Tuesday, September 4, 2012


An elegy for a dying art by Ann Wroe

Take a sheet of paper. Better still, take a whole sheaf; writing prospers with comfort and cushioning. The paper may be deliciously thick, with ragged edges and a surface capillaried with tiny fibres of the rags that made it. It may be thin, blank, industrial A4, one of a thousand in a cut-price pack from Staples. It may be wove paper, vellum-smooth and shiny, or a bit of scrap, torn not quite straight, with a palimpsest of typed meeting-minutes showing through. But write.

The instrument matters but, for the moment, seize anything. The old fountain pen, so familiar that it nestles like a warm fifth finger in the crook of the thumb, its clip slightly shaky with over-use; the pencil, its lead half-blunt and not quite steady in that smooth cone of wood; the ultra-fine felt tip from the office cupboard, with its no-nonsense simplicity, or the ancient mapping pen, nibbed like a bird’s claw, which surely writes only in copperplate, scratching fiercely as it goes. Seize even a ball-point, though its line is mean and thin, and though teachers will tell you that nothing ruins writing faster. Dip, fill or shake vigorously; and write.

For most adults the skill is an instinctive one. Yet cursive handwriting takes a while to master. At primary school our small, wide writing books opened on a forbidding grid of lines, red ones an inch apart, blue ones set close together between them. These cradled the bodies of the letters, while the descenders and ascenders made for the reds like pegs for a washing line. So easily, almost showily, Teacher formed the letter with her black pen: clumsily, with our large sharpened pencils, we tried to follow. It was hard. An “m”, “n” or “u” settled cosily between the lines; but “a”, with its one flat side, was tricky, and “e” rocked over on its back. Tall letters looked simple, but when one leaned all the rest sloped off towards disaster. The tail of a “p” groped fearfully as it descended through empty space. When a whole line succeeded it looked splendid, like a marching battalion with faint band-music playing, and a gold star shining at the end. If I half-closed my eyes, flicking fast through the pages, the rhythms and patterns arranged themselves in fascinating ways. But once the scaffolding was removed the letters collapsed alarmingly. They still do, unless they have a line to aim for.

At secondary school, surprisingly, we had to learn to write all over again. The teachers found fault with our plain rounded hand; we had to move up to italic now, together with oblique-nibbed pens and dangerously abundant blue ink. Italic was all thicks and thins, diagonal joins and elegant serifs, imposed by nuns who could flick a ruler quicker than an upstroke when faced with a careless piece of work. I came to like the new style for its angularity and boldness, and the way you could dot your “i” with a perfect diamond if you held your pen just right; though it took years to make my backward-sloping letters stand up straight and then lean forward, as both the manuals and the nuns required. All this took far more effort than tapping a computer keyboard.

Writing involves not only the hand and wrist but also the arm, the shoulder, sometimes the whole body. Quill-users were well aware of this, and would choose from the right wing or the left - ideally the third or fourth feather of a goose-wing, but possibly the finest feathers of swans, or ravens, or crows - to make the quill curve towards the hand or away from it, whichever felt more natural. Words could fly that way. Left-handers especially demonstrate the exertion of writing, curling their entire bodies round their pens as they write, smearing their words as they go. Children forming letters sit hunched with concentration, small fingers clenched round crayons, little pink tongues darting out of mouths. After a page or three of writing against the clock, the ablest college student flaps his wrist to ease the ache in it. A script like italic or copperplate is explicitly formed from the shapes made in engraving; pens as they write not only impress the paper, but dig into it, as surely as Sumerians dug their cuneiform letters into tablets of damp clay, or as Roman masons chiseled their magisterial capitals, ancestors of all ours, into the base of Trajan’s column. This can be hard physical work; which is perhaps why Gutenberg, when he devised his printing press, was especially keen to boast that no laboring pen had made his blackletter, but a smoothly oiled machine.

Printing did not harm handwriting, though it gradually replaced the calligraphic uncial and gothic of silent, patient monks in their scriptoria. In fact, because it encouraged literacy, printing helped writing to become a more universal skill. Typewriters (though greeted with jeremiads much like this one) did not hurt handwriting too much, because they were used mostly in offices or by sweating beat journalists whose cigarette ash powdered the keys. The rot started when keyboards were allowed, then required, in schools, and when they became small and light enough to slip in a pocket, replacing the notebook and even the jotted to-do list - milk, bread, call garage - which remains, for many people, the greatest boon of writing.

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