The past is a foreign country

An ex-colleague of mine joined Fleet Street in about 1960. In 1963, her friend, working at Standard Telephone and Cables, arrived home one day to tell the news of the first ever copying machine arriving at work. It was a 3m-squared monolith of wonder, set to revolutionise office work and force pens and papers into obscurity.

The clunky obsolecence of bygone newsrooms holds a mystical, mythical exoticism for me. Imagine pens scribbling, typwriters rattling, papers fluttering, ink wells spilling and miles and miles of filing cabinets.  It all sounds so juicily real – hacks and blunts rushing and working together, phones trilling, Fleet Street shaking with dozens of steely printing machines.

Then the procession of modern wonders – the x-laden new-fangled modernity of all those technological developments that changed the way news reaches us forever: Telex machines chattering and frothing, Xerox machines moaning and groaning, Duplicators sputtering through convoluted duplication territories. And don’t forget the Gestetner machines, an integral and utterly foreign component of the all-important duplication process.

Phones rings in dull bleats, emails silently fall onto our screens, stories drop onto ethereal wires and miles away a computer-driven printing facility hums away producing 5 editions of full-colour news print a day.

Every once in a while, though, a seemingly ordinary phone call can trigger an avalanche of newsroom reaction and production. And the first thing all reporters grab, every time a story breaks? A pen and paper.

The past may be foreign, but they don’t do everything differently there.

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