HANDWRITING: AN ELEGY

As more and more of our words are tapped out on keyboards, Ann Wroe celebrates a dying art

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, November/December 2011

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 chiselled 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 labouring 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.

HANDWRITING IS STILL taught in schools, but in America over the past 50 years the time spent teaching it has fallen dramatically. Though private and charter schools may still make a point of it (as of discipline, and uniforms), many public-school systems are abandoning cursive altogether. Even where taught, it is so soon replaced by typing, for all assignments, that the skill never sets. Teachers tend to agree that most schoolchildren’s writing may now be graded “terrible”, and is better avoided. From this year the writing test of America’s National Assessment of Educational Progress requires composition not on paper, but on a computer.

Pupils remember capitals because they tap at them all day on keyboards; many now write with them, unjoined, ungainly and loud as they are, forgetting that the Romans soon abandoned majuscule as laborious and impractical, and that a letter entirely in capitals still bears the mark of the seriously deranged. In 2006 in America, 85% of those who took the handwritten-essay SAT test for college entry preferred to print their letters. Young people are swiftly losing cursive, using it only to sign their names or write the odd cheque. Most signatures, with long use, develop into ciphers or symbols; some of the young, though, now start off that way, appending their personal signs in the form of a spiral or a heart.

Typing (or, now, horribly, “keyboarding”) is more convenient. Typing is what we do, all the time, on the marvellous little gizmos we keep in our pockets. Typing is how love is written now, rather than on perfumed notepaper—and presumably that tell-tale e-mail address causes the same leap of the heart as that backward-slanting hand, with its careful serifs and looped “d”s, ever used to do. With typing we can copy, and paste, and search, and deliver a piece of work as polished as if second thoughts and errors had never occurred to us. And, perhaps most important, we can read what we, or others, intended to say.

In my days as a medieval historian, I spent much of my time deciphering handwriting. This was where treasure lay, as surely as miniatures nestled like jewels in their orderly setting of black or gothic letters: the unexpected fact, the revelatory connection, truth itself. I came to love the neat, sharp-sided, airy script of 14th-century account books, and to admire the delicately rounded humanistic hand of Renaissance Italian ambassadors. Other hands I dreaded. Faced with a page of crabbed 15th-century notarial scrawl I would have to attack it like a thicket, scanning it for glimpses of light, pushing through the branches of intermeshing ascenders and descenders in case a strange or fascinating word flashed there, like a deer. Some words still refused to reveal themselves. Even when lifted out as if with tweezers, even when magnified and written out afresh, as if copying the action of writing might unlock them, they remained mere patterns without meaning. Perhaps hawk, perhaps handsaw. Somewhere, faintly, a man in a dusty clerk’s robe would flick his quill and laugh.

Part of the charm and frustration of handwriting is its scope for ambiguity, and its ability to baffle. Letters that are obvious to us become, to other eyes, a cipher as mysterious as the Rosetta Stone. This can be comic, as the scrawled postcard from Auntie Flo in Blackpool is passed round the supper table (was it the water she rode on last night, or the waiter?). But it is tiring over ten sides on the phenomenology of Hegel, and downright dangerous on a doctor’s prescription. It can be tragic, too, as when the lover with only the evidence of a letter tries to interpret, dares not interpret, tries to leave unread, the scrawl that suggests goodbye.

We have come to think of typing as faster than writing. That may or may not be so. Some research suggests that the conjunction of brain and writing hand is possibly more efficient. A study by the University of Washington in 2009 found that schoolchildren wrote faster, and wrote more, when they had to compose essays for ten minutes with pen on paper rather than on computers. The word “cursive” means running; it was invented to avoid time-wasting lifting of the stylus or the pen, with a series of fluid joins and, in the most hectic styles, looping ascenders and descenders. In the early 19th century, when people corresponded several times a day by letter, quasi-tweeting the state of nerves, weather and tea-invitations from hour to hour, quill and pen must have raced across the paper at prodigious speeds. The handwriting of Percy Shelley sometimes approached horizontal in the effort to seize inspiration on the wing. It raced, dived and disappeared like a river under thickets of deletions. In that age of poets, though, the Muse was often hindered by the pen, blunting, splitting, spitting ink or, as John Keats complained, making blind “e”s. The sheer act of writing caused so much frustration that any maker of a primitive computer might have been besieged. And who is to say that the poetry would have been worse?

