Trapped by the Trappings of a By-Gone Age
In the opening to Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, we read that “Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.”
I am certain that I was born in the wrong century, and I, like Dickens, avow that “there is no doubt whatever about that.” My parents would have been well advised to bring me into our world somewhere between 1850 and 1920.
If I believed in reincarnation, my previous life was that of a proud Englishman, a resident of "the empire on which the sun never sets". Dressed in gentlemen’s attire, I was a stuffy, middle aged disciplinarian, probably a moustachioed schoolmaster, accountant or a parliamentarian representing all that is good and proper in polite society.
I paid homage to the pedantic and never complained of the humdrum and repetitive nature of my tasks, the same tasks that my colleagues would approach with dissatisfaction and ennui.
I am not a product of the desirable past, but the bygone era is with me. The etiquette and conventions surrounding daily social intercourse during those glorious times fills me with notions of chivalry. I am reminded of Sir Walter Raleigh’s gallant gesture, when he placed his cape over a puddle for Queen Elizabeth I to step over. Such altruism fills me with a burning desire to race to the nearest bus stop and throw clothing of similar ilk. And it would not matter in the slightest that madam’s stiletto boots supporting her generous 100 kg body will undoubtedly make innumerable puncture marks in my $1000 leather jacket.
In real life I am a mathematics teacher. Perhaps this explains why I lean towards a life of logic and precision, influenced by the thoughts, lifestyle and dress code of famous historical figures whom I consider champions of humanity.
At home in my study is an antique roll-top desk. It has a number of drawers of different sizes, some hidden from view because they were intended to be used as secret compartments. I did not find this out until months after the desk was purchased. One day, after dropping my pen on the floor between the two sets of drawers, I squatted in a most undignified manner to retrieve it. As I did so, my gaze drifted to the top corners of the back panel. On each was a small oval-shaped metal protuberance, almost identical to the brass screws visible everywhere else. I thought nothing of it and rested my hand upon that area to offer some support to extricate myself from the uncomfortable position I was in. As I did so, the pressure of my palm moved the metal to one side. Immediately fearing that I broke it, I quickly looked down. A small aperture was visible, which after investigation turned out to be the opening to a hidden metal box roughly 10 cm x 5 cm x 5 cm. Excitedly I tried the metal button on the other side and achieved similar results.
Did I find top-secret documents, antique jewellery, gold, or the mathematical proof to a famous mathematical conjecture? No, I did not, but the accumulation of decades of dust sent my mind on its usual interminable quest to manufacture tales of ‘what the dust saw’.
When I assess student work, it is with a fountain pen, which rests invitingly on the 80-year-old inkwell. All the while I am inspired by the deeds of good men who may have sat at the same desk before me and, with quill pen, burnt the midnight oil and patiently toiled to transcribe missives for the edification of the less disciplined. A marble bust figure of Pythagoras on the desk is my taskmaster, ensuring with his critical stare that I uphold the stolid traditions of my predecessors.
My writing preference also encompasses something more technologically efficient. It is a typewriter, worthy of accepting the creative urges and finger pressings of the most fastidious writer, and yes, also of humble mathematics teachers. But this is no ordinary typewriter. The blue ribbon ink bears witness to its royal lineage, “ROYAL Built in the British Empire”.
You may be pondering as to how this aristocratic gem fell into my possession?
Many a day, on my way home from University, I would walk past a shop selling electric typewriters, photocopiers and sundry imaging and printing equipment. These items held no attraction for me, but what made me stop and stare longingly through the glass display window was a black, portable typewriter. It had no price label, but I wanted it.
Finally, after more than 100 days of vacillation, I entered the store and asked the manger about its price.
“Sorry, sir,” he stated curtly, “that’s purely for display. It is not for sale.”
He turned to attend to other customers, and it seemed to me that he really liked the typewriter as much as I did. My heart sank, but I was determined. I made an impassioned plea for its ownership, tending examples of how, as a student, it will change my life and that I could not live without it. The manager looked me in the eye and came to a decision, probably because other patrons were observing the incident.
“Ok, it’s yours for $350,” he proposed in a dismissive way.
My heart sank again. This was a small fortune to an impoverished student, but I agreed and arranged to make the payment the following day.
That was many years ago, and since that time I have lived up to my promise that it will change my life. There is sheer joy in listening to the thud-thud-thud of striking keys, the swoosh of the Space bar, the lilt of the Carriage Return bell and the platen’s graceful slide. You appreciate every letter that appears on the paper. Of course, every ledger page has its debits. Be prepared to end up with stained fingers when replacing the spool ribbon, you must painstakingly pull apart jammed keys without bending them, and the striking part of each letter requires frequent individual cleaning to avoid the letters o, p, q, s, b, c and d looking like unrecognisable ink blobs.
You must also come to terms with dealing with people who do not possess the same degree of affection for the “old”. When I lustily take up to an hour to type a homework sheet on my beloved antique typewriter, the unimpressed wife might walk into my study and declare in a frustrated way, “Why don’t you just use Microsoft Word? You’d finish in 5 minutes.”
On a bad day she may add salt to the wound by pointing out, “And your errors will be automatically corrected.”
Of course, effective organisation is a requirement of structured thought. The bulk of my reference notes, student files and household ‘administrivia’ are kept in an antique filing cabinet, a true companion to my roll-top.
Sometimes when I muse about the last century, I indulge the idea that I would be a good antique dealer. On top of the handsome remuneration this career enterprise promises, I will be able to feast upon treasures of the past and dream of necklaces, oak beds and yokes. Which member of royalty wore that necklace? How many illicit dalliances ended up on that large oak bed? Were the poor oxen that were tethered to this yoke well treated?
Alas, my conclusion to this fantasy is always the same. Desirous of wanting permanent ownership of this historical wealth, my parsimony in effecting sales will realise zero profit and subsequently offer me the luxury of destitution.
There are other reminders in my study of old world charm and aesthetic individuality that blend well with my desk, cabinet file and typewriter. My eyes often go to where two antique pocket watches are displayed on the shelf. Watching the movement of the second and minute hand may, for some, be like watching grass grow, but they have a soothing effect on me and are redolent of the period when well-to-do gents would have them proudly displayed via a gold chain.
The same shelf has a microscope, which was a Christmas present to me from the sixties. Then there is a scale with brass weights and a hand crafted antique chess set.
I envy the genteel citizens of the past, with their charms and civility, but I especially envy the material trappings of that era. Perhaps, after all, it is not too late for an ageing mathematics teacher to become an antique dealer!