When I was ten, my dad bought me a typewriter. It was a heavy, black thing, keys stiff with use, that ate up the ribbons that almost nowhere sold any more.
Originally made in the 1960s, it had served out its time in a school, helping girls (because it was, in those days, always girls) learn vocational skills that would get them a job in an office when their formal education was over. By the late 1980s, it no longer prepared them adequately; they needed to become familiar with the grainy beige electronic word processors that had their brief moment before computers took over and men learned they could type too.
So it was that the old secondary modern, which took pupils from the special school where my dad was head, sold the old models off cheaply and I – who had been begging for a typewriter – became the proud, if slightly perplexed, owner of a little piece of history.
Along with the machine came a handbook full of exercises. I sat for hours, bashing away at the keys, copying out strings of numbers and sentences about quick brown foxes until I had taught myself to touch type. Long before my first computer lessons at secondary school (which, hilariously, happened for the first year without there actually being any computers in the IT room at all) I was competent on a keyboard – although it wasn’t until university that I actually needed to produce work that wasn’t handwritten. Like riding a bike, though, the skill hadn’t left me: it carried me through dozens of winging-it essays and straight into postgraduate temp work, where I could hold my own in typing speed with trained secretaries. Later, when I had a secretary of my own, I was no longer allowed to use my secret weapon, being told that it was a waste of my employer’s time to do for myself what they were paying someone else to do for me.
I still like typing; still enjoy the process of tapping words out onto a screen. The children think there is something of magic about it, being, as yet, more familiar with the idea of swiping a surface to make things happen.
Last night, I found myself taking dictation from my nine year old, who, at the eleventh hour, has written an entry for the Radio 2 500 word story competition. There genuinely wasn’t time for him to do it himself, but as I typed his words, I found it almost impossible not to correct them; not to add punctuation, right a spelling, amend a 21st century colloquialism in what was, frankly, a spot-it-a-mile-away Tolkien rip-off. I don’t think his story stands any chance of winning, and not just because of the glaring mistakes. But the temptation to improve his odds just a little, the parental itch to nudge it every so slightly in the right direction; they were hard to defeat.
It’s human nature, I think, to look at what we don’t have (or, as parents, what we can’t provide) rather than what we have (and what we can). I know, how could I not, that by being warm and fed and secure my children are immeasurably better off than far too many in this country, let alone around the world; yet I still fret about their education and worry if we’re doing our absolute best for them. I know that they are incredibly rich in love and stimulation, yet it rankles when I look up and see children with experiences we can’t afford to provide.
I hate the jibe of “sharp-elbowed” when applied to parents, and not just because I feel the sting personally. When we manoeuvre, consciously or otherwise, to improve our children’s chances, we’re doing it less out of ambition than fear; fear that they will somehow lose out if we don’t try to throw the game a little in their favour.
I only half-followed the wrangle last month between Chris Bryant and James Blunt over “privilege” in the arts world, and whether being from a particular background was a help or a hindrance in a career there. I probably ought to have read their actual letters, but having seen the fall-out on Twitter, with my timeline dividing into neat camps attacking and defending the principle of private education, I decided that I had enough low-level conflict between my children to keep me going that week and turned my attention elsewhere.
I may, therefore, be utterly wrong in saying this, but it felt like a shame that the question of “privilege” in terms of a child’s chance of success boiled down simply to whether or not her parents paid for her schooling. We can’t talk enough about the ways in which one child accrues advantages, material or otherwise, which are unavailable to another. Of course you get a head start if you have private music lessons and specialist maths tutoring, but there’s also an immeasurable boost in knowing that you’ll have breakfast each morning, and knowing that if you get miserably soaked on the way home from school, there’s a warm house and dry clothes waiting for you when you get in. How to quantify the advantages of expensive enrichment classes, let alone having someone who talks and listens and encourages. If it’s ludicrous to suggest that talent doesn’t exist across at all levels of society, it’s just as much so to try to deny that certain settings allow it to flourish far more than others – or to fail to question what we do to help. I learned to type because my dad, through his job, had access to a typewriter. His dad, though; a miner turned steelworker? It’s hard to see what material advantages he was able to give his sons.
If my son were to win this cursed story competition, it wouldn’t entirely be unrelated to the fact that he found a copy of The Hobbit in his bookshelf when he was seven, or that he has a mum who, along with reading it to him, had the skills to type up his subsequent derivative attempt. She – I – gave him a huge head start – even if I didn’t correct his spellings.