Whatever the truth of it, handwriting is now consigned, like hand-carried post, to the realm of snails. It is used for special things, for first drafts of books and thank-you notes. It is becoming, like its properly artistic cousin calligraphy, a craft and a rarity, rather than a useful and quotidian skill; in years to come it may, perhaps, be as treasured as the lettering of Imperial China, brushed slowly onto bamboo paper in ink pressed out from jade and pomegranates.

Already the word “handwritten” has acquired a cachet it never had before. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, when Cadbury and Kellogg used a handwritten logo to sell chocolate and cornflakes, it suggested the founder’s personal commitment to quality, a reputation on the line. In the 1970s and 1980s scrawled cursive on record sleeves evoked bands who couldn’t be bothered with bourgeois capitalist print, who tossed down titles as they threw out songs, perhaps on the back of a cigarette packet in some soot-stained warehouse studio. Now it suggests care, leisure, individuality and beauty. “Handwritten” is the name of a new fashion range, by Tanya Sarne, that seeks to evoke luxury and craftsmanship. In Britain an online Letter Lounge arranges events around the country, taking over tranquil spots with cupcakes, embroidered cushions and cups of herbal tea while would-be writers ponder what they will write, and how they will write it. It all takes blissful hours. In Britain and America there are now shops, modelled loosely on the Il Papiro chain in Italy, selling nothing but exquisite papers, tiny cork-stoppered bottles of ink, quills and leather-framed blotters and beautiful marbled pens. Customers wander round, scarcely daring to touch.

Everything displayed in such shops expresses the idea of handwriting as ritual. It involves an almost sacramental assembling of equipment at the end of which letters, like magic runes, will be conjured from the blank of the page. The very names of Pelikan’s gold-chased range of fountain pens, “Majesty”, “Ductus” and “Souverän”, suggest magisterial acts; the names of letter-writing tablets, Eclats d’Or and Three Candle-sticks, Cream Laid and Vergé de France, imply a noble and receptive setting, like a deep-laid carpet. Only ink slums it, a decoction of lamp-black, vitriol, glue and galls.

The fundamental magic of alphabets—that certain signs, gathered in certain permutations, can create and recreate the world—is common to keyboards too, but the gods of alphabets are more properly honoured with paper and pen, seals and sealing wax. Whether anyone actually unscrews a bottle, dips a pen, dares to sully these lovely artefacts with use, is harder to say.

LAST YEAR SALES of fountain pens in Britain rose by 70%, and sales of quality writing paper at the John Lewis department store in London rose by 79%. Demand for calligraphy classes soared at City Lit, a popular London college. In America the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association reported that between 1998 and 2004 fountain-pen sales rose from 12m to 17m, and held steady thereafter. But the trend is less healthy than it seems. It is not hard to track down an exquisite luxury fountain pen, or even an antique model, for which the market is still lively; but anecdotal evidence on both sides of the Atlantic suggests that fewer ordinary retailers are stocking the basic Shaeffers and Parker Vectors that Joe Sixpack used once, when everybody wrote by hand. As the basic tools of handwriting disappear from the wall behind the till, so too does the notion that forming letters on paper is a routine way to communicate with other people.

At a pen-and-paper shop that has done business for 50 years in an English university town, business is slow. The manager nonetheless says he has seen an increase, over the 12 years he has been there, in people buying fountain pens. A pen is a statement or fashion accessory now, like cufflinks or a boutonnière: slightly nostalgic, slightly pretentious, certainly not everyday. The manager thinks it may be smoothness the customers are after, the sheer relaxation of a good nib after years of stressful, pressing ballpoints (the thinner the pen, the greater the stress)—though whether they will write, or simply doodle and squiggle like artists, is less clear. Luxury pens are bought as presents, though the manager agrees that the would-be user needs to weigh it in his hand first, get the heft and spring of it, try it with this nib and that, send it running over the paper with “thequickbrownfoxjumpsoverthelazydog”, to be sure it feels right. He continues to marvel at the different ways people hold pens: straight as a ruler, sideways, clenched in a fist, no two alike. Increasingly, though, they don’t know how best to approach the task of making letters. Does he use a fountain pen himself? With a burst of embarrassed laughter, he admits that his first tool is a keyboard.

