Thursday 23 May 2024

Life Before Computers Gave us Anchovy and Claptrap. Part Two

A Play Shakespeare Never Knew He’d Written


I went through three generations of manual typewriters before the glorious day when I bought an electronic one that would store a line of type and let me preview it before I let it actually print on the page. Wow! What a breakthrough. However, not long after that I got my first computer. Well, word processor really.

I opened my heart to an Amstrad PCW9512 and my world changed. But, as I’ll explain, some things remained the same for a long, long time and cost a small fortune because, while the age of computers had arrived agents and publishers preferred the old methods…

But for now, here I was with this wonderful bit of kit on my dining room table. It came with a monitor, daisy wheel printer (you’ll still need that older friend/relative you borrowed in order to understand the finer points of part one of this saga) and something called a floppy disk. This was always confusing because it was a square-shaped piece of hard plastic. Not floppy at all. Some years later, I saw that in fact the disk split apart and inside was this floppy disc-shaped thing. The scales fell from my eyes.

Anyway, without too much ado, I inserted the floppy disk into its designated slot on the monitor and, lo and behold, it loaded up the most basic of programs. Of course, being all-new, this seemed wonderfully sophisticated and incredibly technical. Before long I was ready to create my first file in a way not dissimilar to what we do now. Well, up to a point. I couldn’t select whether I wanted 10 point, 12 point or whatever.

That was all down to which daisy wheel I decided to put in my printer. The pack came with one and you could buy others in different styles. Oh. The wonder of it!  I couldn’t choose Garamond, Georgia or anything else for that matter as that too was all dependent on which daisy wheels I had bought – and there wasn’t a lot of choice. I seem to remember Courier was one everyone used - the Times New Roman of its day. But never mind. At least if I made a mistake I could correct it without a load of hassle and wasted paper. Right?

Yes. Right. Absolutely. The Amstrad 9512 did indeed have a dictionary built into its limited brain. Now, I don’t know who had helped write that dictionary but I am betting at least one person with a medical degree was involved as the Amstrad would offer perfect renderings of the most complex medical terminology when asked to check spelling. But I am equally convinced that no one with an English degree had come anywhere near it. And the thing was that once you had accepted its proffered alternative to a spelling it had queried, it would automatically proceed to alter every repeated instance of your apparent mistake. This led to some hilarious (and not so hilarious) bloopers. 

One has always stuck in my mind and, funnily enough, it wasn’t one that happened to me although plenty did. I read an article in what was then Writer’s Monthly magazine. The author had been writing an article relating to that well-known play by William Shakespeare called, Anthony and Cleopatra. The only snag was that every Anthony had been rendered ‘Anchovy’ and every Cleopatra ‘Claptrap’. He had inadvertently accepted the proffered correction. This was all too easy to do as the Amstrad seemed to believe it was infallible and that if it didn’t recognise a word, it couldn’t be correct. Only words in its dictionary were possible, or so it believed. An early instance of the arrogance of artificial intelligence perhaps? Whatever the reason, unless you stopped it from doing so, it would correct every word it didn’t like by inserting one it preferred unless you stopped it from doing so.

This kind of stroppy behaviour led me to abandon the spellchecker for many years, up to and including my early ventures into working with a ‘proper’ computer. I simply didn’t trust it, you see.

Aside from that minor inconvenience, my little Amstrad was a godsend. I could now copy my precious story onto floppy disks (you needed something like half a dozen for a novel) and I could keep these in various locations as I was always wary of the house burning down and taking with it the only copy of my novel. 

A tip from author Judith Krantz had led me to wrapping my top copy of any manuscript and putting it in the freezer on the basis that it was usually the last bit of equipment to succumb to the flames. Now I could carry it round me with me if I wished to. And I did until I realised this was a silly idea. What if I was mugged? The robber would have my manuscript and could sell it as his/hers. You can see a state of paranoia underlining this, can’t you?

