A fountain of knowledge on putting pen to paper

Sat, Jan 19, 2013, 00:00

HANDWRITING: The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting (and Why It Still Matters), By Philip Hensher, Macmillan, 244pp, €14.99

Philip Hensher is an accomplished novelist, critic and teacher and, as this delightful book demonstrates, a dedicated calligraphic aesthetician. He does his writing with the fluency of ink through a fountain pen. Writing by hand, he believes, is more intimately self-expressive than by any machine. He deplores the general decline of handwriting and the baneful effect on communication. It is an increasingly rare pleasure to see a hand- addressed envelope among the officialese and junk mail.

His subtitle is a slight exaggeration: handwriting is not yet altogether a lost art; however, his anxiety is understandable, and the evangelical zeal of his plea for humanity may well bring tears of sympathy to the eyes of anyone not quite completely addicted to the computer.

Hensher writes in the leisurely essayistic manner of one of the last belletrists, while conveying a lot of instructive information. He clearly outlines his prospectus: “I’m going to talk about the pioneers who interested themselves in teaching handwriting, in particular styles: in the 19th century, the Americans Platt Rogers Spencer and AN Palmer, with their corporate copperplate, and the English inventor of the efficient ‘civil service’ hand, Vere Foster. There are the revivers of the elegant italic style in the 20th century. . . And I’m going to talk about the sometimes eccentric conclusions about personality, illness, psychosis and even suitability for employment which students of the pseudo-science of graphology have tried to draw from a close study of handwriting.”

All the promises are entertainingly fulfilled. His own findings and opinions are interspersed with chapters called “Witness”, quoting a variety of people he has interviewed informally with a tape recorder on the subject of handwriting.

Considering the ancient history of writing, from pictographs and hieroglyphics to the present, one can accept the notion that the invention of language and of the means of recording it is the foundation on which all civilisation has developed. When writing fails, all sorts of systems break down. Hensher cites a typical example: “In 2000, a US court awarded $450,000 to the family of a Texan man who died after a pharmacist misread the doctor’s handwritten prescription.”

In the 21st century teachers and pupils are evidently bored by the regimentation of writing lessons. Hensher quotes a psychologist called Scott Hamilton, who said it made sense to teach children only to sign their names in joined-up writing.

“The time allocated for cursive instruction could then be devoted to learning keyboarding and typing skills. From an intuitive standpoint, this may make sense, based on the increasingly digital world into which this generation of children is growing up.” But Hensher, of course, is horrified: “God save us all from Dr Hamilton’s intuitions.”

He continues: “We can let handwriting maintain a special place in our lives if we choose. If someone we knew died, I think most of us would still write our letters of condolence on paper, with a pen. And perhaps there are other occasions when we still have a choice whether to write with pen and paper or with electronic means, and we should make the right, human choice.”

In a 10-point programme to “reintroduce handwriting back into our lives”, Hensher recommends an assortment of writing equipment: “a 14p Bic Cristal pen, one black, one red (let’s say). Get a couple of pencils – a soft 2B pencil, a hard 2H. A fountain pen, a felt-tip pen, preferably in a garish colour. Get a whiteboard marker – those joyous things with a blunt tip. Anything else you can think of – I like those green Pentel pens with a rollerball at the tip.”

Pen quest

As a connoisseur, he values fountain pens above all others, and devotes a whole chapter to buying a new one. Although the one he had been using was “a perfectly good, highly functional pen made by the German firm Lamy, in brushed steel . . . I wanted a solid fountain pen that would last me for years. I wanted an italic nib. I also wanted a refillable, pump-action, hydraulic-type reservoir.”

The quest took him all over the West End of London during the Christmas season; he was willing to suffer for his art.

First he went to Peter Jones, which he claims is “the best department store in the world. John Betjeman, a former poet laureate, is said to have remarked that if he heard the siren going off warning of imminent nuclear destruction, he would head to Peter Jones on the grounds that nothing really awful could ever happen there.”

However, the day Hensher applied for a pen, the sales assistant had a revolting cold and no pen with an italic nib. He could only suggest Ryman’s – or “there’s always Harrods. They’ve got a pen shop, I reckon.”

On the way to Harrods, which proved not to stock what he wanted, Hensher noticed the shop of “the luxury goods firm Mont Blanc . . . I had the idea that Mont Blanc pens were dizzyingly expensive.” He was right. He found that “the Mont Blanc range goes from a £280 Hommage à WA Mozart to a Meisterstuck Solitaire Sterling Silver pen at £925 . . . a Mont Blanc Etoile Mysterieuse Fountain Pen at £15,600, as well as an unbelievable monstrosity encrusted with 1,400 diamonds, which they aren’t going to tell you the price of because you can’t afford it anyway.”

At last, at a branch of the Pen Shop, on Regent Street, he discovered “a Lamy, exactly the same as the one I already had but with a slightly wider italic nib, and handed over 40 quid”.

As a Hensher convert, I am rather ashamed to confess that this review was typed on a computer and transmitted to Dublin by email. In mitigation, I can only add that my notes on the book were written on paper with a Japanese Uni-ball Micro Deluxe waterproof pen that cost about €3.

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