The Romance of the Battered Underwood by K A Laity

smith typewriter

Oddly enough it’s come to my attention that Mark E. Smith’s old typewriter is going to be auctioned off. What Fall fan could resist the allure of that relic? You don’t have to be a ‘look-back bore’ to see the appeal of owning a bit of that remarkable history. If you can’t be a genius, maybe you can touch it. 

In the Middle Ages, saints’ relics were all the rage. Churches were founded where the blessed ones drew their last breaths. They became sites of pilgrimage and were often believed to be the ground for miracles. Chaucer’s pilgrims were heading off to Canterbury because the remains of St Thomas Becket rested there. This ragtag band of raconteurs were repaying a debt, having prayed to the saint when they were sick and then recovered.

The faith rested not only in the burial site but often in the material remains. Beyond the whole incorruptible saint phenomenon, the bones and bits left behind by saintly folk were prized treasures believed to hold ineffable power. Displayed in beautiful bejeweled reliquaries which you can visit in churches and museums today.

Even if they were supposed to promote spiritual belief, the tangible bits remained powerful in the human imagination. So powerful that of course there was a whole black market in relics, real or fake, in the Middle Ages. Chaucer’s Pardoner babbles all of his tricks of the trade, swindling folks with powerful sermons, a little Latin, iron-clad pardons and fake relics. ‘And for to stire hem to devocioun’ he shows them his jars ‘ycrammed ful of cloutes and of bones’ which the gullible suppose ‘relikes been they.’

Spin a story that the leftover mutton bone was from the sacred sheep of Jacob, promise that washing it in your well will make sure any of your own sheep or cows that drink from the well will enjoy long, healthy and productive lives and you have guaranteed sales. Oh, and it also cures jealousy and pox. Worth over a hundred smackers a year, the Pardoner gloats. There’s a sucker born every minute.

Why does it work? Why do we think we can touch that magic? Why will this Underwood go for far too much money (yeah, I’m tempted but I have a lot of travel expenses that need the money more)? Why would anybody want a typewriter when there are computers? Why do noir writers fancy Fedoras?

We live with the hope that the right typewriter—or the right habits, or even that damn Fedora—might have the magic to make this mysterious process work. Writing is making magic, creating stories out of thin air—or your fevered brain or your sweat. I suppose people who find writing nothing but joy are never going to be tempted to buy some dodgy relic. But the greater part of writers—those who struggle to get the words down right, who labour to be read or even noticed—a lot of us are always going to wonder if maybe that typewriter will turn things around. If you can just touch the magic…

Bio: K. A. Laity is the award-winning author of White RabbitA Cut-Throat BusinessLush SituationOwl Stretching, Unquiet DreamsÀ la Mort SubiteThe Claddagh IconChastity FlamePelzmantel and Other Medieval Tales of Magic and Unikirja, as well as editor of Weird NoirNoir Carnival and the forthcoming Drag Noir. With cartoonist Elena Steier she created the occult detective comic Jane Quiet. Her bibliography is chock full of short stories, humor pieces, plays and essays, both scholarly and popular. She spent the 2011-2012 academic year in Galway, Ireland where she was a Fulbright Fellow in digital humanities at NUIG. Dr. Laity has written on popular culture and social media for Ms., The Spectator and BitchBuzz, and teaches medieval literature, film, gender studies, New Media and popular culture at the College of Saint Rose. She divides her time between upstate New York and Dundee.

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