On office machinery and Kath McKay

Old, obsolete office equipment is a fascinating subject to me, since I’ve spent almost all my working life in offices (including my own; well it’s more of a room with a PC in it, but hey ho). When I first started in local government in Kingston in 1992, there were cupboards still full of weird gadgets which looked like instruments of torture: Gestetner duplicators, comb binding machines, gigantic hole-punchers, etc. As I may have related before, there was one word processor between 11 of us and it broke down regularly; and for the processing of many millions of pounds of student grants and fees per year, we used an old and creaking mainframe computer which churned out reams of print-outs.

In 1996, I moved on to another London borough, Hammersmith and Fulham and, following the General Election in May ’97, it became a Labour flagship borough, with lots of money for new computers and the revolutionary new communication and knowledge opportunities offered by email and the internet. I remember sending my first email, to my work colleague and friend James in which, for some reason, I accused him of some unspeakable deviancy; typically, I contrived to send it to the whole of the Education department. The fact that nobody even mentioned it to me, let alone warned me about my conduct, showed that email in the workplace really was in its infancy. But I digress.

Obsolete office equipment is also an excellent subject for poetry. I’ve written previously about Emma Simon’s delightful poem, ‘In the Museum of Antiquated Offices: Exhibit C, Fax Machine’, and have just come upon another, ‘Elonex Word Processor Circa 1998’ by Kath McKay, from her fine collection, Collision Forces, Wrecking Ball Press, 2015. As I’ve experienced at first hand, from Saturday writing sessions with the Poetry Business in Sheffield, Kath is a very perceptive and articulate poet who tells it how it is. This particular poem opens pricelessly:

Boxy as a Soviet car, it took up two thirds of my desk,
while others slimmed down, became pencil like.
This bod had to warm up. Every day rebooted seven
or eight times.


I’m sure many readers can empathise with that. The opening simile is perfectly judged, comically conveying a sense of this piece of hardware being innately behind the times. I like too the dry humour in that exaggerated second line and of that ‘bod’.

The poem goes on to encompass a search for her partner’s personal details following his sudden death, an event which understandably dominates the middle of the book:

Later I scoured the hard drive for your bank statements, spread sheets,
calendars: something of you coiled deep.

The last seven lines of the poem consist of a litany of old machines. As I implied when I wrote about Emma Simon’s poem, this obsolescence has a poignancy to it, and, of course, an ecological cost too, both to the extraction of the raw materials required for new products and to the waste of the old: about 10 years ago or more, an article in the Richmond and Twickenham Times, back when it still contained some proper-ish local journalism, revealed that hundreds of knackered computers from the local FE college had shamefully ended up dumped on a beach in Ghana.

My enjoyment of Collision Forces was slightly diminished by the regularity of typos and by other oddities (no biographical details, no endorsements, though that might be a blessing, and the briefest of blurbs); all of which are wholly at variance with the book’s attractive physical attributes and the poems’ literary quality. But don’t let that deter you.

There must be scope for more excellent poems on this theme. Perhaps some are already published. I hope so.

A final thought: Ive been reminded of the 10,000 Maniacs classic, ‘Planned Obsolescence’.

3 thoughts on “On office machinery and Kath McKay

  1. A rich mine indeed.First Windows, Lotus etc, punched tape and cards, the visits to London to run a program that blows up airliners and low flying angels. Sorry, I’m getting carried away now.

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