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).
Hensher devotes a humorous chapter to his own handwriting prejudices, while acknowledging that graphology, the pseudoscience of determining character from handwriting, has long been discredited. What is certain, however, is that everyone’s script is as individual as a fingerprint.
Signatures still bear huge legal weight. And there’s nothing like seeing the handwriting of a departed friend or relative.
“My father died five years ago,” says Fidelma Sheridan, a teacher and co-ordinator of the INTO/EBS Handwriting Competition for the Cavan region. “If I come across his handwriting, his personality is there in the words he wrote, but also the style of handwriting.” She also recalls letters from a family friend who wrote letters in ornate copperplate (a now rare style usually reserved for actual copper plates). “The address would be the most amazing structure,” she says. “They were works of art.”
Sheridan says that handwriting is still taught very well in Irish primary schools and that the response they get to the competition is very good. “The handwriting competition is open to about 80 schools in Cavan and we would get at least 50 submitting entries,” she says.
“And there’s some amazing handwriting there. I know people say with the digital age its going out of style and some people even argue that we shouldn’t be focusing on it anymore but it is absolutely vital for motor skills and hand-eye co-ordination and to assist a child in learning to read.” John Fitzgerald, manager of the Pen Corner on College Green in Dublin, however, worries that because these children don’t need to write as much on reaching adulthood, penmanship is declining. “It used to be that the people with the best handwriting were American or French,” he said.
“They all learned to write in exactly the same way. You could always recognise an older American person’s handwriting. But I recently had a young American girl in. She was on a study break here. She was keeping a journal and wanted a nice pen. She just couldn’t write.” The Pen Corner’s most reliable customers now are schoolchildren and professionals – doctors and lawyers – for whom a good pen is a “tool”.
Those who find themselves signing a lot of documents, he says, prefer fountain pens with thick nibs. The most sought-after pens, thanks partially to product placement in Hollywood movies, are Mont Blancs.
Fitzgerald, who scribbles on a pad of paper as we talk in order to demonstrate different script styles and his own “architecty” hand-writing, believes that discarding the art of handwriting altogether would be a big mistake.
“I think it’s absolutely fundamental to body, mind-hand processes,” he says. “It takes you into the realms of creative expression. Good handwriting as opposed to ‘tapping’ on a computer potentially encourages alternative thinking.” He sighs. “But it’s a brave new world now, isn’t it?”
Philip Hensher believes that this brave new world doesn’t necessarily lead to the best literature. He says that he can often tell when a novel has been written on a word processor. “There is a sort of novel where the sentences have lost their shape because [the writer has] gone over their work on the computer and has just dropped a clause in the middle of a sentence,” he says. “If there’s some sort of resistance or physical demand being made as you write out a word, the sentences are a little bit more considered and shapely.”
Hensher himself writes all of his books by hand and does so in an “untaught italic manner”. He loves his new pen, a fancy fountain “with a nib that revolves and emerges in an extraordinary futuristic way” (mine incidentally is an old beaten-up Waterman ballpoint). That said, he’s not above using a Bic Cristal, an invention he applauds in his book. He even, on occasion, uses email.
“I’m not a Luddite,” he says. “Modern communication technology is a wonderful thing. But those types of communication have a habit of not lasting. No one has a text message that’s 20 years old and no one ever will, because no one will have a mobile phone that’s 20 years old.
“Emails from your sister or emails of love from the first days of marriage, all those are going to disappear unless you print them out on paper and put them in an envelope. But I’m always coming across postcards from 20 or 30 years ago tucked into books or stuffed into boxes. They have a habit of surviving . . . And when you get a letter from a dear friend, even if they’ve got objectively terrible handwriting it’s always a pleasure. People shouldn’t be ashamed of their handwriting.They should get over themselves. They should write more.”