The poem is about my first job really, as a shorthand typist with the Post Office in Nelson. That’s quite some time ago now. But it’s got me thinking about those times and how it was I ended up there and what it felt like. You have to cast your mind back a bit to the 60’s when girls like me had to choose between being streamed ‘professional’ where you could study French and German and go on to become perhaps, well, ah… usually a nurse, or a teacher. And then, if you wanted to learn to type, you had to choose ‘commercial’ and never the twain shall meet.
I wanted to be a reporter, as I recall, and I knew that I would need shorthand. I didn’t know anything else and to boot, I had a very glamorous single (maiden or unclaimed treasure as she called herself) aunt, who worked at the Post Office. It was my aunt who came to our house and tested my shorthand prowess which did reach 120 wpm at one stage. It was she too, who gave me my first portable Olivetti typewriter to practice on.
Years later, when I was running my own recruitment company in the late 1980’s and the share-market plummeted, I recall meeting young women from private schools whose ambitious parents and teachers had refused them anything so ordinary as learning to type. Oddly though, at this very point in history, the computer keyboard was becoming integral to most people’s working lives. Being a touch typist, as I am, is a big advantage to anyone, male or female.
Yes, I learned to type at Waimea College, one of the first co-ed schools in New Zealand. I sat in the commercial class with a bib over the typewriter keys so that now I can rattle off a book review or a blog without having to look at the keys, or to do the one-finger peck-peck that so many people are reduced to. At one stage in my illustrious typing career (admittedly on an electric typewriter), I could do 100 wpm typing. Indeed – I cannot vouch for absolute accuracy at this speed. On an old manual typewriter, I think the top speed was 60 wpm to pass my Public Service examination.
Back then, in my first job, we sometimes had to type with up to six carbon copies, and that meant if you made a mistake, you had to erase all the copies one by one (Twink I think – I can’t remember) and I often ended up covered in carbon – no long-sleeved white-blouses for me as I stretched across the carbon copies. I was always glad that I wasn’t a legal typist as they had to type perfect copy without erasures or amendments.
I wasn’t a super-star shorthand-typist because I had a tendency to day-dream. Back then it was considered a lack of focus and I struggled with this, but now realise that probably I was bored with the content of much of the stuff I had to type and didn’t pay sufficient attention to it. Yes, back then, I felt somewhat of a failure when I had to do”retypes” and watch my rubbish bin fill to overflowing. I think I might have even smuggled out some discarded copy under my cardigan to avoid the embarrassment of yet more wasted paper – goodness knows what I did with it, but we did have a coal range at home that Mum cooked dinner on, so perhaps it went in there.
We used to clean our typewriters every Friday in the afternoon before we knocked off. I had the uncanny knack of dismantling bits and pieces of my typewriter (unintentionally) as I cleaned it. As I recall, I ended up with several pieces of my typewriter sitting in a basket beside my typewriter – and fortunately back then these old machines were so sturdy, that it continued to function, minus these missing parts.
I also operated the switchboard when it was my shift to do so.
That meant headphones on while typing and stopping mid-flight during a memorandum and transferring calls from outside to inside extensions – the criss-cross of cords as described in my poem – here’s the link. You could eavesdrop to if you were that sort of girl, but of course I wasn’t!
From memory there was talk back then, that typists pushed the equivalent of ‘tons – tonnes’ per day, with the sheer pressure required to push the old manual keys. I know our hands were held higher than they are for a modern electronic keyboard and you couldn’t just peck-peck. Unless you were doing a stencil and you had to be very careful when pushing the letter ‘o’ as if you pushed too hard you cut the ‘o’ completely out and ended up with a black dot on the page instead of the lovely circular letter.
Recently, a librarian responsible for choosing books for the Catholic library service throughout Germany made contact with me. He’d read a book review I had written for a book he had also reviewed and liked. He had also read my blog about teaching English to German High School students. And too, I think because of the Frankfurt book fair and the current interest in New Zealand writing. I asked him about Catholic libraries and he gave me a very brief history which evidently go back to the second half of the 19th century. “In those times Catholics were a (huge) minority in the Prussian dominated “Kaiserreich”. Most of them lived in rural areas, worked as craftsmen and farmers and only a few have had an academic education, most of them were priests. Some of those academics saw the need of education for as many Catholics as possible.” He said that after World War II, the libraries broadened their scope and now run more or less like any local library with a wide range of contemporary literary fiction, children’s literature, as well as gardening and cook books.
This reminded me of how it was back in the 50’s and 60’s in New Zealand. I’m only quoting hearsay and legend, but it is said that many private companies wouldn’t hire Catholics and so by default many were in the public service. My Aunt and two of her brothers worked in the Post Office and it seemed only natural that I would follow in my Aunt’s (to me glamorous) footsteps. You see she drove an apple green, hand-painted Morris Minor, while we didn’t own a car. She also earned more than my Dad (he was a carpenter) and she had an amazing wardrobe which included many pairs of stiletto shoes. What else was there to aspire to?
I never regret the Commercial path that I took. In the early seventies, I worked in London, Newcastle, Manchester, and Edinburgh as a Temp Secretary – and late in life, I’ve found my feet as a writer – typing has proved a most fortunate and useful skill. I never did get to be a reporter, but I am now doing book reviews and blogging as well as working on my fourth novel – so yes, typing turned out to be the right thing after all.