Thursday, 17 July 2014

Have Portable Will Travel

The news that in the highest echelons of the Government of Germany there is the suggestion of a reversion to manual typewriters for ultra sensitive documents because of American spying caused a lurch into the memory banks near to the random frontal lobe, tell you a story......

Smiley's Hardware

It appeared to be a busy day at The Circus, all at their work stations fully engaged.  In truth most were either reading blogs or looking at pictures on screen that were more interesting but had nothing to do with their duties.

Too many were engaged in online betting and more were trying to sort out their complicated lives, either making or breaking relationships to reach some ideal never to be found.  The overriding sound was the hum of fans and clicking of mice and keyboards.

The main door opened and heads turned.  An old man, gingerly using a stick to favour a bad knee slowly moved through the room.  Dressed in a black overcoat and wearing a bowler hat, suit and tie at first many thought he was a ghost.

Then the voice of old man Guilliam, tucked away in a corner where he could be less of a nuisance and spin out time to maximum pension entitlement, piped up.  "Good god almighty, George!  What on earth are you doing here?"

The old man turned, gave a soft wry smile and replied,  "You must be the last man standing, how good to see you again.  Glad you got out of that bad scrape in '89."  "How did you know, George?"  "I saw a fleeting image of you on the box, you were only supposed to be liaising, not urging them on to knock the wall down.  Now they are running Europe and you are headed for the same knackers yard as I inhabit."

George Smiley waved a gloved hand, the arthritis was playing up, and went through the door into the Chief's office.  In there already was an assembly of the good and great.  After the data fiasco and the consequences the air was thick with plots and counter plots.

It was four hours later when the Minister, young Lacon, emerged.  He was brusque and brutal.  "There are to be radical changes, the Chief is taking early retirement to go into investment banking and his team will go with him."  All, or almost all stopped to listen apart from those on the 6.45 at Pontefract.

Lacon continued.  "A former Chief, distanced from all this, George Smiley, is to return with a handpicked team to oversee the transition and ensure the tightest security possible.  You are to go home now and have a long weekend to return on Tuesday; good evening."

On that morning, the workers of The Circus were corralled into the basement for full security checks.  Their phones and gadgets removed and then taken up to The Office.  On the desks were strange machines sitting quietly, no screens but with large ungainly keyboards and not connected to the mains and without batteries.

George was perched on a four wheeled walking frame; the knee was worse, it had been given more to do and beside him were other quite old people.  He waved a disarming hand.

"These are manual typewriters rescued from an old stores.  They are to be used for all communications in future.  Special delivery arrangements using young interns, hitherto referred to as office boys, regardless of gender, have been made to avoid the internet at all costs.  Connie here will tell you how to use them."

He paused in the way men do before giving the bad news.  "All copies will be individually numbered and carbon copies limited to no more than two per document.  There are to be photocopiers of an early electro magnetic type but use of these will be personally supervised by special staff who will record manually all communications in a ledger for that purpose."

Another pause, "All files will be manilla folders.  On an inside sheet will be recorded all items in the file.  All will have the security classification clearly marked.  All pages in all documents will be numbered.  All distribution will be clearly stated.  All will be kept in steel locked boxes called filing cabinets and checked and cross checked daily.  No files will be allowed out of the room unless there is supervision and security checks.  All outgoing and incoming items will be checked by a senior officer."  He looked at the lady.

Connie saw the shock but did not worry.  They had been careless and had to pay the price.  "So, dearies, I will teach you how to operate the typewriters, use carbon inserts for copies, lay out text and amend errors.  A basic rule is that any obvious grammatical error or more than two amendments means retyping the page.  I'm sorry but not sorry, the party is over for you and it is back to real work."

A complaining voice came from the middle of the group, "But all this will take all day, what about our usual contacts and searches which are important to us."  Connie gave a hoot and George a chuckle.  She replied, "That's the way it is and the way it was.  No social media.  No indiscriminate searching.  No easy contacts.  Now it is tradecraft, attention to detail and absolute control of everything we do."

There was an unquiet silence.  "Was that Harman?" asked George who did not wait for a reply.  "You have a best friend on Facebook, I believe, Phillipa of Weybridge?"  Harman simply stared.  George went on, "Oh, and Cooper, you also have one called Odile in Manchester and Balls, yours is Sandy in Glasgow."

The silence became more unquiet.  "Strange," said George, "They are all the same person, it is someone called Cookie who lives in a condominium in Maryland and freelances for the CIA.  They seem to know a lot we are not happy about."  He let it sink in.  "Once we liked to help our so-called friends over there but now we need to be more careful, especially where contracts and trading are concerned."

They realised that George might be old and shaky but the cold in his eyes told them that life had changed and there was nowhere for them to go.  He knew everything.  They knew he knew everything and he had wanted them to know.

George went back into the Chief's Office and left them with Connie, "Hello children," she said, "Now you are going to be taught how to work in security.  Peter Guilliam will be in charge of the lot and able to hire and fire at will, so do not annoy him.  Some of you already have in the past.  Anyone fired goes without references or help looking for other work."

The workers went to their designated seats and waited for their orders.  Connie began, "Pick up two pieces of paper and insert between them a sheet of the carbon paper in a way that allows a copy to be made.  Then I will demonstrate how to put them in between the rollers properly to enable correct typing to begin."

It was not going to be a long day, but a long month and a very long year.

Etc, etc.

I still have my old Imperial Good Companion portable and carbon paper, could there be a job in security for me?


  1. I wouldn't be surprised if something similar exists already. Computers would still be used, but only for spying, not for internal reports.

  2. i remember with pleasure when the ibm selectric became available - by changing the typeball one could change fonts, and by pressing a button one could go backwards, typing over errors with the white-out ribbon

  3. Time to put my 50s enormously heavy Underwood, plus instruction books, on eBay I think......... and maybe my Pitman's shorthand book. Actually, I still use shorthand quite a lot. Extremely useful.