Sunday, November 24, 2013

royal visit

“There are a few of my personal belongings which I say farewell to
with deeper regret, for it has been my companion for thirty-five years, almost half my lifetime.
On it were produced
The Lewis Papers, my Biographies, and all my own books.
Also, on a rough computation at least twelve thousand of Jack’s letters.
I shall, I’m afraid, feel very lost on a new machine.”

~ Warren Hamilton “Warnie” Lewis. (from his journal)

During the excited flurry of anticipating my Oxford sojourn, most of the preparation focused on the study fellowship with the manuscripts of C. S. Lewis. Having the parallel prospect of a month’s residency at The Kilns (Lewis’ home) generated additional preparatory correspondence. As the travel time drew closer, my talks with the Lewis Foundation were joined by additional friendly conversations with the caretaker of The Kilns, officially the Warden of the house. Indeed, there are house rules, but they are all sensible ones as The Kilns is a historic home, and is maintained as a place for Scholars-in-Residence to live. The house may also be visited, by arrangement, so that visitors can be introduced to the life and world of C. S. Lewis from the vantage point of his home, at the eastern edge of Oxford.

Oxford and The Kilns

Our introductory correspondence and subsequent chats always touched upon our mutual respect for Lewis, as well as for the craft of writing. It is heartening to know that so many others are also cultivating projects. We must each find time and energy to pursue our vocations, often with few resources. Well, as I mentioned gathering my resources for the journey, referring to my typewriter- an Olympia Splendid, my hosts described the Lewis typewriter, and how it is on display at The Kilns. Anticipating an added intrigue to the voyage set before me, I packed a spare typewriter ribbon. Until recently a staple at any stationer, ribbons have become difficult to find (outside of the Boston area), and so the Foundation’s administrator was pleased to hear I was going to bring one to Oxford.

Above: The typewriter before maintenance.
Below: Comparing handwritten manuscripts and typescripts.

Settling in at The Kilns, as well as in the University libraries at Oxford, required some acclimating- all of it pleasant- from left-side traffic regulations, to ordering in eateries, to cooking on an Aga stove. Very quickly, with thanks to the Warden of The Kilns, and the University staff I met, the essentials were easily found and daily life was as comfortable as it would’ve been back home in New England.

Garden work at The Kilns.

The Lewis typewriter is displayed in the dining room at The Kilns, on a safe and sturdy high table, so that tour groups cannot miss seeing the very well-worn machine. The Royal portable, as I had been told, was likely not used since Lewis’ brother Warnie’s passing in 1973. Warnie did most of the typing. It had been taken out of storage in recent years, and a close look at the machine’s workings revealed the detritus following decades of inactivity. Fortunately, the typewriter did not appear to have been coaxed into much more than decoration. With the grateful blessings of my hosts, I set aside an afternoon to gently restore the machine to functioning order.

Oiling, a new ribbon, and the Cambridge Typewriter treatment for the Lewis typewriter.

The typewriter needed a bit more than a simple ribbon change. One day, after my studies, I went to Boswell’s Department Store- Since 1738- on Broad Street, to buy light machine oil and a toothbrush. These proved to be indispensable, as were the bamboo skewers I’d brought with me to spin the new ribbon onto the old spools, as well as to clean the typebars. Carefully removing the machine from its case, I used the house vacuum cleaner to remove the undercarriage dust. Then, out in the Kilns garden, with the typewriter resting on a towel, I proceeded to oil all the moving parts and clean its surfaces, using all the good practices I’ve learned through my years of friendship with Tom Furrier of Cambridge Typewriter. As a light rain began to sprinkle the outdoors, I finished the cleaning and lubricating in the kitchen, along with spooling the new ribbon. Every single bone-dry pivot and joint seemed to sigh with my stealth applications of machine oil.

The Royal Signet shines and writes again!

The serial number is ES 14545.

Indeed, the typewriter does work again, and has all its parts. Its spartan appearance, having no ribbon covers, standard platen-roller controls, tabs, or margins, is due to the machine’s manufacture during the Great Depression. Sending a closeup photo of the serial number to Cambridge Typewriter, Tom wrote back that the machine, a Royal Signet, had been made in 1932. He also mailed matching spoke-style spools to The Kilns, to parallel the vintage of the machine. His one request was that I type him a letter on C. S. Lewis’ typewriter. So, I did. The Signet was used for thousands and thousands of letters and typescripts, and it is quite likely that I’ve typed its last letter. Though the machine is now nice and shiny, with its new ribbon, and functioning, its role is for historic artifactual display. The Warden was thrilled with its refreshed look, and we proudly displayed it for Oxford Open Doors, in mid-September. It was during my maintenance and careful handling of the Signet, that I fully realized the instrument’s importance. At the Bodleian, I’d been reading a great many typed pages of both Jack’s (C. S. Lewis) and Warnie’s (Warren Hamilton Lewis) provenance. Yet another honor, among many others during this sojourn, was to have been able to “re-warm” the Lewis typewriter and return it to its place of prominence at The Kilns.

The Lewis typewriter "In Situ."

Writing a letter on the Signet.

A visitor lands on my notebook, in the Kilns garden.


Richard P said...

What a magical machine, and what a thrill it must have been to have the opportunity to refresh it!

How did CSL's writing process work? Did he write things in longhand and then give them to Warnie to type? (As of this viewing, the photo "Comparing handwritten manuscripts and typescripts" isn't showing up for me.)

rino breebaart said...

great story - and a great connection to a piece of history! Looks like someone went a little mad bashing full stops into the platen too!

teeritz said...

Wow! Amazing that you had the opportunity to refresh the typewriter and to write a letter with it. Excellent work!

speculator said...

Thank you- all of you!

Richard- I believe Lewis' process was a mixture of things. He also wrote over his own typescripts.
Warnie was, however, the better typist of the two.
CSL's writing in ink was primarily with dip-pens; these must have been very familiar to him.

Richard P said...

OK, now the manuscript / typescript photo is showing up for me. CSL had very nice handwriting.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic job! Really enjoyed reading this. Thanks.

Ted said...

Heh, and I think it's a peaceful treat to sit on my patio and contemplate the zen of bringing a disused machine back to life. Doing it in the Oxford gardens on C.S. Lewis' typewriter had to have been a blast (well, with slight nervousness about the historical importance of the object you were handling - wouldn't want a spring to fly off and get lost in the roses!)

Unknown said...

I reread this entry a few times. What a honor to have held and cared for such an amazing part of history.

AI4WM said...

Splendid work on the Signet! What a privilege it must have been to work on C.S.Lewis' typewriter.

I missed this when originally posted. I was out of town.

Fantastic post. Thanks for sharing.

Labradax said...

Excellent! I visited Oxford years ago and remember passing by C.S. Lewis's dorm area. I know can imagine him clicking away.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful article! Lewis is among my favorite writers and I would love to visit the Kilns someday. Quite jealous of your experience!

Daniel Alex Hennessy said...

As a teacher and a writer, the magical properties of the creation of worlds and the telling of the stories that live in those worlds were made known to me through the work of C.S. Lewis and his friend, J.R.R. Tolkien. In my own story, a young orphan who can move between this world and the worlds contained in books includes a typewriter and I stumbled upon this article while researching. Like entering a wardrobe and coming out into the world of C.S. Lewis from a perspective I've never experienced before. I'm not sure where this view into "Jack's" life will take me, but I'm so glad to have stumbled through and into yet more insight into Lewis' world where the world of Narnia came from. Thanks so much. You made my day.
Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen... Daniel Hennessy