Saturday, 23 May 2009

World domination...if the carbon paper lasts

Those of you who know me will be aware of my most recent trade or calling. What is less widely known is that I was previously a civil servant (paper-shuffler supremo) and, before that, an ironmongery assistant (pumping pink paraffin for the people). But, even less widely known, was my first career in creative writing. Sadly, enjoyable though it was, I fear that I peaked too early with that particular line of work. I think I was eight years old at the time.

It was 1963. Doctor Who was on the telly. And then along came the Daleks. The Daleks caught our youthful imagination in a way that nothing had done before. We were seized with Dalekmania, which was a bit like Beatlemania, except that Daleks didn't have pudding basin haircuts or nasal Liverpudlian accents. The marketing people caught on very quickly to this developing phenomenon. Within a short space of time, we had Dalek Books, comics, sweets, Dalek toys that sparked when you pushed them along the floor, badges (I recently saw one in a Brighton antique shop for twenty pounds), soft toys and soaps. And I started the Dalek Club at the Kensal Rise Junior Boys' School.

The Dalek Club was a very simple concept. Anyone could join. The only requirement was an all-consuming obsession with Daleks, and an inclination to talk about them to other club members at every available opportunity. Very soon, however, even my partially formed eight year old brain determined that this Skaro-related chit-chat wasn't going anywhere, so I started writing my own Dalek stories for other club members to read at sixpence a time. Sadly, I can't remember any of the stories, and the copies I kept have long since vanished, but what quickly became clear is that there was a great demand for them. The difficulty, in those days before computers, laser printers and photocopies, was producing them in sufficient quantities for my adoring readership. All I had was an old sit-up-and-beg typewriter (I think it was called a Corona), and my one finger at a time typing skills. Using carbon paper, I discovered I could produce a maximum of three copies at a time. So, I'd line up the paper and carbon...tap tap tap...three copies. And then the next three copies. And the next. Eventually (you've probably already guessed it!) I got tired of this, and the task of typing was taken over my dear long-suffering dad, from whom I don't remember a single word of complaint! There was a happy ending to all this, however. Dad became an amazingly quick typist, I made a few bob, and the money went to buy some new books for the school library.

So, dear bloggy friends, why am I telling you all this? Not for the first time, I'm unsure. But perhaps it does indicate the huge changes over the last forty-odd years in the way we handle and disseminate information. What dad and I were doing then was akin to the labours of medieval monks, slavishly copying manuscripts borrowed from some other religious establishment in a freezing scriptorium. Equally, it shows that some things don't change that much. I'm thinking of the keyboard I'm currently tapping, that hasn't altered significantly since Christopher Sholes came up with the QWERTY keyboard in the 1870s, in an attempt to stop 'typebar clashes', when the little metal rods containing the letters got stuck and had to be manually disentangled. The keyboard layout also enabled typewriter salsmen to amuse potential clients by tapping out the word typewriter using only the top row of letters. Incidentally, you can also type trout query. And terrier poo.

Apart from the standard letters and numbers on the keyboard, there is a positive gallimaufry of weird and wonderful characters lurking on the right hand side near the number pad. Take the @ symbol, for example. What on earth is that about? It's called, rather boringly, the at sign, and was originally used by merchants to show the unit price of a number of items, thus: ten whatsnames @ 17/6d. In renaissance Italy, an @ was shorthand for an amphora of wine; and in 15th century Spain, a unit of weight. More recently, however, the @ sign appears as the middle bit of your standard email address, and is employed as part of one's user name by Tweeters. Apparently, in the most recent recording of the Museum of Curiosity, author Philip Pullman attempted to promote the usage of the word 'Astatine' as a name for the @ symbol (astatine being a chemical element). This sounds like a characteristically apt and astute idea from Mr. P. I, on the other hand, see it more as shorthand for a bit of cockney headgear, as in, 'Blimey, guv'nor, where did you get that @?'

Another rather arcane symbol is #. This looks for all the world like the little grid we use for noughts and crosses (or tic tac toe), and is generally referred to as a hash. In the US, the # is used to replace the word 'number', and is also employed as shorthand for the pound weight. The humble # has, unlike the undervalued @, acquired a good many slang names, including crosshatch, gridlet, crunch, and, bizarrely, octothorpe, which sounds like a small village in Suffolk. I don't think Mr. Pullman has ventured to suggest a new name for the #, but if he did, it would probably be something like Neodymium. I quite like Casement, because it looks a bit like the glazing bars on a Georgian window. Or Baden-Powell, seeing it resembles the crossed twigs of a boy scouts' camp fire. We could also use the # in the same way as the @, as a word or part of a word, but it would be somewhat limited; #ish, # brown potatoes, corned beef #. See what I mean?

Your humble keyboard has so much more to offer than mere letters and numbers. Look carefully and you will find a tilde, a caret, a vertical, and a backslash. And, if it were not already past my bedtime, I would venture to suggest some rather more interesting names for these curious little beggars. But, to tell you the truth, I'm *~@#¬%!

11 comments:

Val said...

brilliant! i remember the daleks and not so long ago i met an actress who was in that series! i was so impressed i hardly noticed her big important famous spouse..
daleks and cybermen had me hiding under cushions at the time...

chris hale said...

Hi Val. At the age of eight I was simply Dalek barmy! And the 'old' cybermen looked much more frightening than the 'new' ones, don't you think?

Stevyn Colgan said...

Superb stuff Chris. Now you know my views on Daleks ... there are two looking at me in my study as I type. As for the @ sign ... I was at that recording of MoC and Philip's suggestion for 'astatine' was based on the brilliant observation at its chemical symbol is 'AT'. It's a hugely curious e;lement which, because of its short half-life (8.3 hours!) is found only in minute amounts. The total amount in the Earth's crust is estimated to be less than 1 oz (28 g) at any given time. This amounts to less than one teaspoon of the element currently in existence. Great eh?

chris hale said...

Thanks Stevyn.

The reason I chose Neodymium for the hash was its place in the Periodic Table - it's 60 - and the hash key is the sixtieth on my keyboard if you start top left and count left to right along each row of keys...

Incidentally, the word verification is farking. There's no connection with this post. I just found it amusing.

Val said...

have to say I have lost touch a bit with Dr Who since then so am not that familiar with the 'new' generation cybermen - the old ones were the stuff of nightmares!

Derrick said...

Hi Chris,

You have a number pad to the right? How quaint! Must be your steam driven desk top eh?

The Daleks frightened me enough not to remember the cybermen!

I recall many Sunday afternoons when my Mom, or more usually my Sister, typed menus for the restaurant where Mom worked, interleaved with carbon. And what a !@%?&# it was whenever a mistake was made!! Happy memories!

WV: tothelly, a small village in Wales.

mo.stoneskin said...

Presumably some of these Dalek stories will be making there way onto this blog soon?

chris hale said...

Derrick - yep, everything about me is steam-driven! Regards, the carbon paper, the most annoying thing was putting it in back to front and ending up with a perfect backward copy of your typing!

Mo - sadly not! I have no idea where the originals are. Perhaps I'll have to rewrite them in the style of an eight year old...shouldn't be too much of a challenge in my case!

Comedy Goddess said...

@#!%*()($#@ & $%^)+?><~~

Sorry, couldn't help myself! ~wink~

chris hale said...

CG - language!

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