Anyway, onto the printing itself. The daisy wheel printer was a noisy thing that vibrated a lot and was programmed to print off a line when it detected it was coming to the end of a sheet of paper. (Don't ask me why it did that, but it did. I think it was purely for aesthetic reasons, although as this practice inevitably devoured a fair amount of printer ribbon, there may have been other, ulterior, motives. Who knows?) It would then repeat this exercise at the top of the new page. The noise of the same key repeatedly hitting the ribbon resembled rapid machine gun fire (imagine spending a night in an active war zone) but at least I could set it printing and only have to return when, either it had finished that chapter, run out of paper or run out of ribbon. Printing a 400-page novel was, as a result, noisy and expensive (those ribbon cartridges weren’t cheap) but so much less hassle than my now-abandoned typewriter.

Then it was time to try and get someone interested. In my case, at that time, I concentrated heavily on finding a suitable agent. The targeting process wasn’t unlike today’s except that there was no internet so you referred to a physical copy of The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook.

I would send out half a dozen query letters at a time. Each carefully targetted and personalised (some things don't change) and all utilising what we now call 'snail mail' – we then called it ‘the mail’ because there was no other. You had to include a stamped, self-addressed envelope and obey the individual agent's instructions which might mean you also sent out a sample chapter or two. Postage had to cover the return of whatever you had sent. This could prove expensive but at least you could fit everything into an envelope – usually an A4-sized one. 

The process meant a trip down to the Post Office, armed with your letters, sample chapters and envelopes. The assistant would weigh each one and hand it back to you, along with stamps. You moved away from the counter, stuck them on appropriately, sealed your envelopes, with the return, stamped, addressed envelope safely inside each one, prayed to your deity of choice, and mailed them.

Then you waited. 

If you were really lucky, one agent out of four or five might request chapters or the entire manuscript. In the latter case, you cheered and groaned in equal proportion, printed out a new copy of the manuscript or looked for the least creased one, and then marched down to the Post Office once again. This time, you were equipped with brown wrapping paper, paperclips to attach the required postage to the letter, adhesive tape, scissors… 

You waited in line. The assistant weighed everything, multiplied it by two for the return postage, added on the required extra for Recorded Delivery in case the parcel got lost, handed everything back to you, and off you went to find some quiet corner to assemble your precious package.

Once safely sealed, you once again joined the back of the line because, of course the package was too large to go through the mailbox. I have spent many Saturday mornings thus engaged.

Then it was back home to wait.

And wait…

And wait…

Then one day, weeks later you returned home from work to find the mailman had attempted to deliver a parcel. Your heart sank and you asked yourself if it was worth all the effort and considerable expense.

You wept bitter tears. 

On Saturday you went and collected the slightly battered parcel containing the dog-eared, expensively produced manuscript that would never be able to be sent anywhere else (who wants to receive a manuscript that looks like a golden retriever tussled for it with a somewhat over-excited poodle?) You found the agent's letter or, worse, the scribbled note on the front page of the submission.

“Sorry, not for us.”

You sighed, poured yourself a drink, picked up the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, and started your search for an agent all over again.

Because that’s what we did, back in the days before the internet made it all so easy…

 (In case you missed it, you can find Part One of this article here)



public domain



Tuesday 21 May 2024

Life Before Computers Gave us Anchovy and Claptrap. Part One

 Remember Carbon Paper?

No? Prepare to be shocked

Yes? Welcome back to the Pre-Millennium Carbon Age

Part One

So you’ve got a story idea…

Back in those heady days of yore when you had an idea for a story, you didn’t fire up your laptop (‘What’s that?’ you would have cried and no one would have answered.) Instead, you grabbed your Silvine Exercise Book. There was something so wonderfully tactile about the glossy textured surface and, on the back cover, you could learn ‘avoirdupois weights’, ‘hay and straw weights’, ‘long and lineal measures’ including how many poles were in a furlong (40), the number of yards in a fathom (2). We all knew how many noggins made up a pint (4) because our exercise books told us, and as for rods, poles and perches...

With pencils sharpened, you stared at the first pristine page. If you were already inspired enough, you might actually write something - maybe the working title, or possibly a first sentence. Braver souls headed straight for the ballpoint pen; the rest of us lined up our erasers.

