Thursday, 24 July 2014

Writers' Tools: My Olivetti in 1960s Anafi by Margaret E. Kenna

Emeritus Professor in Social Anthropology at the University of Wales, Margaret Kenna has written extensively about the Greek island of Anafi, a place of exile for political detainees in early-twentieth century Greece. Here she shares her writing instrument of choice in the 1960s, an Olivetti Lettera 32:


Prof Kenna's Olivetti Lettera 32 today.
When I went off to Greece in 1966 to carry out fieldwork for a doctorate in social anthropology, I took with me a portable Olivetti Lettera 32 which I still have. It now sits in its zip-case under the desk where my PC is wired up.  I probably used it last in the 1980s but I can’t bear to let it go. Looking at it reminds me of packing for that first piece of research, on Anafi, an island with no electricity, no sanitation or running water, and one ferry-boat a week. I also took some spiral-bound notebooks for daily note-taking and some quarto typing paper (this is long before the switch to A4) for transcribing the day’s findings. I added to my stock of pencils and typing paper from “Pallis” in Ermou on my three-monthly trips to Athens (to collect the instalments of my grant).  

Anthropologist at work: Margaret in Anafi in 1966 wearing a custom made skirt.

I had made a dark calf-length skirt out of sturdy furnishing fabric for myself with a large patch pocket into which the notebook would fit. Very often, however, words or designs would be written for me on the pieces of paper which were inside flat cigarette packs (I was, and still am, a non-smoker), wrapped around the contents, or on the little cardboard slips also inside the packs. My field-note boxes still contain empty cigarette packets with names and addresses written on the backs, corners torn off café paper-tablecloths with directions scribbled on them, and even several whole paper tablecloths onto which sections of a hand-drawn map of the village were fixed with now-yellowing and no-longer sticky tape.

My most vivid memory of typing up field-notes is the problems with the positioning of the “lampa” (the kind of old-fashioned glass-globed paraffin lamp familiar from Victorian thrillers) so that I could see the notebook, the keyboard, and the paper in the machine. At the end of a line of typing the carriage threatened to knock the lamp over, or, if the lamp was perched on a pile of books, the vibration of my typing wobbled it. 

A workspace fit for purpose, Anafi 1966-67.

What no-one, least of all me, had thought of was how to type up what was said in Greek using an English keyboard. My supervisor, Paul Stirling, who had worked in Turkey in the late 1940s, wouldn’t have had such a problem. So, at first I transliterated the Greek in my notebook as I typed, and then later, finding this unsatisfactory, left spaces to write it in afterward.  I didn’t really solve this problem until I acquired a laptop and could “toggle” between English and Greek keyboards.


A writing-related after-thought: when I was involved for the first time in examining a PhD thesis, I spent the fee on a Mont Blanc Meisterstuck pen (one of those fat ones that look as if millionaires sign contracts with them). I still have the receipt. But examining fees have not kept pace with the sum that those pens now cost….

Mont Blanc from the 70s: bargain at £24.50

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Palimpsest. Wonderful post, Margaret. This had me thinking of how much I associated small typewriters with scholarliness, literature, and journalism, at least in my mind's eye. I had a very nice Remington Rand (built when America still produced very well-made products), but longed for a Swiss-made typewriter which was smaller and had ivory-colored keys. I passed up a Mont Blanc thirty-some years ago when they cost maybe USD $70-$80, because I didn't know how much I enjoyed using fountain pens then. Thanks very much. Jack/USA

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