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Hermes of the Ways


David Rain

Hermes, or Hermes of the Ways, is the messenger of the gods in Greek mythology, and protector of travellers and thieves. Hermes is also, among other things, a classic brand of Swiss-made typewriter, once very popular in America. Mine, beautifully reconditioned and very much in working order, is a Hermes 3000, 1958 model. This classic machine came briefly back into prominence when Larry McMurtry thanked his Hermes 3000 during his acceptance speech for Best Adapted Screenplay – for Brokeback Mountain – at the 2006 Golden Globes; for a time, the second-hand market in these machines was busy. I found mine two years later.

Many consider the Hermes 3000 to be the best portable typewriter ever made. Portable is a relative term: one of these things weighs about sixteen pounds, and carrying it around in its handsome pale green case for any length of time would be a strain for most of us. But I don’t mind. When I bought my Hermes 3000, I wanted a machine that was solid. I wanted a machine I could live with for the rest of my life.

Currently I have four typewriters. Of these, the Hermes 3000 was the first I acquired, in the summer of 2008. The urge to own a typewriter had been gathering in me for some years, growing eventually to fever pitch as more and more of my time was spent in front of a computer. Like a lot of people, I get sick of computers. Sick of what? Everything about them, really, from the baby-talk terminology – hearing adults blathering on about “googling” and “wikis” and “cookies” is, frankly, nauseating – to the interminably crashing “software,” to the endlessly required updates, to the gullibility of gung-ho computer boosters who fail to see that computers, invented for military use, were turned into consumer products not to facilitate democracy or spread “information” but to make money for computer companies. The disposability of the computer tells its own story. How long do you expect your computer to last? Do you think it will still be working (like a Hermes 3000) fifty years after it was made? And what do you think will happen to it when you throw it away?

Of course I continue using a computer. Life in our present society would be tiresomely difficult for anyone who renounced computers entirely. But I’m a writer, a fiction writer, and it’s for that reason that I wanted a typewriter. I didn’t feel like a writer without one. Prolonged computer use, day after day, induces in me a feeling of emptiness, a mild but persisting despair. I need periods, long periods, when I’m not looking at a screen. I learned to write, and just as importantly leaned to type, before the age of the personal computer. Gore Vidal, who wrote by hand, said once that he could tell when a book was written on a word processor, and I’ve no doubt he meant it. For some time I’ve suspected there’s such a thing as “word-processor prose,” and it isn’t good. It’s glib, it’s all surface, and it rambles on and on. People whose sole relationship to writing consists of answering emails, blogging, or producing business reports may find this hard to believe, but the writing of fiction, drama, or poetry, which depends upon the meticulous sculpting of every phrase, is not improved by a machine that makes everything easy, and does far too many other distracting things besides.

The term “word processing” says it all. A word processor, as the name suggests, is a business machine, invented to churn out of the sort of writing nobody really wants to read. Creative writers should not think of themselves as simply “processing” words. Of course the typewriter is itself a complex technological artefact (you could hardly – from scratch – make one at home), and, originally, a business machine. Some might say: “Oh, come on! If you want to be so pure, why don’t you go back to quill pens and parchment?” But I don’t want to be a medieval writer; I want to be an early twentieth century one, like Hemingway or Faulkner or Scott Fitzgerald. I started using a typewriter again in order to recover the skills I had before I started word processing in the early 1990s. It would be misleading, however, to suggest that I now do all my writing – even all my early drafting – on the typewriter. The typewriter, precisely because it enforces a certain linearity, is excellent for notes and plans, pre-writing rather than writing. First drafts, for me, are still best done by hand, with a Ticonderoga pencil. I love those yellow pencils. It’s a marvellous moment, for me, when I type out a passage I’ve first roughed out with a Ticonderoga.

The computer, once you’re bashing a script into final shape, is undeniably useful. I’m not pretending it isn’t. In the end, I didn’t acquire my Hermes 3000 because I hate computers; I got it because I love typewriters. The workers of the world, ideally, would love the tools they work with, and I’ve never loved any of my short-lived, ugly, frustrating computers – and yes, I already use a Mac – the way I loved the manual typewriters I had when I was young. The typewriter is one of those marvellously modest, sane pieces of nineteenth-century technology like the bicycle or the pedal-operated sewing machine, at once thoroughly practical and entirely magical, the perfect blend of realism and romance. H. G. Wells said, “Every time I see an adult on a bicycle I no longer despair for the future of the human race.” I feel that way when I see anyone using a typewriter. Hell, I feel that way when I’m using one myself. The Hermes 3000 is simple, beautiful, sensual: the metallic inky smell; the sturdy keys; the bell that rings when you reach the end of a line; the classic shape that the letters cut – and they do cut, forcefully – into the page. Rolling fresh paper into its carriage excites me. When pages are done and I add them to a pile, I run my fingers over the blank side like a blind man feeling the texture.

The Hermes is, by some margin, my favourite of my four typewriters. The second one I bought is a Remington Noiseless Portable, a gorgeous machine from about 1930. Admittedly, it’s nicer to look at than to use, and the claim of noiselessness is debatable, to say the least, referring to a curious damping mechanism which stops the keys from hitting the page with full force. Subsequently, the print looks a little fuzzy, at least on my machine; it also has a “carriage shift,” meaning that when you press the shift key, the entire carriage (the moving part with the roller) has to lift up to make capital letters – thus requiring greater physical strength from the typist – as opposed to the “basket shift” common in later typewriters, in which it is the “basket,” the semicircle of typebars, which moves up and down.
Of my other typewriters, one is an Olivetti Lettera 22, the classic 1950s Italian machine voted to be “the greatest object of the last hundred years” by the Illinois Design Institute in 1959. This is supremely practical, relatively light, and a pleasure to use, although I prefer the typeface produced by the Hermes (the Hermes types in “Pica” – ten characters to the inch; the Olivetti in “Elite” – twelve characters to the inch, hence notably smaller).

My fourth typewriter, to date, is a Smith-Corona also of mid-century vintage. I’m less keen on it than the others, perhaps because the one I have has been slathered in silver reflective paint which is clearly not original; using it is, disconcertingly, like staring into a somewhat fantastical mirror, and the shiny surface swiftly becomes marked with fingerprints. Still, it does have those wonderful Smith-Corona “rabbit ears” as paper supports. As for the future, it’s wide open. So far I’ve only got portables, not a single desktop machine – yes, the term “desktop,” I was thrilled to discover, dates from typewriter days. And I haven’t got a Royal, an Olympia, an Underwood. And some of the later Olivettis are gorgeous. I may, perhaps, be in the grip of an obsession. But it’s an obsession I’m proud to have.

David Rain (also known by his pen name Tom Arden) was an Australian writer who lived in London. He taught literature and writing at Queen’s University of Belfast, University of Brighton, and Middlesex University, London. He is the author of the novel The Heat of the Sun. He passed away in 2015.

For information about Mr. Rain and the fate of his typewriters, visit this site.