Meanwhile, the machine that would eventually be harnessed into service to produce a printed version sat idly in the corner of the kitchen/living room/bedroom. Most likely it was a portable, neatly zipped into its leatherette carrying case. You wouldn’t dream of typing your first draft or even your second. No, that was for later, when you had finished all the crossings out and amendments and after you had deciphered that note you made on page 32 relating to something on page 94 that was now completely obliterated or amended so many times as to be completely illegible.

But eventually the day would come when you would unzip that carrying case and take out your beloved, much cherished Empire Smith Corona, Olivetti, Imperial or whatever make of typewriter you had chosen. The smell was unmistakeable, a mix of the ink on the ribbon (more of that later) and the grease on the simple cogs and keys that kept the machine working. Next to you, was your collection of scribbled-on Silvine exercise books numbered from 1 to whatever, open at volume 1, page 1. All you had to do now was type it up. Simple? Well, yes, and then again…no.

You see your friendly typewriter couldn’t correct any mistakes you might make, or any decisions to alter a word or phrase once you had typed it. If you wanted to make a correction, you had to do it yourself. To effect such a change, you needed to call on the services of a hard typewriter rubber (that usually rubbed a hole in the paper while removing the offending error) or, if you were a little more sophisticated, you might use a white liquid resembling a cross between a bottle of nail varnish and Dulux Brilliant White Gloss Paint – called variously ‘Liquid Paper’ or ‘Tipp-Ex’ depending on your manufacturer of choice. 

This had been invented by the mother of a musician and sometime member of The Monkees (anyone under the age of 40 is advised to consult an older relative or friend). His name was Michael (Mike) Nesmith. I forget hers but I believe she was a Mrs. Nesmith, at least once upon a time. Tipp-Ex also made a paper-correction slip thingy but it’s far too complicated to explain here (that older friend/relative is going to become increasingly handy from now on).

(Mike Nesmith is on the left)
The subject of errors and revisions leads me to the next hurdle we writers from the carbon (paper) age had to overcome. Copies. Nowadays, along with everything else a typewriter couldn’t do, your computer, in cahoots with a printer, will happily print off as many copies as you want – all identical and of the same quality. Not back then they didn’t.

And this is where carbon paper came in.

It was sold in boxes, in various sorts, textures and colours. Usually you had a choice of black or, a sort of, royal blue. If you wanted more colour definition you needed to use different colours of paper rather than print. Even the most amateur writer knew that to type only one copy of the precious manuscript was to court danger of the most precipitous kind. What if you lost it? What if you sent it to a publisher and THEY lost it? Or the postal service lost it (I’m coming to them later, in part two). What if your house burned down? What if…what if… The prospect was too horrendous to contemplate so, the investment in carbon paper was well worth it, plus publishers were usually satisfied with receiving a first or second-generation copy, as long as it was neat, error-free, pristine, and…legible. As well as double-spaced, with correct margins and numbered pages (you had to type those on as you went along).

In order to create your usual mix of one top copy plus up to five carbon copies, you carefully layered your sheets of typing paper with a layer of carbon paper between each one – taking great care to load the carbon paper the right way up or else the damn thing would print on the reverse of the previous sheet and you would have to (sound ominous music here) START ALL OVER AGAIN.

A word of caution here. Imagine you are bashing away at your typewriter - not the gentle tip tap most of you do right now. Typewriters were robust and required robust operation – some more than others; the keys needed to be moved. They had to be hit with meaning and a certain sense of real purpose or they had a tendency to sit tight and refuse to budge or else all gang up on you, move together and end in a tangle which – you guessed it – you would have to sort out. Manually manipulating the little buggers back where they belonged. This usually resulted in scraped fingers (yours) and bad language (yours again).

Then, as now, editors didn’t like to receive work that showed a lack of care – spelling and grammatical errors and typos for example. Back then, you would need to add corrections to the list of their pet hates They would – if you were lucky – allow you probably one or maybe two very minor corrections now and again on a full novel-length manuscript but some were far stricter than that and would reject anything that, at least on the first ten pages, contained more than one obvious error. Don’t forget that any mistake you made was echoed through every carbon copy and was far harder to disguise on your copies. And also, Liquid Paper needed time to dry. A frequent complaint from agents and publishers concerned the difficulty of trying to prise apart sheets of type fused together with an over-exuberant application of correction fluid.