A fine pen, after all, almost assumes that a lovely hand will flow from it. But most people’s handwriting is not beautiful. Very few can aspire to the Renaissance italic script of Niccolò Niccoli or Ludovico Arrighi, perhaps the most elegant ever devised, so pure and pleasing that it became the fons et origo not only of the best modern handwriting but of the lower-case typefaces that were then being invented. It was later adopted by William Morris to make his illuminated books in the 19th century, a nice example of progress running backwards. Few today (and perhaps few then) can emulate the lovely italic of the young Elizabeth I, taught to her by Roger Ascham, or the measured copperplate of George Washington. Spiders crawling out of inkwells come closer to what many of us achieve. And we like that, because for all the talk of fluency, balance, harmony and beauty in handwriting—for all the distrust of serifs, curlicues and fussiness in it—it is distinctiveness that we treasure it for: the degree to which it falls away from the copybook, and becomes part of ourselves.

Like a fingerprint, our script expresses us uniquely, and in a way that lasts. The more metaphysically minded might say that it transmits the soul to paper. It is odd that it should, when school writing lessons were meant to make everyone write alike. But within weeks, none of us was writing like anyone else. Only the French, with goodness-knows-what writing drills on their small-squared paper, seem still to impose a rounded, open, characterless national hand.

Handwriting is a personal, intimate thing. Many believe, without much scientific evidence, that creativity is linked to it. Graphologists believe it reveals the character. A forward-sloping hand is said to denote ambition, a backward-sloping one shyness or deceit (a reading that seems hard on left-handers, whose letters naturally tend that way). Looped descenders, they say, mean covetousness, looped ascenders spirituality, unjoined-up letters a surfeit of imagination. The fascination of a literary manuscript lies not only in the deletions and emendations, which show a Wordsworth poem or a Dickens novel in the chaotic making, but also in the clues it seems to offer to the character of the writer, and his or her mood when it was written. A line of poetry that tails off, squashed into the margin and falling downwards, may suggest merely temporary annoyance that the words were too many and the notebook was too small; or it may mean terminal melancholy.

WHATEVER THE SUBSTANCE of graphology, the character is there nonetheless. Though ostensibly silent, a handwritten letter from someone we know speaks with the voice—querulous, joking, ardent, tinged with an accent from Padua or Bulawayo—of its author. Though still, the letters on the page live and breathe as the writer does, crotchety and shaky with old age, hectic with youth, comfortably embracing as a mother. A handwritten envelope (the first we seize on, among the mailouts and bills) announces itself from the doormat as unmistakably as if the sender had walked through the door; and we are accordingly happy or irritated, intrigued or fearful.

Of course, we can talk on Skype now, summoning up the other person before us as though we had rubbed a magic lamp. We don’t need to prove our affection or our interest by making signs in ink on paper. It is all too indirect, too dilatory, and rather a performance. Better to communicate straight away, before we get distracted by something else.

And yet. On June 15th the UK Payments Council announced that handwritten cheques would continue to be accepted in Britain as long as needed. Though cheques are declining along with handwriting (their use has fallen by 70% since 1990) there is, as yet, no practical alternative for a private payment. A promise to pay, which is also an appeal for trust and a statement of sincerity, is better written by hand, however clumsily; and once written, it is better signed.

It may be that in decades to come this will be all that survives of common cursive: our monetary promises, and our names. Bearded eccentrics in cluttered attics, and lavender-scented maiden aunts, will continue to practise it, just as there will still be people who bake their own bread or scythe the meadow grass. But many more of us will be laid at last under headstones inscribed with the lovely lettering we almost managed to master for a while, until we decided that scratching our ideas in characters upon a surface was a task too primitive for us.

Ann Wroe is the obituaries editor of The Economist and author of "Orpheus: The Song of Life" and "Being Shelley: The Poet's Search for Himself". 

Photograph Diver Aguilar