Me and my little dictaphone;Opinion

1st October 1999 at 01:00
I am still engaged in a technological love affair which began when I was 10. My Apple Mac and answering machine had not been thought of, our first family television was still a few years away and I only had eyes for a Dictaphone.

It was really the fault of my Primary six teacher, Mrs Foster, who kept a stock of old National Geographic magazines in a cupboard at the back of the room. If we finished our work early we were allowed to take a copy. I devoured each tattered, yellow covered edition over and over again.

I don't remember anything about the articles, except that Alaska became the 49th state of the USA. The scantily clad African ladies seem to have passed me by without a second glance. It was the advertising which attracted all my attention.

To a normal 1957 schoolboy without television, telephone or family car, the vision of American consumer society in full colour was mind boggling. Westinghouse colour television sets in roll shuttered cabinets, sleek gas guzzling Cadillacs and Kodak home movie cameras jostled for space on the glossy pages. Everybody seemed so happy in their bungalows.

Of all the goods on display I coveted the Dictaphone most of all. I do not remember why I was so attracted by what now would be regarded as a sexist advertisement. The male boss dictated his every thought to be typed later by a slim secretary. She looked like Doris Day and knew her place - in the background. Maybe I liked the power the ad suggested. Or perhaps it was having my own personal piece of technology.

Time passed, the Dictaphone was forgotten and I thought more about becoming a recording star. Then a few years ago, having grown up to be a head teacher, I was given a Sony personal recorder as a Christmas present. Now I owned a Dictaphone.

Our school secretary suggested we might think about audio typing. She argued it would be quicker for both of us, too polite to say it would be preferable to deciphering my scrawl. The school budget was stretched to purchase the typing equipment. Recorder in hand, our new efficient office era began some decades on from my primary days.

The first lesson I learned was that disciplined thinking is required. Subordinate clauses provide the main trap. Since there is nothing on paper to revise, it is difficult to keep track of anything elaborate, and unintelligible rubbish is a frequent result.

Short sentences are the order of the day, and my writing is all the better for that. Grammar provides the other trap for the unwary, with the possibility of subject and verb in violent disagreement.

Once the pitfalls had been identified, the dictating machine and audio typing equipment are the best office buy we ever made. We use our time more efficiently. Letters and documents are shorter and more direct. Typing is quicker. And work can be dictated anywhere, even while driving - but no one is supposed to know about that.

There have been other unforeseen advantages. When I speak into the machine in my office, casual callers assume I am talking to a visitor and pass me by undisturbed. My Sony can also win much needed street cred among the children, who are as impressed as I was at their age by speaking into a machine with its cute little microcassette tapes.

So my love affair with the Dictaphone and its successors continues. This is more than can be said about my relationship with National Geographic, which now carries the same ads as other glossy magazines and is published in a boring European edition.

Of course, nowadays we would frown upon Primary six children being given spare time to browse magazines rather than doing properly planned and assessed work. Yet it was these odd moments that fed my interest and imagination.

Thanks, Mrs. Foster.

Brian Toner is headteacher of St John's Pri-mary, Perth.

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