Saturday, 22 December 2018

Mrs Jolly isn't jolly any more

I was in Henley On Thames last night in a pub where they have lots of old books on display as decoration. Naturally I had to have a quick butcher's and, to my delight, discovered a 1954 copy of the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook. A quick chat to the manager and a donation to a local charity and it was mine. It's a fascinating read.

Some things haven't changed in 64 years, such as the advice to writers that, no matter how much you want to see your work in print, you should never have to pay for that pleasure.

The appalling wages haven't changed much either. In 1954 you could expect the BBC to pay £1 per minute for radio broadcasts of up to 10 minutes and 15 shillings (note: 75p) per minute thereafter. And the book's preface states that 'many publications consider that a guinea (Note: £1.05) or less per thousand words is adequate recompense'. Now, I realise that £1 in 1954 was worth more - the equivalent of £26 now - but that's still pretty crappy.

The one thing that has noticeably changed is that, in 1954, almost every advert is for typist and copyist services. 

In the age of Microsoft Word, Scrivener, Ulysses and Final Draft, it's easy to forget that 'in the old days' the author either hand-wrote their manuscripts or typed them, which meant that there was just one copy. Therefore, if it got lost in the post, the writer would lose everything. That was why it was essential to have a copy made. And before photocopiers and printers, that meant hiring a copy typist (or you typed another copy yourself).

Here's a good example of an industry and a skill that has been lost due to technology. History is littered with them. 

My brother Si used to be a professional photographer. The arrival of digital photography has all but killed his trade. Why pay an expert when your smart DSLR can make decisions about exposure, shutter speed and ISO for you? Why pay a photographer for 20 stunning shots when you can take a thousand and, by fluke, 20 will be pretty good? Things got so bad that Si retrained as a teacher and now teaches photography at university. But even that role is changing as most of what makes a good photo is now done in post; he has more students lining up to learn Photoshop than photography.

When I was researching content for the K-series of QI, I spoke to the man who ran (then) Britain's last knacker's yard. As he pointed out, the horse industry once employed hundreds of thousands of people from breeders to sellers, trainers to saddlers, farriers to riding instructors, plus coach builders and many other peripheral horse-related jobs. And, when the horses died, the knacker was an essential link in the chain. The collected carcasses were recycled and re-purposed as fats, tallow (yellow grease), furniture glue, bone meal, bone char, sal ammoniac, leather, soap, bone for cutlery handles, bleach and animal and pet feed. These days we just incinerate them. The arrival of the motor car decimated the horse industry.

And now we are sitting at the advent of the driverless car. How many jobs will be lost to that particular innovation? No more cabbies, hauliers, delivery drivers, driving instructors ... and, if the cars really won't have as many accidents as human drivers do, there will be lay-offs at garages and repair shops and a drastic loss of revenue for insurers.

Technology is fabulous when it makes our lives better - I'd never want to go back to a typewriter for a start - but every new advance invariably has casualties. And for the typists and copyists like Mrs Jolly (see ad above) who would 'type or duplicate it for you', the arrival of the computer sounded the death knell on her industry.

However, replacing expertise with technology does have its dangers. Do we want a society made up of competent generalists instead of a expert specialists? I'm not so sure.

But then, I'm a bit old-fashioned, I'm an underpaid writer and I've had a few pints.