Stick to the Script
The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting, and Why it Still Matters
By Philip Hensher (Macmillan 274pp £14.99)
We don't have to look far to see how rare it is, nowadays, for people to communicate by putting pen to paper. It is not only those born into the computer age who don't think of doing it. Even very old people, including me, have friends whose handwriting they have never seen. We all communicate, of course (tweet tweet tweet, and yack yack yack on the mobile), but not by pen and ink. Does it matter?
I didn't have to read 274 pages to be persuaded that it does, but I am very glad indeed that those pages were written and that I have read them. From this book, the wisest and wittiest argument imaginable for the preservation of handwriting, I have learnt so much, and by it have been so happily entertained, that I am compelled to recommend it to everyone.
Philip Hensher does not think that we should forego the obvious advantages of mechanical and electronic communication: like any sensible writer he himself uses a computer. What appals him is the fact that both here and in the USA a great many schools no longer bother to teach handwriting on the grounds that all children now have access to typewriters and computers. No one, after all, thinks that learning to ride a bicycle means that you inevitably have to lose the pleasure of running.
It is the pleasure of handwriting that Philip Hensher sets out to evoke - the strange, even mysterious pleasure of it, the thing about it that makes me, for example, discover in detail what I feel about something only when I begin to see the words for it appearing on paper, written by my hand. I wish he had been here yesterday, when I was describing his book to a friend of mine who is in his very early twenties and was incredulous when I told him about schools not teaching handwriting. 'But when you type the letter A,' he said, 'you just press a button and an A appears. When you write it' - and he traced an A in the air - 'you are making it'. Surely Hensher, like me, would have seen a glimmer of hope in that reaction from a person so young.
The way Hensher evokes the pleasure is both indirect and concrete. He describes the history of handwriting in Europe and America - the various styles promoted by a series of pioneers (who were often didactic and controlling), not often recognised by the layman, before, in the 1920s and 1930s, Marion Richardson came up with the idea of making children enjoy writing lessons by approaching them through their own spontaneous scribbling. He swoops off to Germany and its two scripts, and to Hitler's decision to give up handwriting quite early in his career. Then we come to the development of writing implements and ink, to the surprising fact that fountain pens existed as an idea as early as 1710, and to the invention of the Biro, an object that I will never again take for granted, after absorbing Hensher's passionate account of its development. (His acknowledgement of the Biro's significance is a good example of an important aspect of this book. Writers about handwriting often have a tendency to be precious, even a bit snobbish, but Hensher's approach is entirely free of this taint.)
Perhaps the most interesting part of the book concerns the question of what handwriting tells you about a person. There have been some intriguing answers. In 1900 it was suggested that it could reveal qualities including 'Amativeness, conjugality, inhabitativeness, philoprogenitiveness, destructiveness, approbativeness, concentrativeness, vitativeness, firmness, veneration', and many others. Indeed, the 'science' of graphology becomes more 'pseudo' the further it is pushed - but even so, it does quite often hit the nail on the head. People's handwriting can be recognised; their hand produces script in a particular way, so its appearance must be expressing something about them. It seems to me that Hensher errs very slightly on the side of caution in this matter, being very good at revealing its absurd aspects and just a shade too sceptical about its successes. The funniest of his chapters - a gem - is the one called 'My Italic Nightmare', but he is often funny elsewhere as well.
I have a mild quarrel with him about his footnotes. There are few pages without one or more of them, and while the brief statements of sources are reassuring, many of the longer, afterthought-ish footnotes, which are packed with good things, could (I feel) with a little ingenuity have been incorporated in the text and would have been more readable there. Most unscholarly readers find footnotes that run on to the bottom of the next page a bore and tend to skip them, so what can one expect for two of the footnotes in this book that run over three pages? It would be sad to miss the matter in either of them, but it should have been worked into the narrative.
Interposed between the chapters are 11 short passages of conversation about the subject with family and friends, which are amusing but didn't seem to me to add much to a text perfectly satisfying without them. But the final chapter emphasises the irrelevance of these minor quibbles. It consists of ten common-sense and friendly suggestions to help those who would like to recover their handwriting, and brings us back to the serious purpose within the charming light-heartedness of The Missing Ink. One is left with a strong sense that handwriting does preserve something of a person's spirit and humanity, and a wish to do what one can to keep its practice alive.
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Diana Athill is the author of Stet and Somewhere Towards the End, which won the Costa Book Award for biography in 2008.