Killed off by Albertus

Hugh Pearman comes to terms with the fact that his old-fashioned computer has to go when it can’t cope with old typefaces Albertus, Garamond and Bodoni.

Albertus, Bodoni, and Garamond. Sonorous names – one imagines the partners of a Milanese firm of solicitors, probably wearing wing collars – which have sounded the death knell for my computer. It has shown signs of age-related disease for some time, but it has taken these three world-class typefaces – all right, fonts – finally to persuade me that it is obsolete. My machine simply cannot load them.

There I was, in my chum Simon’s garden shed down in Sussex. Simon is a composer and music typesetter. His shed comes equipped with the Betamax of computers – a brand new Acorn, running on its own weird system, which is the only machine capable of handling the one serious music-typesetting program. Until this program came along, Simon inked in every crotchet and quaver by hand on music paper. Today he clicks a mouse like everyone else and a Harrison Birtwistle score, say, takes shape lightning-fast on the screen. Good stuff.

But the Acorn has also got a PC card inside and can turn itself into a normal computer. At which point, I noticed that it offered Albertus as a font. Then I noticed the Bodoni, then the Garamond.

Now Bodoni and Garamond are just nice typefaces, alternatives to the over-used Times New Roman. Albertus, however, is a case apart. Seeing it reminded me of the time I went to see its creator, the very aged Berthold Wolpe, in his magically cluttered South London house in the early-Eighties. Wolpe told me how he had cut the original typeface from bronze in the mid-Thirties – leaving the letters standing proud by cutting away the background. Albertus looks the way it does because it was designed by chisel, not by pen.

Never quite forgotten, it began a revival in the mid-Eighties. Every street sign in the City of London, for instance, is now in Albertus. Its authoritative appearance makes it a favourite for the end-titles of serious TV documentaries and wildlife programmes. And now here was my musician friend offering to put it on a disk for me along with Bodoni and Garamond. I took the disk in memory of Wolpe – who had been paid a flat fee for designing Albertus, and who never saw any royalties on it, so I certainly felt no scruples. And now my machine can’t load it.

This is not because Albertus is too hand-crafted for the on-line age, oh no. It is because I bought my notebook computer in 1993 – around the time of the Waco Siege in Texas, to fix it historically. It still looks the business (the computer, not the Branch Davidian cult), but it belongs in the personal attic museum that also includes my earlier Amstrad and my still earlier Adler portable typewriter. By today’s standards my notebook’s processor is puny, its clock speed laughably slow, its hard drive about as capacious as a thimble. It can’t take the space-hungry program upgrades I need either to install choice fonts or to visit the newest websites. What humiliation, to drop in on the Millennium Commission’s site only to be told my browser should have been wearing a collar and tie. Heavens to Betsy, the ante diluvian Pacific Rim machine doesn’t even offer a CD-ROM drive. I’ve not had CD-ROM for so long, it’s already obsolete.

The other day I found myself printing out a 12 000 word chapter of a book while simultaneously copying the same document into a stripped-down file to attach to an e-mail to send to the publisher. Yipes. I swear the circuitry began to glow with all the effort of it.

I had discovered virtual constipation, and that was with no graphics involved. Print out a bit of information from the Net containing an image – even a simple line drawing? Forget it.

So those impeccably turned-out gentlemen Albertus, Bodoni and Garamond have convinced me. The ageing notebook with its cracked case and worn keys, its dodgy trackball and fuzzy monochrome screen, must go. I have placed an order for a monstrously powerful, state-of-the-art replacement. A big computer, with bells and whistles. I intend to pair it with the latest teeny-weeny palmtop portable, once I have figured out how to operate the tiny keys with my huge fingers – acrylic nail extensions, perhaps?

It is absolutely ridiculous to feel any twinge of nostalgia or affection for the pig of a machine I am about to consign to history. It’s just a dumb bit of silicon, copper, and plastic. Isn’t it?

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