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View from Vitalia: of typewriters, revolutions and lampshades

For engineers and writers alike, it is important to consult dictionaries from time to time

Regular readers of ‘View from Vitalia’ know that one of its distinctive features is a (sometimes shaky) balance between technology and literature – something that could be expected from a tyro blogger like myself, who is not just the author of fiction and non-fiction books, but also features editor of a popular technology magazine.

Such balance is not always easy to maintain, yet in today’s ‘View’, it shouldn’t be much of a problem.

I want to start by telling you about my discovery, or rather rediscovery, of a truly amazing author and philosopher, who was simultaneously a brilliant technologist and inventor: Chinese writer Lin Yutang (1895-1976).

Why ‘re-discovery’? Simply because years before getting hold of Lin Yutang’s works, I got mesmerised by just a short quote from one of his books: “A good traveller does not know where he is going to, but a perfect traveller does not know where he is coming from.” 

It always struck me (and still does) as one of the wisest and most beautiful things ever said. So fascinated I was by its insight, depth and precision, that I used this sentence as an epigraph to one of my travel books – ‘Little is the Light’.

Indeed, if there is such a thing as a ‘perfect traveller’, his or her perception of the world must be totally unbiased, i.e. not burdened (and hence distorted) by any luggage of the past. As someone who has had a tempestuous life and therefore carries a lot of ‘luggage’ wherever he goes, I know only too well what the writer must have meant.

Apart from the above quote, however, I knew very little about Lin Yutang and had never come across any of his books, which I assumed were either out-of-print or just not too popular . Until last month I literally stumbled upon a second-hand volume of ‘The Importance of Living’ (what a great title!) in the basement of my favourite London bookshop, Judd Books.

Having opened the book, I was unable to put it down and only had to stop reading when the shop was about to close.

“The Chinese philosopher is one who dreams with one eye open, who views life with love and sweet irony, who mixes his cynicism with a kindly tolerance...” (that can be easily applied to Lin Yutang himself).

“There is a greater pleasure in picking up a small pearl in an ash-can than in looking at a large one in a jeweller’s window...”

“...instead of holding on to the Biblical view that we are made in the image of God, we come to realise that we are made in the image of the monkey, and that we are as far removed from the perfect God, as, let’s say, the ants are removed from ourselves.”  

And so on.

Fascinated with Lin Yutang’s lucid style of writing – its wisdom, self-deprecating irony and gentle humour – I bought the book and then uploaded a couple of his other titles onto my Kindle reader.

By now, I’ve also learned a couple of things about the writer’s life.

Lin Yutang was born in China in 1895, lived and worked in Shanghai, Germany, Japan and the USA, studied in Leipzig and in Harvard and wrote with equal brilliance in both Chinese and English.

His most amazing quality, however, was that alongside being a talented writer, translator, linguist and philosopher, he was also an aspiring self-taught engineer, with a huge passion for mechanics and innovation. His best-known engineering creation (alongside a toothpaste-dispensing toothbrush) was the Ming Kwai Chinese typewriter – a sophisticated  gadget that for many years had been deemed technically impossible. Indeed, how could one possibly create the technology for typing thousands and thousands of Chinese characters and hieroglyphs?

Lin Yutang did find a way. He invented and patented an electromechanical Chinese typewriter (patent No 2613795 issued by the United States Patent Office in October 1952) that used a special operating system of 30 geometric shapes (or glyphs) in place of letters. In the centre of the keyboard, there was a so-called ‘magic eye’ which allowed the typist to preview a selected shape and then, by pressing a ‘master key’, turn it into a character, the process not dissimilar to the operating principle of a modern PC.  

Unfortunately, Lin Yutang did not have enough funds to start mass-producing the typewriter (true writers seldom get rich in their lifetimes), but its prototype was successfully used in machine translation in the course of the 1950s.

Lin Yutang’s experimentation with typewriters also gave me the long-sought-after pretext to acquaint you with another spectacular creation – the publication which has become one of the most frequently consulted books of mine – ‘Encyclopaedic Dictionary of the History of Soviet Everyday Life’ (EDHSEL), published in Moscow (in Russian of course) a couple of years ago and compiled by LV Belovinskiy.

To me, the very existence of such a dictionary came initially as a bit of a shock: the first 35 years of my life, spent in the USSR, were suddenly relegated to the realm of ‘history’ - a fact that immediately made me feel like a living relic. On reflection, however, I decided that its publication was not only useful, but also extremely timely, for many concepts of the Soviet life – bizarre and Kafkaesque as they were (“We were born to turn Kafka into reality”, in the words of one émigré Soviet satirist – his take on the clichéd Soviet slogan “We are born to turn a fairy tale into reality”, with ‘skazka’ - fairy tale- and ‘Kafka, whose works, incidentally, were banned in the USSR,  sounding almost the same), yet revealing and unique in their own way, have indeed been all but forgotten, not just in the West but in Russia too. And we all know how dangerous it is to forget the past, particularly the gruesome past, which once forgotten gets very easily repeated – just look at some of the recent happenings in Russia itself.

