The Missing Ink by Philip Hensher

The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting, and Why it Still MattersOh I had such fun reading this, Philip Hensher made me giggle on more than one occasion with his no nonsense dismissal of stupidity. It was also genuinely educational. I’d never really given the history of handwriting much thought before, despite wading through some pretty difficult early modern hands for my thesis. I am much better informed now.

There’s a little bit of a lot of different things here. Its partly a lament for the decline of handwriting in the face of modern social media. It is also a personal memoir and series of informal  interviews about learning to write. Handwriting history is in here, as is graphology, and the rituals surrounding and technology of pen and ink. It also includes things that drive Hensher’s crazy, such as people who dot their “i” with a little heart – seems reasonable that one!

I guess it’s true that handwriting is a less frequently practised skill than it once was; Hensher was prompted to write this book by the realisation that he had never seen the handwriting of a good friend. That struck me as most peculiar, and I’ve racked my brain to think of a real-life friend of mine whose handwriting I wouldn’t recognise. Through Christmas or Birthday cards, hastily written notes, postcards, or even full-length letters I still see a great deal of handwriting. Lucky me, handwritten communication trumps emails, texts and e-cards any day. Of course, there are many people I communicate with via my keyboard and touch screen only now; acquaintances from blogs and Twitter whose handwriting I probably will never see. It made me think about how we categorise the people we know – friends, internet friends, acquaintances, followers…

Anyway, back to the book, and the development of writing. Initially a system to account for goods and possessions, it really hit its stride once it could be used more creatively. The Ancient Egyptians used the hieratic script for all sorts of exciting things, including literature. Alphabets have come and gone, writing implements have developed to the acme of the biro, but until very recently people have been committing pen to paper to record and invent all sorts of things. A chapter on Dickens demonstrates that even the messiest and most cramped handwriting is worth the effort of deciphering. The chapter on Hitler’s reluctance to write anything for himself left me wondering if we should be deeply suspicious of anyone not prepared to use longhand.

The steps towards the modern hand are fascinating. From uncial to copperplate to civil service hand to the 20th century we all recognise, via italic, and various national differences, the history of handwriting is one of not entirely rational alterations. Ideally, what we would all like from our own handwriting is for it to be beautiful, easy to join, quick and neat. Whether we get all or any of those has a great deal to do with what script is taken as our model, and how we were taught. I pitied those poor children performing repetitive hand and arm movements for hours at a time. I rather like the sound of combining handwriting and movement classes; dance your way to better handwriting, splendid. I cannot really remember learning to write, just the desire to have nice writing after hearing someone comment that my left-handedness would mean messy writing. No, it would not, said contrary small child me. I wholeheartedly agree with Hensher about how to improve your hand, because I’ve often done the same – if you see some aspect of someone’s script you like, copy it. Like Hensher, I too had a teacher who wrote in the most lovely italics, but unlike him I never committed to properly learning how myself. Maybe I will.

I must just mention the footnotes. They are absolutely essential reading. Some of the funniest bits are tucked away at the bottom of the page. I loved the discussion of John Lewis, the department store, and the explanation of the traditional English daytrip. Both had me nodding in agreement.

I scooped up a few handwritten things from around my house. I like looking at them, know who wrote them at a glance. I’m definitely with Philip Hensher on the importance of handwriting, but I don’t think it’s a dying art yet. My nieces and nephews all seem happy to have a pen in their hand and they all have beautiful handwriting. Let’s hope they continue to write by hand as they grow up.

The postcard at the top is in the pleasing neat German handwriting of my childhood penpal. We still send real letters and cards over thirty years later.

A short list of things the kids like, written by my niece aged 5, her sister who is 7, and their brother who’s 8.

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