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First pluck your crow

15 December 2012

9:00 AM

15 December 2012

9:00 AM

The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting (and why it still matters) Philip Hensher

Macmillan, pp.300, £14.99

As fewer people write by hand, some of us who do venture to squeak a thin call of alarm, like mice behind the frescoes during the last days of Pompeii. Philip Hensher (novelist and university teacher) voices dismay more manfully in this eloquent account of what has been and will be lost by the ending of this ancient habit, now that thoughts are transferred on to screens by squirming thumbs on dwarf keyboards. He has a ten-point plan for restoring pen and ink to daily life, and urges us all, literate or semi-literate, to try it out. This may seem like advising all who feel themselves drowning in the gruel of modern communications to trust themselves to a lone crouton bobbing on the surface, but the case for handwriting deserves to be heard, in terms other than those of nostalgic despondency.

In this justification the usual defences are abandoned. Into the ship’s furnace go graphic aestheticism, public utility, moral imperatives, respect for tradition, politeness, and all that. These are dismissed with some amusement and not much pity. Even legible italic seems to Hensher (who uses italic nibs) the hand for pretentious twits: exactly what I thought 60 years ago, but I was wrong, and 60 years of failed experiment with other sorts of writing have been punishment enough.

However, penmanship is not the point. The new objective is to get everyone to write anything and anyhow on any surface with any sort of pen on any occasion, but frequently and legibly, in the expectation of giving and taking pleasure, of beneficial therapy, and — if science is any guide — of improving the mental agility of children. It’s a bold claim, supported by a useful sketch of the main schools of handwriting in the past, French, German, and American as well as English; a note on Hitler’s handwriting and its imitators, some of whom were unaware that the Führer had given up writing by hand in the 1930s; essays on handwriting in Dickens and Proust, and more on the weird but lucrative science of graphology.


There is a horribly funny story about the author’s attempts to buy a new fountain pen in some big London shops two days after Christmas, which fits into the argument — somehow. For he is a fountain pen man, tiny lever, rubber sac, unscrewable cap and all — but so enraptured by the technology and universal empire of Biro, Bic and Cristal that he sometimes writes like a ballpoint salesman. He shows that pens can be objects of passionate desire and absurdly overpriced: not the most compelling case for using them.

Here and there he puts in short interviews with A, B and C, who are asked about their own and other handwriting. Embarrassment, self-depreciation and fond reminiscence are the foreseeable reactions, and if these are true to life, the invitation to scribble more and often has a chance of success.

Hensher recommends writing lessons in the school curriculums, like they have in France; which is why French exercise books are all defiled with little squares like graph paper, to keep the ascenders and descenders the same lengths.

That degree of regimentation (which works) is odious to our way of thinking. But something can be done to prepare children for writing beforehand. For example, if you live near a common, poultry market or farm, get them to collect goose feathers. Do you shoot? A fat crow will pluck nicely. Then ask them to shave the shanks of the feathers so as to leave tufts at the thin end. Those plumy articles with which heroines write billets-doux in films are fiction. Next, harden the quill in hot sand, i.e. in a tin of sand, warmed over moderate heat. Not too hot or the pen will blister. Children can watch and smell this process and try it themselves.

Then you show them how to carve the thick end into a nib, and split it evenly up the middle. That takes a very sharp knife; too sharp for them to use, but they can learn to hone it. You will probably have to buy the ink, since chemists no longer seem to stock iron sulphate, but however you get it, let the little ones dip and scrawl, and spill and spar, and the resulting theatre of ink, feathers, blood and tears may appeal to children of moderate ability aged four to eight enough to set them on the track which may eventually bring them to the sweet Roman hand.

As for adults, let them have Philip Hensher’s book. It deserves to sell.


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