That is why – starting from the present instalment of ‘View from Vitalia’ – I am going to introduce some of the EDHSEL entries (mostly, technology-related) to the readers of this blog. With my own comments, of course. In future, I am planning to do so in a proper alphabetical order, but today – prompted by Lin Yutang – I will start with the term “pishushchaya mashinka”, or ‘typewriter’ in English. Like all other words in the Dictionary, this one carried some very clear Soviet connotations (I quote):

The [Soviet] authorities used to regard typewriters with suspicion as potential tools for spreading anti-Soviet writings... On purchasing a new typewriter, one was supposed to register it [with the KGB – VV], having left a typing sample with the authorities. For the duration of public holidays, when offices were closed, employees were expected to keep all the typewriters in a special sealed room. Surely, due to some peculiarities of the national character, the latter regulation was not always observed to the letter...”

True, it was with those ‘improperly’ supervised office typewriters that most works of the samizdat (underground dissident publishers) first appeared. It was on those fuzzily (due to shortages of carbon paper) and densely (due to shortages of paper in general)-typed semi-transparent pages that I first devoured (normally overnight, for in the morning I was supposed to pass them on to the next reader in line) the works by Solzhenitsyn, Yerofeev, Zinov’yev, Voiniovich and other officially banned Soviet writers.

At Moscow newspapers and magazines in the late 1970s and early 1980s they had typewriters, but most of the hacks (including yours truly) were slow with them and would rather pen their copy in longhand and then take it to a typing pool, normally staffed with garrulous, gossip-prone and chain-smoking women. One had to be on friendly terms with the typists at the peril of having to spend long hours banging out one’s own copy on some antediluvian East German-made electric ‘Erica’. Despite its nice-sounding foreign name, our editorial Erica was rusty, semi-broken and would make a clatter comparable to that of a platoon of Soviet soldiers goose-stepping on the Red Square cobbles or give you a nasty electric shock via your finger-tips, as happened to me more than once. When my father gave me my first typewriter as a birthday present, I – by then an established Moscow journalist – was (literally) speechless. It was bright red, portable and made in Yugoslavia. What else could one dream of?

 Just like the above-quoted ‘pishushchaya mashinka”,’ each entry in that fascinating Dictionary has strong Soviet connections (otherwise, it wouldn’t have been included, no doubt), starting with the very first and seemingly ‘neutral’ abazhur (lampshade). What kind of specifically Soviet meaning can a lampshade have, you may ask?

Well, see for yourself: “After the [1917] revolution, silk lampshades, characteristic of the apartments of the well-to-do people, became ideologically hostile symbols of narrow-minded petty-bourgeois suburban cosiness (sic – VV)... In the late 1950s, the Soviet propaganda machine continued to oppose cloth-made lampshades as manifestations of petty-bourgeois decadence.”

I clearly remember a “cloth-made” orange lampshade under the ceiling of our room in a Kharkiv communal flat in the late 1950s. It even had some very decadent tassels, which, in the all-seeing eyes of the Soviet officialdom, must have increased considerably its “suburban narrow-mindedness”. My granny, to whom it belonged, was obviously unable to grasp its blatantly petty-bourgeois nature.

In my future blogs, I will keep introducing you gradually to such clearly Soviet concepts as ‘Aviamodelism’, ‘Aviakhim’, ‘Avos’ka’ (‘just-in-case’ string bag) and other technical and not-so-technical terms. Let me stress again: remembering the Soviet epoch is the best guarantee against reliving it.

Before I finish, let me look up one more word, this time not in the EDHSEL (for, surprisingly, this rather ‘Soviet’ from my point of view, term does not even feature in it), but in the good old Collins English Dictionary. The word is question is ‘revolution’ which, according to the CED , is “a successful attempt by a large group of people to change the political system of their country by force.”

Let me now refer you to the recent headline in my local newspaper ‘The Comet’: “Revolution in Hitchin’ as commuters block train doors to get stops reinstated”. It relates to the equally recent introduction of the new British railway timetable, which led to unprecedented commuters’ chaos, with lots of trains running late and/or being cancelled outright. Nothing new for the British railway, you might think, but this time the nightmarish mess was disproportionately huge – to the point where the normally silent and docile crowd of British commuters decided to protest, and some of them went as far as deliberately holding the train doors to stop them from closing (or maybe the doors of the overcrowded carriages were simply unable to close, who knows) for about five minutes.

Comparing this act of minor social disobedience to a ‘revolution’ takes a good deal of journalistic licence. It reminded me of Lenin’s scornful description of German socialists as the kind of gentle ‘revolutionaries’ (the quotes are Lenin’s; and mine too) who would buy themselves platform tickets before storming a train station. I wonder how he (Lenin) would have described the rebellious Hitchin commuters?

In the meantime, I hear news from Japan that a Japanese train operator apologised to commuters for a train departing ... 25 seconds too early. “The great inconvenience we placed upon our customers was truly inexcusable,” a spokesman for WJR (West Japan Railways) was quoted as stating.

What can I say? Everything is relative, as Einstein once said. As one of the hard-done-by British train commuters, I could hardly pass for a perfect traveller in the eyes of Lin Yutang, for knowing only too well where I am coming from, I am often not very sure of when and where I am going to end up.

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