How many times have I reached almost to the end of the page only to make a stupid error and have to retype the entire sheet? More than I care to recall and, of course, when retyping the page it never seemed to quite line up with the previous or proceeding one so an entire chapter might have to be retyped. Another factor to bear in mind is that the more carbons you made, the fainter the type would appear on, say the, fourth or fifth copy, to the extent that whole letters might appear to have been missed because you hadn’t bashed that key quite hard enough. Also, the weight of the paper made a huge difference, which is why most carbon copies were produced on what we called ‘flimsy’. This was a much lighter weight – resembling tissue paper.

Like everything else, carbon paper had a limited life span although you could reuse it a number of times, only discarding it when the copies started growing fainter.

The same applied to the ribbon.

On my first typewriter, I had an all-black ribbon. You unwrapped it, sat it down on its spindle, threaded it through and attached it to an empty reel and spindle on the other side of your machine. Hitting a typewriter key would cause the selected hammer to strike the ribbon and its attendant letter to appear on the printed page. When your ribbon was nice and new, the type would be a bold, assertive black. Once the ribbon had run its course to the end, it would automatically reverse itself and you could merrily carry on typing until you saw the type beginning to move from black through dark charcoal to grey. Time to replace the ribbon. Some fancier typewriters used black and red ribbons enabling you to select which colour you wanted to type in. That always seemed a bit of a waste to me as it meant half the ribbon was barely used.

As you can imagine, changing a ribbon was messy, time consuming and inclined to result in sore, inky fingers and bad language(that would be yours again). As with all inanimate objects, a typewriter experiencing a ribbon change seemed to want to provide you with as much grief as it was capable of. And, take it from me, typewriters were born sadists.

Later models dispensed with all that nonsense and delivered you a cassette which you inserted. Slam, dunk, done. It didn’t reverse itself and stopped when it was empty. That was fine as long as you had a replacement all ready and waiting. Infuriating if you didn’t and it was Sunday afternoon.

Of course, I have been talking here about manual typewriters. There were expensive electric ones. The only real difference for many years was that they were usually a little quieter and required less heavy bashing of the keys, and they automatically performed something known as ‘automatic carriage return’ (you haven’t sent that older relative/friend home yet, have you?). In other words, once you had set your margins, the typewriter would ring a little bell when it knew you were coming to the end of a sentence and, at one finger touch from you., would send the carriage flying back to the beginning of the next line. On manual typewriters you could also set your margins and a bell would ping but then you had to return the carriage yourself (your friend/relative will explain).

Your typewriter wouldn’t ping when it came to the bottom of the page though. Oh no, you would have to take precautions against running out of paper (in my case, I would draw the faintest pencil line a couple of inches up from the bottom) or run the risk of all your efforts being in vain as you watched your paper slip to one side, along with your line of print. And guess what that meant? You’ve got it. START ALL OVER AGAIN.

Oh – and another point. If you were lost for just the right word to use, there was no point in asking your typewriter, you had to reach up to your bookshelf, heave down your copy of Roget’s Thesaurus and look it up. Yes, really. Ask…well, you know who by now don’t you?

So, are you still mad at your laptop? Do you still think producing your manuscript is tough? Wait till you learn what happened when you wanted to send it off.

Still to come, in Part Two:

I get my first Word Processor

The first spellcheckers – introducing the wonderful world of Anchovy and Claptrap

The perils, pitfalls, and expense of querying agents and publishers before emails made it all so easy (or not)

Don’t miss Part Two

It will leave you aghast and wondering why anyone even tried to get published.



public domain

Thursday 16 May 2024

A Castle Full of Ghosts...

