Is handwriting becoming a dying art? And does it matter if it is? PATRICK FREYNEexplores the subject of a new book by Philip Hensher
When I was a very small child I wanted to write joined-up writing like an adult and would “practice” writing nonsensical squiggles. Joined-up handwriting seemed like an important part of being a grown up. A few years later I was learning cursive in specially lined copy books, first adding little tails to each letter and then joining them together in a continuous flow of fountain-pen ink. I was becoming a man (I was seven).
Once upon a time, handwriting was a crucial communications tool. It was an inky link between one person and another. Nowadays we use word processors and email, and as handwriting becomes reserved for to-do lists and notes-to-self, it has degenerated into an irregular scrawl (much like the nonsensical squiggles of my misspent toddlerhood).
Philip Hensher, Booker-nominated author of The Northern Clemency, laments this in a new book called The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting (And Why it Still Matters). A witty, zippy, fact-filled text, it traces the history of penmanship, handwriting styles and technological innovations from quills to Bic biros. It also features thoughtful asides about handwriting from the author himself and a motley crew of friends and colleagues.
“The book started from a couple of shocking realisations,” says Hensher.
“I realised that there were friends of mine and I didn’t know what their handwriting looked like. Then a couple of students said to me that they couldn’t write by hand. I realised that this thing [handwriting] was disappearing and I don’t think anyone actually took a decision at any point that they weren’t going to be doing this anymore or thought about what we might be losing if we dropped it altogether. I think 10 years ago this would have been a totally different book . . . I’d have been asking people to look at a completely unremarkable part of everyday life with an interesting history. Now it’s definitely something that’s disappearing.”
Not too long ago, good penmanship related directly to life-chances. In the 19th century, self-improvement gurus often focused on the art of handwriting. “It’s an interesting thing to rest so much on but it was obviously an enormous factor in people’s lives well into the 20th century,” says Hensher.
“When it was the main means by which people communicated with each other it was quite important that people should have a reliable, legible and, in the world of work, a speedy hand. It does sound absurd now to think that good handwriting was the means of getting you a good job or keeping you out of the billiard halls, but that idea of steady application to penmanship made perfect sense in the 19th century. You can see it in Dickens, the idea that if you sit down and apply yourself to writing correctly, neatly and accurately, then that’s going to get you out of poverty.”
Nowadays, the word processor is a great leveller. I couldn’t guess what any of my colleagues’ penmanship is like. One told me that she never learned to join her letters because the nuns at her school didn’t teach cursive. Another recalled her hatred of fountain pens because as a “lefty”, her hand dragged after the pen across the page, thus smudging the ink. Someone else revealed how she once had two handwriting styles – one for everyday use, and one for writing to her granny. Everyone missed receiving letters . . . though not everyone missed writing them. “I always had to write each one twice,” said one colleague. “A rough one with things crossed out and a neater one when it was composed.” I asked for some sample handwriting. “Dear Patrick, I’m doing my best not to write this neater than it usually is,” wrote Laurence in a slightly spidery hand. “I used to have really nice handwriting, but now I type too much and am out of practice,” wrote Joyce in a neat, legible, semi-joined up italic. “Dear Patrick, Some of us have real work to do. All the best, Shane,” wrote the arts editor, using particularly large capital letters at the start of his sentences (it’s hard not to read personality traits into people’s handwriting).