So, a few things have happened recently. Sadly, Steve Jobs died. I visited the Beamish Museum in northeast England and I saw Bob Dylan in concert. Work continues (slowly) on my second novel. Quite possibly, these are all unrelated, but you know how life is. Sometimes, the connections seem to be there, begging for you to write about them, to give them meaning.
So, in reverse order.
My second novel is (honestly) progressing, but slowly. It’s the topic I’ll cover in least detail here, but within it I cover a fairly wide time period. Fortunately, it’s a time period that I’ve lived through – and so have first-hand experience of. I think this can lull a writer into a false sense of security. Yes, I remember the 1970s and 1980s fairly well, I think – but it’s easy to make mistakes.
Can I really remember how, as children, we used to arrange to meet – without having mobile phones? Indeed, many of us didn’t have landlines. How I managed to complete my homework without access to the Internet? This kind of detail is easy to remember with a little effort, but hard to write effortlessly.
I’m 50. That doesn’t feel old to me, but I’ve lived through some staggering changes. Not to me personally, though I now have a soft centre and less dependable vision. I’m thinking worldwide. I’ll come on to some of those shortly, but first I’ll cover something that’s been around all of my life. Well, not something, someone. Bob Dylan’s been making music since I was a toddler. He’s 70 – he probably got laid before I was born.
I was fortunate enough to see him in concert, for the second time, last night. What’s amazing about Dylan live is that his songs are seldom the same. Well, they have the same words and general direction, but they’re frequently rearranged. That’s quite interesting – he’s been around for 70 years, progressing musically all of the time (sometimes being rejected by an established audience because of abandoning one musical genre for another). So, if he were a character in a novel (or perhaps used as a reference anchor) we’d experience his journey along with our own. But because he rearranges many of his songs as he sees fit (well, they are his) he remains an unpredictable moving target. I hope I can say the same at 70.
This is consistent with my view of writing about people – they’re so darned inconsistent. When you make them behave according to a prescribed pattern, they’re not really believable any more.
Still, in this piece, Dylan’s simply our touchstone – perhaps in the way Kate Bush was used in Starter for Ten.
A more central character is Steve Jobs. Dead at just 56, too young in anyone’s book and certainly not enough life for someone so restless, so driven, so creative. (Although, as was observed of Roy Batty in Blade Runner, “the light that burns twice as bright, burns half as long” – and he did burn so very, very bright.)
Steve’s connections to me? Well, not much more than many of you. I use an Apple computer – although that wasn’t always the case. I own an iPod, an iPad and an iPhone. I don’t mind if you mock me.
Ah – but the connection is tighter than that. I complained to Steve directly about iBooks – and he forwarded my e-mail to the person in charge, asking them to get in touch so I could express my views more clearly. Still not much of a connection, though.
Wind back the clock to when I was at school and I had two clear choices: to write (most probably as a journalist) or to become a graphic designer. I chose the latter and went to art college. Steve was only a little older than me, so he’s not yet got around to creating the thing that would change my working life.
I studied typography. This was only 30-odd years ago, but at the time, setting metal type was still the norm. I learned to set type by hand, in a stick (which means learning to read upside down and backwards, no kidding). I learned that upper case and lower case are so-called because of where they were kept in the wooden case – a kind of massive drawer with compartments for each letter. That the spaces between lines were expanded with leading, so called because they were padded out with strips of lead. Type is beautiful, elegant. Words convey meaning and beauty, but the right type can give them a sense of being.
I also painted type by hand (using a brush, if it was above 12pt, or a pen if it was below). Hand-drawn type wasn’t good enough for reproduction, only for rough designs – but it was still a required skill that the tutor could tell exactly which typeface had been drawn.
Letraset existed, but its use was not permitted. We did hear tell of computers. Vast things, which companies were trying to make small enough to use in the office and home. We laughed. What on Earth would we use one of those for?
We laughed because we lacked vision.
In his (retrospectively moving) address to students at Stanford University, Steve Jobs cited how he also studied type, drew it, loved it. This love of type inspired him to want his computers to use proportional fonts for display and print. When personal computers were new, this hadn’t been the case – we had fixed-width fonts and no typographical control.
Apple ushered in (with the help of Adobe, Aldus and Quark) the era of desktop publishing. What had previously taken teams of specialists to do (layout artists, finished artists, repro people and more) could now all be done on one machine.
I use such a machine pretty much every day of my life to earn a living. True, I now mostly create websites – though I still do design for print also. (Actually, more than half of my work is now copywriting.)
It’s not all thanks to Steve Jobs – but he played one of the biggest parts in it. And I love it. I love the total control working on every single element of a design, from one machine, can deliver.
I also write, as I already mentioned. The same machine is my typewriter – and I can move my manuscript from word processor to page layout easily, making it available in print or on Kindle. My children, who can’t recall a world without computers, don’t see in the same way I do quite how amazing this is or quite how much people such as Steve Jobs have changed our lives.
So finally, to Beamish Museum, where I came face-to-face with a Victorian printshop. I smiled with nostalgia as the gentleman, younger than my eldest son, patiently explained how the letterpress machines worked. They had a working Cropper, a machine so notoriously dangerous to use that the phrase ‘come a cropper’ is now part of our everyday speech.
Then I realised. Print hadn’t really changed that much since it had been invented. For hundreds of years, the process got faster, but was essentially the same. Metal type, inked up, added to paper. Litho printing brought more speed. Phototypesetting brought clearer type. Desktop publishing blew it all out of the water. What I realised was this – I was a piece of history. One of the last people to learn how to use all printing technologies. That’s how fast the pace of change was – I learned how to set metal type for letterpress, phototypeset for gravure and litho print and desktop publish for litho and electronic delivery formats such as PDF.
I’m 50. That’s all. Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press sometime around 1440. Yes, it evolved, but not really that much. Most of the change happened in the last 50 years.
That’s the challenge of writing across any kind of timescale – understanding the magnitude of change. It’s not just a question of trying to avoid anachronisms. Change is everywhere. Change permeates everything: across the world, in culture, music, politics, attitudes, technology – everything. It’s a challenge to capture just how people embrace and adapt to that change – quickly forgetting what life was like before – without downloads, CDs, cassette tapes, 8-track and vinyl records. I’m sure Bob Dylan remembers, because he recorded for all of those formats – and I bought his music on most of them.
Meanwhile, as I design brochures and websites on my Mac, I download Bob Dylan albums using Apple’s iTunes. There’s a kind of symmetry to that.