In my new novel, Those Who Dwell in Mordenhyrst Hall, a family and their ancient stately home are beset by an ancient evil. The entire fabric of the grand house is infected with a legacy of possession - and much more. Worse than that, it extends beyond them, to encompass the entire village of Cortney Abbas. The seemingly frivolous lives of a group of Bright Young Things are about to implode with the arrival of Grace Sutcliffe and before long, the secrets of the Mordenhyrst family are inexorably revealed.

Of course, my novel is just that – fiction. But, in real life, there have been numerous reports of houses cursed or possessed by demons. Sometimes these emanate from the ground on which the house was built. Other times, the builder of the house has somehow managed to impart his – or her – evil into the fabric of the place so that it becomes irrevocably woven into the walls.

In still more cases, the building itself has witnessed so much horror, violence, war and siege that the imprint of its past sticks with it, replaying itself over and over down the centuries.  Rather like a movie, scenes are played out, characters from the past - whose spirits haven’t moved on - appear to those living in the present. Sometimes inflicting little more than mild surprise and, at other times. with terrifying results.

One such place is the fortified castle of Dudley in the West Midlands of England which was founded in 1071, and has a reputation as one of Staffordshire’s most haunted spots. According to legend, the current building was erected on the site of a much earlier wooden structure.

Not just one ghost, but many, are heard and seen – in various rooms, pacing the parapets of the now ruined castle and glimpsed through the windows of the Chapel.

If you venture into the offices when the castle is otherwise empty, you may hear – as others have – footsteps in the same room as you. These ghosts are not shy. They seem quite content to be seen. An entire group of ghosthunters claim to have witnessed a spectral figure pacing across the parapets. An old woman has been witnessed on several occasions, and a drummer boy from the Civil War, who was shot from the battlements, also returns to the scene of his demise, performing different drum rolls. It is said to bring bad luck for you if you hear him.

In 1983 another ghost – that of an elderly Medieval lady – was seen in the castle.

Dudley also has a resident ‘Black Monk’. He has been reported as haunting the entrance to the keep and has also been seen through the window of the Chapel. His presence is not too surprising as the castle is close to the ruins of St James’s Priory, which dates from the 1100s. The priory housed Benedictine monks who wore black habits.

During the English Civil War, the castle became a Royalist stronghold and was besieged twice – in 1644 and then in 1646, when it fell to Cromwell’s forces and was ordered to be partially demolished. In addition to the hapless drummer, the most frightening of Dudley’s ghosts is someone else who perished in the siege of 1646. She is known as the ‘Grey Lady and is thought to be the ghost of Dorothy Beaumont. She has appeared to both staff and visitors over the years. In the 1960s, she was spotted in the old aquarium and in the 1970s, she was seen in the Chapel window.

In life, Dorothy lived in the castle and gave birth there to a daughter who sadly died. She also developed complications and died soon after, having requested that she be buried beside her daughter. She also requested that her husband attend her funeral. Neither wish was granted and Dorothy was buried in a churchyard on the other side of the town from her daughter. They have never been reunited and sad Dorothy is said to roam the castle and beyond, searching for her dead baby. Her ghost appears in many locations including a pub named after her – The Grey Lady Tavern - situated in the castle grounds. Here alarms go off for no reason, in the middle of the night. The temperature suddenly and inexplicably drops, while a strange blue mist wafts through the bar.

Of all the locations in and around the castle, the most haunted is said to be the chapel undercroft. There lies one of the castle’s most formidable lords – John Somery. People have reported seeing legs beside the coffin, others have felt their clothes tugged or thought they were being prodded by someone. One little girl was apparently flipped over a chair during a paranormal investigation and shadowy figures have been caught on camera. Strange, unexplained grinding noises have been heard emanating from the chapel above.

Dudley Castle is brim-full of ghostly snapshots from its tumultuous past. It seems one generation after another has left an indelible mark that refuses to be laid to rest.

Evil runs deep at Mordenhyrst Hall

But it is rooted far deeper than the foundations of the ancestral home. Its inhabitants and the entire village are infested with a legacy so evil, it transcends the laws of nature. In a world where nothing is as it appears to be, Grace and Coralie must seek out and find the truth – whatever the cost.

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Flame Tree Press