An Imperial Typewriter - A Writer's Journey

[You can read my response to the Leicester University Affective Digital Histories' Creative Commissions call - on the Centre for New Writing's website here and watch my reading here.]

 Reading at Indian Summer Festival in Leicester.

Reading at Indian Summer Festival in Leicester.

My father’s side of the family are Ugandan Asians. They arrived in the city of Leicester along with thousands of other refugees during the exodus of 1972. Like many people from Leicestershire,
I knew something of Imperial Typewriter Company. My uncle had been an assembly worker at the firm back in the ‘70s and my father sometimes told me stories about him. Due to the rise of personal
computers and overseas competition, sales at Imperial were dwindling long before the strike of May 1974, which is the subject of my story, but when the factory closed its doors for good in August ‘74, it was said that the strike played a role in the company’s late decline.

Over five hundred workers participated in the strike. Many of the strikers were Leicester’s newly arrived Ugandan Asians.

They were protesting against unpaid bonuses, poor salaries and a
paucity of promotions for black workers. The ‘Asian Workers’ Strike’
(so-named by The Leicester Mercury) was unofficial and received
little support from the TGWU.

Learning about the strike during my research intrigued me.
The strike seemed to tell an alternative story about Leicester’s
Ugandan Asians. It juxtaposed the easy narrative of the prosperous,
successful, conservative ‘twice migrant’ Ugandan Asian alongside
early community stories of failure, racism and poverty, of learning
to fight for one’s rights and facing the consequences. It was these
different threads that I sought to tie together through writing ‘An
Imperial Typewriter’.


Leicester University offered up its archivists, oral historians
and academics to help writers better understand how local
communities changed in response to urban decline. Alongside
family histories and living room conversations, I listened to around
twenty oral histories and watched numerous documentaries on
the subject. I read the work of Pippa Virdee and Valerie Marrett’s
‘Immigrants Settling into the City’. Helped along by archivist Simon
Dixon, I immersed myself in images, press cuttings, audio and
video clips. I poured over the university’s newly acquired Leicester
Mercury archives. Guided by oral historian Colin Hyde, I walked the
exact route my character Vinesh takes from the Imperial Typewriter
Company on East Park Road all the way to Faire Brothers in the
Cultural Quarter. Colin’s knowledge of local history illuminated the
city’s streets, enabling me to envision Leicester as it might have
been in 1974.


I am too young to have ever owned a typewriter, but my
grandfather, Mohonlal Ghelani, used one near enough every day.
He used to be a criminal lawyer in Kampala and spent the last years
of his life at the vast desk of his council house on Sharpley Road in
Loughborough, translating the Bhagavada Gita from Sanskrit and
Gujarati into English, working on a beautiful old typewriter with a
Roget’s Thesaurus beside him. As a young girl, I remember watching
in awe as he wrote. Even before I could read, I wanted to inspect the
typewriter’s keys, run my fingers along its inky ribbon and tug its
silver handle to make it ‘ping’. Like my character Vinesh, I wished for
a typewriter of my own, one that would tell my stories.
‘An Imperial Typewriter’ is of a modern fable about an
immigrant worker’s journey through Leicester. It also a writer’s
attempt at reading her own story a little better.

 

'An Imperial Typewriter' is being converted into a short film and cross-media project with the help of the 2014 edition of B3 Media's TalentLab, Nottingham University's Mixed Reality Lab, and Leicester Museums.