From here . . . to there

Sat, Nov 17, 2012, 00:00

EILEEN BATTERSBYponders a quill pen and a mobile phone

Drums, bells, symbols, signs, even a basic drawing are all methods of conveying a message. Humans may also whisper, speak in a normal tone, or at least one that is acceptable before moving on to something that bit louder – the call, the cry or the emphatic shout. Many a conversation, sadly, has been conducted through shrugs, grunts and a halfhearted murmur. Never overlook the effectiveness of smoke signals.

Early man got down to business; there were cave paintings and numbers which predate the writing of languages. Then runes, runic lines on stones, favoured by Germanic tribes, while writing apparently originated in Mesopotamia. The Egyptians introduced hieroglyphs and eventually invented Coptic script.The Chinese used logographs. The Phoenician alphabet evolved around 1,000 BC.

All are complex and sophisticated systems no longer widely used. For Western man, the origins of the art of handwriting remain closely associated with that most elegant of devices, the quill, which emerged in the sixth century.

Medieval monks mastered calligraphy, creating magnificent manuscripts; famous historical documents were signed with quills. Writers from before Shakespeare to after Charles Dickens wrote with various manifestations of quills and dip pens as did composers. Throughout the 18th and 19th century, professional scribes were employed for their beautiful handwriting. The quill demands a steady hand and a constant flow of ink.

Generations of teachers taught children to acquire a fine hand. Along with a wonderful singing voice, elegant handwriting must be one of man’s most coveted attributes. First there is printing, then we progress to joined up letters, ah the thrill of it. The fantasy that you, too, could leave behind a cache of letters as did Beethoven or Jane Austen.

So what happened? As novelist Philip Hensher laments in his wittily eccentric manifesto The Missing Ink, we all became ashamed of our handwriting. The ball point pen, followed by the robust biro arrived, encouraging us all to scribble messily. Handwriting’s death knell was sounded by the dreaded mobile phone with its texting facility. Thumb joints are enlarged, postcards have vanished and handwriting, along with civility, has declined.

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