Writing fragment, Sun 28th Feb 15, 11.30am-ish

So, I'm in the town's branch of Greggs and because I have forgotten my password to The Cloud yet again, I'm offline with my coffee. As I went out without a book, fool of a Took that I am, I'm messing with the Office app on the phone. Is it any good for doing any impromptu writing? That's the first question. I'm not sure. Though the spellchecky autocorrect helps as I'm going, my thumbs are too substantial to make fast headway; I'm not sure that I can keep up with myself. Hmm. However, it's plenty good enough for making notes though.

The phone syncs to my cloud storage, or it would if I was online, so there's the potential for a bit of light editing once the stars align.

Mind you, it's pleasant enough here with my Americano and my bag of local department store purchases (a tin opener, a craft knife, and a slightly-too-elaborate-for-my-needs set of precision screwdrivers). The place is pretty full, it being late morning on a sunny Spring Sunday and folk are stopping off mid-mooch, not there's much open to mooch to and from. 

Then again, a new shop frontage is being installed across the road in the old sweet shop on the corner, so there's someone else's work to watch. Looks like another estate agency is about to open. Cleethorpes, Immingham, Louth, according to the fresh awning being put up by Paul from Ashley Blinds and his oppo. All the places. The agency's going far.

Folk are eating all around me. Late breakfast rolls, icing-covered pastries. A Belgian bun like a Rubenesque fantasy.

A pair of smart senior couples; on the way back from church by the looks of them. They're chatting about pub and football later in the day. League Cup Final and their tea out; there are worse ways to round off your weekend.

A family group; highchair and wet wipes. A tray of drinks and a procession of trips to the loo. Some necessary, some purely exploratory, following the archetypal young person's seemingly insatiable curiosity about the location and furnishings of the toileting facilities in any public environment. They love 'em, it seems.

I can't quite make it out if the background radio is an in-house channel or the local BBC station. Hits of the Eighties are being scrolled through. An old guy on his own (has kept his hat on indoors; hands in pockets) grunts his way to himself through the chorus to The Whole of the Moon.

He's waiting for someone. They're not here yet; he hasn't bought anything.

A left-behind newspaper. Correction; the guts of one. Discarded sections include the sports and the business section. Might be provided by the cafe, might not.

Folk turn over. Average sitting time seems to be around fifteen minutes. A bakery cove - hairnet and a deliberate manner - cleans away the couple of tables whose previous occupants haven't observed the ritual of self-stacking your crockery in the appropriate shelved hatch. A whiff of squirted antibacterial cleaner as the tables get a swift wipe down.

Some more folks drift in. Doorway hovering; they've got buggies in tow, and there's not that many park-up spots.

One sec.

I'm outside now, having done the decent thing and made way. A quick silent ballet of eye contact, gesture, murmured apologies on both sides in the English manner, and I'm off. On the way out, the carbon-and-cream smell of a fresh cheese on toast.

Machines for writing on the go

I have a problem and I’m here today to admit it. A compulsion, an addiction. A displacement activity. A quest that I’ve been on for, oh, a decade. A quest that I might just have completed. Let me explain.

I’m a boy and I like toys. The kinds of toys that I like are the kinds that help me to write. Now, I move around a bit and I like to be able to write wherever I am. So for over a decade now I’ve been pursuing a particular kind of Holy Grail: the ultimate portable writing machine.  

I started out on this odyssey with a Psion organiser back in the early 00s. An impulse purchase in Selfridges in Manchester, together with an admittedly cool fold-out cradle-cum-keyboard.  You could take it anywhere, and if you liked you could write yourself notes, ether keying them in or by hand with the stylus. Learning the simplified glyphs that the machine translated into readable English was pretty easy. I loved it. Utterly impractical for writing anything longer than a memo, but nevertheless it was fun.

Then came the first of three (count ‘em!) AlphaSmart machines. An AlphaSmart, if you’ve not come across one before, is a full-size keyboard with a simple memory (eight file-spaces) and an LCD display. No internet, no distractions. Plus it runs on three AA batteries; hundreds of hours of productivity with no need for cables or a power supply. If there was a downside, it was in uploading the files to a PC; the AlphaSmart is little more than a keyboard emulator, and the loading speed of the work to your Word document is about that of a fast typist. So, more than fine for a first-draft machine as long as you accept the limitations.

Then came the era of the netbooks.  I did a PhD largely on a Samsung netbook – an extra gig of RAM to give it some oomph, a copy of MS Office and I was off. A sturdy little performer, and I was kinda sad when I got rid of it at the end of the doctorate and treated myself to a tablet.

I went for a Google Nexus 7 – I’ve never been attracted to Apple devices of any stripe – and at first it seemed fine. This was Kindle and computer in one, and a perfect little portable solution. I bought a keyboard to go with it. Then another. There might have been a third as well. Problem: I don’t get on well with Bluetooth keyboards. The intermittent nature of the contact means that I miss characters. I’m not a touch typist (I watch my index and middle fingers as I type) so it was often a couple of hundred words later that I’d finally wake up to the missing data. A palaver. On top of that the issues between getting a Word document to talk to a Word-emulating piece of software.

Also, I had an Android smartphone, and there was too much crossover between the smartphone’s functions and the tablet’s. All too soon, the tablet went back in its box awaiting a new owner.

I soldiered on for a while with my main computer, a straightforward though basic-specced Toshiba laptop. My needs aren’t great. As long as there’s internet access on occasion and a word processor I’m good to go. That said, I’ve been working professionally and personally with MS Office for twenty years. I’m used to it. I’m comfortable there. I know what the buttons do.

More fool me for buying a Chromebook then. Don’t get me wrong, the Chromebook I got (an Acer 13) is a fine device provided that you can work in Google Docs and you don’t mind some kerfuffle when dealing with moving documents across devices and in and out of Word. It’s light, fast, has incredible battery life. But I was struggling when on the move.   

So the Chromebook’s been retired.

Do I get another Windows netbook? I decided not to. What I’ve gone for is a Microsoft Surface. It’s a dream of a machine. Zippy, light, full Windows 10, MS Office on-board plus it talks easily via OneDrive cloud storage to my desk PC.  And it’s a tablet that’s got full USB ports onboard – a proper computer in a casing the size of a photo frame.

And then there’s the keyboard. Jiminy.  I know it’s nerdy as heck, but I just like the way it feels. The motor function of typing is a pleasure in itself. The device wants me to write more.

Part of me knows that in a couple of years I’ll probably get itchy technological feet again. Part of me knows that I’ve got to be on guard against my magpie instincts, and try to resist the shiny-shiny.  But for the first time since, well, ever, I’ve got all the elements that I’ve told myself that I’ve needed – lightness, portability, MS Office, decent battery life, easy co-operation with myself across different machines.

I really haven’t got a reason to complain. So let’s hope I don’t!    


My novel The Prospect of This City is out now. It's available in paperback from my website (say so if you'd like it signed!) and also in ebook and paperback via Amazon.