How it registers our individuality

‘Handwriting’, says Philip Hensher, ‘is what registers our individuality and the mark which our culture has made on us.’ Mary Leland agrees

How it registers our individuality

PHILIP HENSHER can be irritating, but what he has to say about the neglected art of handwriting is important.

His case is the ‘unconsidered move’ away from handwriting is gathering speed in what would be a silent revolution, were the replacement not mobile phones and electronic signals.

Recently the viral infection of Facebook and Twitter with the tactless or cruel remark, or the reckless communication which can be published far beyond the intended recipient has had sometimes devastating results.

The letter, even if typed, is a slower message, allowing time for thought and re-reading. Above all the hand-written letter is private, unless one were famous and dead.

Hensher’s purpose is compelling. Anyone studying genealogical records will find the symbol signifying, for example, ‘Hannah Murphy, her mark’. Hannah, like many of her contemporaries, was unable to write. Yet she used the sign to make her mark, as mankind has been making its mark since possibly 5,000 BC.

A succession of images on the wall of a cave, a series of scratches on receptive stones, the association of drawings with one another to form a narrative message, were succeeded by the formation of hieroglyphic, hieratic, demotic and Coptic scripts, followed by cuneiform and by the organisation of alphabets.

With this process through the millennia came the use of implements to incise, engrave, write and decorate and of papyrus and vellum to hold these marks, made eventually by ink. In a world where handwriting is still dominated by the biro (and Hensher gives a good account of how this came about) it’s easy to forget there must have been a time when the quill pen was a startling innovation (along with pen-knives and pen-wipers). The invention of printing must have been as astonishing as the arrival of the internet but did not eliminate the need for penmanship, seals and signatures. Not so long ago the school desk had its inkwell and its groove for the timber-handled pen and a sloped lid for ease of writing. It is still possible to enjoy the way a nib grasps paper or to relish the crisp sharpening of a pencil; fictional crimes have been solved by the clever use of blotting sheets.

‘Handwriting’, says Hensher, ‘is what registers our individuality and the mark which our culture has made on us.’ I open a worn recipe-book and suddenly I see my mother’s hand, unmistakable as her personality. The written words could be anything, but the writing itself is her. The same is true of my father’s unmistakable lines on a card, a sister’s letter from Italy, a brother’s last written words from a hospital bed, fragile but forever recognisable in those traces on the hurried paper. The loops and swirls on an envelope assert a message from a friend, a friend whose hand — do we still remember the way in what that word ‘hand’ was used to mean the script, as in ‘I would know her hand anywhere’? — is so voluminous that it has to be deciphered almost like a crossword puzzle, so that getting 12 across gives the meaning of five down.

It seems unfortunate but imperative to write ‘once upon a time’ when considering hand-writing, but here it is: once upon a time schools insisted on a basic standard of legibility which also allowed for distinctive characteristics. That time is coming to an end as teachers boast their pupils are equipped with machines which progressively reduce the need even for books, not to mind handwriting. This matches the way in which ministers for education like to propose altering learning so that memorisation is replaced by deduction, and teachers, in a trend which has already been shown to be educationally disastrous, dictate that self-expression is more important than correct spelling and grammatical accuracy. Yet the gift of memory (more acutely treasured as memory itself begins to fail with the years) is surely compatible with deduction and should be honed as a skill and there are elements of learning by rote which last a life-time and should not be derided or discarded. Equally spelling and grammar are essential to meaning and therefore strengthen, rather than weaken, whatever self needs to be expressed.

In what is an extremely informative book examining hand-writing styles, schools of penmanship, political controversies about fonts, the importance of a neat script for ledgers, minute, account and letter-books in those days when everything had to be copied by hand (Tolstoy’s unfortunate wife Sonya had to write out ‘War and Peace’ at least seven times, while several of Dickens’ characters make a living by copying court reports and legal opinions). One of Hensher’s most entertaining chapters is his account of a search in London for an improvement on his existing italic fountain pen. Well-informed assistants in the very best shops are unable to help him until at last he buys something close to what he wants with the right kind of nib: ‘That pen had to be made by Lamy, and I already had one.’

Yes, there was a time when most people could not write. Philip Hensher is making the point that such a time will shortly be upon us again.

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