruitful exchange of recriminations, I was left with a little time in which to write this. It's what happened in the intervening hours that I want to report.

I went to stay at the house of friends, and a very desirable house they have. In addition to most of the items in the Ikea catalogue, they are blessed with fridge freezers, microwaves, televisions, CD-players, corkscrews in the shape of flamenco dancers and all the other worldly goods with which they have been liberally endowing one another in a long and particularly acquisitive married life.

So I thought my simple request was eminently reasonable: "May I use your computer?" Blank looks. "I have an article to write." Neither budged. "Before the morn in rustle mantle clad walks o'er the dew on yon high eastern hill, " I explained.

"We don't have a computer," she said. "Never found the need for one," he added.

Never found the need for one! "If people only bought what they needed, how come so many of them own woks?" I shouted. "Keep your hair on, old chap. If all you want to do is write an article, we do have plenty of pens."

Pens! I can't write with a pen! Not any more. It's a terrible admission but after 10 years in which I've done all my writing by word processor, I've simply lost the knack of doing it any other way. I can still shape individual words, but not string them into sentences. My hand clenches the pen clumsily and hovers over the page, waiting for the brain to send the appropriate message. When it does, the message is invariably: "Stop hovering and go to find a keyboard."

I can just about manage to scribble notes to the milkman and, of course, have no trouble with my signature. But informing readers that I wanted two pints today is hardly enough copy for a column. And 300 repetitions of "Arnold Evans" might strike the editor as marginally too egocentric even for Hang ups.

Sir Walter Scott has a shelf of great novels to his credit, any one of them big enough to break a toe. On display in The Writers' Museum in Edinburgh is the instrument with which he wrote them a feather. A feather! If ever old Walter found himself locked out, all he needed to do was grab a passing seagull and two squawks and a peck later, he'd have the wherewithal to knock out a quick 10,000 words.

It's a worrying state of affairs. We are becoming increasingly dependent on a technology that is marvellous when it works, but which renders us helpless the moment anything goes wrong. What madness to tolerate a security system that actually keeps me out of my own home! How did it come to pass that the boy who won Best Penmanship Prize in Standard Three for two consecutive terms, now cannot write without recourse to a couple of thousand quid's worth of hardware?

Rather than waste school hours encouraging children to use new technology, we should be training them in the skills they'll need to survive if, for some catastrophic reason, it all goes hopelessly wrong. Naturally, those with ambitions to become writers should be taught how first to catch their seagull.

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