Back in the 1990s a mobile phone network ran a series of TV ads where famous people were asked which prominent figures from the hereafter they would like to have a one-to-one conversation with. A couple I remember are ex-footballer Ian Wright choosing Martin Luther King, and top model Kate Moss opting for a chat with Elvis Presley.
This is a very interesting concept, and I’m sure we could all think of dozens of dead people we would like to chat with. For the purposes of this article, however, I would choose George Orwell, author of many works, the most famous of which are Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
I would inform him that the year 1984 came and went without the materialisation of the totalitarian nightmare he portrayed in his book (although it could be said that, with so much CCTV around, Big Brother IS watching us these days), and I would mention, much to his annoyance, I suspect, that two concepts from Nineteen Eighty-Four had been used as titles of tacky television programmes, i.e., Big Brother and Room 101. However, the main thrust of the conversation would be me gloating about the wonders of Microsoft Word.
Photos of Orwell at work show him clanking away at a battered old typewriter with the ever-present cig hanging from his lips. He did a lot of his work in a secluded farmhouse on the Isle of Jura, and it is there that I picture him answering the phone to my one-to-one call. Having given him the information mentioned above, the conversation turns to work-related matters. George informs me that he can’t do as much work as he’d like to, as typing paper is still hard to come by since the shortages caused by the war.
“A lack of paper doesn’t stop anyone writing these days, George, people don’t type directly onto paper; it’s all done on an electronic screen.”
“Is it really?”
“Yes, and this makes things so much easier; you can do all your editing on screen and you can save different copies of your work at the touch of a button.”
“By Jove, that sounds interesting.”
“It is, George, and get this, you can change fonts at a stroke.”
“How on earth…?”
“There are hundreds of them, George, just choose the one you like, and you can have them any size you want. Then there’s cut and paste.”
“I am familiar with cutting and pasting.”
“But without scissors or glue, George; all done at the press of a key.”
“Oh, I say…”
“You can copy or delete vast swathes of text in seconds too, and if you’re not happy with the name of a character in your novel, you can insert your new name once and Word will change it throughout the whole text, no matter how long.”
“Good grief, that is clever.”
“So when you’ve finished your novel, you can do all the editing on screen until you are quite happy with it. Only then do you print it off and send it to your publisher, perfectly written and in pristine condition.”
“That is just marvellous. I do hope I am around to see the advent of this Word thing. Tell me, do they find a cure for tuberculosis?”
“They do develop successful treatment, George, but it comes too late for you, I’m afraid, you go to meet your maker in 1950.”
“That’s a shame.”
It is too, because Orwell was very interested in change and, had he been around when Word came about, he would probably have enthused about it in his newspaper columns. When you consider that Orwell, like many writers of the pre-word-processor age, produced particularly messy manuscripts, with unwanted passages scribbled out and new ones hand-written in the tiny space between the lines, and scrawled notes in the margins, talk of machines that performed all of the tasks mentioned in the above conversation would have been dismissed as science-fiction.
So how lucky are we to have it?