‘We are fighting a losing battle,’ Philip Hensher writes in The Missing Ink, his funny, exasperated book in defence of handwriting.[*] He has no difficulty spotting the enemy. Consider the advice from the Indiana Department of Education last year that only proficiency with a keyboard would be expected of pupils in its charge. (Schools ‘can continue to teach handwriting if they want’.) Or an interview in the Telegraph with ‘a psychologist called Dr Scott Hamilton’, who suggests that if pupils know how to sign their name in a cursive hand, teachers should leave it at that. ‘The time allocated for cursive instruction,’ Hamilton goes on, ‘could then be devoted to learning keyboarding and typing skills.’ The rot must have set in with the typewriter. Hensher is appalled to record that the typewriter was invoked in the 1970s by a principal in London who couldn’t see why pupils needed to put pen to paper at all. No legible hand without an intelligent head is the moral for Hensher here.
Yet there’s some sense in children pottering up to the workstation before they form their first character. Joined-up writing is not the only way to acquire literacy skills and the mechanical mark inscribed by depressing a key is easier to execute than the sign traced with a pen or pencil. Our predecessors were never faced with the possibility, which haunts the thinking of people like Hamilton, that learning cursive script before your fingers rattle a keyboard might be like learning to run before you can walk. In a way the old guard were lucky: running was the only option. Even the biro was regarded as a sort of cheating that deformed a good hand.
But this isn’t Hensher’s point. He takes the view that we impress our individuality on a page when we make signs with a pen or pencil, that our culture is reaffirmed as we persist in the practice, and that the production of handwritten texts is a rich expression of both. If handwriting disappears, he warns, ‘some other elements of civilised life may die with this art, or skill, or habit.’ But maybe to focus on penmanship, as Hensher does, is to underestimate other clues about the arts of reading and writing that could help him identify the threat more clearly. If the aspiration to read is gradually superseded by the aspiration to write, for instance, then the culture Hensher wishes to preserve might soon be a closed book. There’s also the larger question of why societies neglect their assets or sidle past them with a sneer. A person who worries about the end of civilisation and finds time to deride Ruskin and Morris as ‘the original champagne socialists’ may not have noticed the extent of the ruins all about him.
Hensher is a reliable guide to the teaching of handwriting, which he picks up in the mid-19th century with the spread of copperplate in the US (‘upright morally, though rightward sloping graphically’)and brings to what he sees as a high point in the mid-1930s, with the publication of Marion Richardson’s Writing and Writing Patterns. Richardson, Hensher’s hero, was an art teacher at Dudley Girls’ High School in the Midlands, where she saw the pleasure children took in line and form and came to some shrewd conclusions about teaching them to write. When she produced her Dudley Writing Cards in 1928 she was billed in the press as the inventor of ‘zigzag writing’ after a remark in the introductory note by Edward Johnston, a founding father of modern calligraphy. Richardson’s ideas were ‘child-centred’ but she wasn’t a pushover. Pupils who forgot their paintbox were sent to sit in the garden (‘you can go to the devil for all I care’). Hensher loves her for the care she bestowed on the shaping of an accessible, modern hand.
He is very sharp on the dubious art of character inference, while airing prejudices of his own. ‘People whose handwriting is mainly round are generally nice. Generally, I said, generally.’ ‘Someone who uses the Greek E probably had an early homosexual experience. Might have had a homosexual experience last night too.’ His chapters are interspersed with material transcribed from conversations with ‘witnesses’ – friends and acquaintances who have anything interesting to say about handwriting. ‘You can know someone for years these days,’ Alan Hollinghurst observes, ‘and have no idea what their handwriting is like.’ That might be just as well. A poor or crabbed hand is unlikely to lead to a celebrity divorce in 2012, but it can still set our teeth on edge like bad table manners.
Hensher is a terrific reader who can open up Dickens like a plate of gleaming oysters, setting out the best passages about handwriting from Nicholas Nickleby to Great Expectations. He notes the erotic seethings that illegible handwriting occasions in Proust, and his disdain for a decipherable hand in the novel and the correspondence. The familiar face of the hotel manager in Balbec is dreary, the narrator decides, ‘nondescript’ and too easily grasped, ‘as intelligible as handwriting one can read’. He might not have agreed with Hensher that ‘handwriting is good for us,’ but he would have gone along with the notion of ‘a relationship with the written word which is sensuous, immediate and individual’.
Hensher is not the first to sound the alarm. Heidegger fretted energetically about the impersonal touch of the typewriter. Still, that’s no reason to set off for the Black Forest with a rucksack full of virgin postcards. Compositions at the keyboard often have the fluency of the longhand draft, the letter, the note penned in haste. Charles Olson welcomed the typewriter as an aid to composition, clunky yet precise, enabling poets to orchestrate ‘the breath, the pauses, the suspensions even of syllables’. ‘For the first time,’ he wrote in his essay ‘Projective Verse’, ‘the poet has the stave and the bar a musician has had.’ Derrida is encouraging too. As you’d expect, he sees handwriting as a technology like any other, but he confessed to La Quinzaine Littéraire that he’d been in the habit, when working on ‘the texts that mattered to me’, of laying aside his ordinary pen for a dip pen with an artist’s quill. Once the revisions were done, he typed up the text on an Olivetti. Eventually he fell in love with his ‘little Mac’. All the same he was unsettled by word processing and the ‘indefinite’ nature of a correction: sliding in the Tippex had felt more ceremonious and decisive. ‘With the computer, everything is rapid and so easy; you get to thinking that you can go on revising for ever.’ But so did Proust.
[*] Macmillan, 300 pp., £14.99, October, 978 0 230 76712 6.