The Kremlin is well known for its fondness for policies that show no understanding whatsoever of ordinary human nature. Take Communism, for example. Or the recent practice of trying to boost Vladimir Putin’s popularity by issuing photos of him posing half-naked on a horse.
But their latest wheeze yet, which is to return to using typewriters for all high-level government communiques, surely takes the idiocy to new levels. According to reports last week, the Kremlin wants to ban computers for such purposes because of fears that their contents can too easily be hacked into and passed on. Hence the apparatchiks are spending £10,000 on a set of fancy new German-made typewriters, on the basis that having everything written on paper will make a Wikileaks or Edward Snowden-style scandal much harder.
Already, a number of spy experts have pointed out the shortcomings of this approach. For one, paper documents can still be stolen or photographed – remember James Bond with his micro-cameras? And for another, the whole lot could easily go up in smoke in case of a fire.
But I can also point out another reason, borne of bitter personal experience, as to why this is a bad idea. Going back to typewriters after getting used to keyboards – and, in particular, the “delete” button for correcting mistakes – is very hard indeed. FOr the chnaces are that ecven if u are reasonabley goood typrer like me, most of what you iwll write will end up litter d with misteks. Sometimes ot the point of bing complely eillegiebe (illegible).
Yes, modern typewriters do of course come equipped with a special white delete ribbon. But it’s only supposed to be for occasional use. Even Stalin’s command economy at its most brutally Stakhanovite could not produce enough spools of the stuff to correct all the mistakes that the average computer-reliant typist makes these days.
Why, I hear you ask, do I have special these insights into the challenges facing the Kremlin typing pool? What sadistic Luddite of a boss would be cruel enough to make me give up my computer and revert to type? The answer is my old tutor at Cardiff Journalism School, John Foscolo. A bluff former chief sub-editor on the Western Mail in Cardiff, he knocked generations of Fleet St journalists into shape, going about his work with a cheerful sarcasm that would have made him a good KGB interrogator as well.
Never was he happier than when holding up our finished articles, pointing out the mistakes and typing errors, and explaining just why such sloppiness would never be tolerated at the Gloucester Citizen or South Wales Echo, in the unlikely event that we were ever to become competent enough to get traineeships there.
His most sadistic ruse by far, though, was to insist that for all news-writing exercises, we used typewriters rather than computers (or word-processors; this was back in 1993). The idea was that it would help us cope with deadlines, by encouraging us to get it right first time rather than trying to endlessly rephrase things. But it was generally just a disaster. Learning how to write under pressure of time is hard enough anyway, let alone if, like me, your typewriting skills are honed on the basis of being to use the delete key about every three or four letters.
Each 45-minute news-writing exercise would begin by the fevered clacking of typewriters, reminiscent of the 70s newsrooms where Foscolo had cut his teeth. After that our mentor would collect in our efforts. Mine were often so riddled with mistakes and scored-out lines that they resembled heavily redacted Kremlin communiqués already. On particularly bad days, it looked like I had fitted one of those wartime Enigma code machines to my typewriter, which randomly rewire each type-stroke to a different key.
Our mentor would then compound the pain during the marking process, gleefully affecting the kind of theatrical horror that Bruce Forsyth adopted when assessing contestants’ efforts on The Generation Game. The whole experience was, frankly, traumatic, and nearly caused me to fail the course, although luckily, when I somehow landed a traineeship at the Grimsby Evening Telegraph, they had moved into the modern era and invested in computer terminals.
What is more, I am not actually that bad a typist either. I took a course in secretarial studies in sixth year at school, and can do a passable effort at touch typing. But if I can mess it up on a typewriter, God knows what the average Kremlin apparatchik is going to be like. Especially after a few lunchtime vodkas.
So to the Kremlin, I say listen up, comrades (if you can hear me over the rattle of those old-school keyboards). Take these words of advice, brought to you in good spirit from the West. Do not revert to typewriters, unless you wish never to issue a legible communique again. Your secret agents will be sitting next to their sources in Gorky park, passing cryptic notes saying “Springtime is bootifl in Mosc$£ow.” The KGB will end up as the KFC. And the Mighty Russian Pear will, without doubt, lose to the Wankees in the next Clod War.