The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting, Philip Hensher

“You’ll never be a doctor… Your handwriting is too neat! Aren’t doctors supposed to have poor handwriting?!”


For those of you who don’t know, soon I’ll be heading off to university to study to become a doctor. Scary stuff. Throughout my.. Gosh, 14? 15? years of education, handwriting has proved to be a very important tool to me.  I mean, without it I wouldn’t have my exam grades, right? What my review (though, I’d much rather call it an inspired discussion) will mainly focus on is handwriting in my life, my brother’s life (4 and a half years my junior) and my sister’s life (she’s even younger – by 18 years!).

One of my earliest memories of learning handwriting was having handwriting books in school. They were A5 purple Rhino books – those of us in the UK I’m sure will know of the school books from Rhino. They had seyes ruling (though, at the time I never knew it was called this. In fact, it was only recently I rediscovered the paper type) with alternating blue and purple lines to allow you to form your ascenders and descenders correctly. I was copying out a passage from a Harry Potter book (I want to say Philosopher’s Stone, but I have a feeling it may actually have been Chamber of Secrets). The rule was that you finish two A5 pages and then you got to read. Others found the task annoying and would be overjoyed when they finished so they could ‘read’ (or, you know, stare blankly at the pages pretending to read). I was happy, because I loved writing and reading.

Skip forward a few years (two, in fact, to the age of 9) where my love for writing only became stronger. We still had the purple Rhino books and I decided to ask if I could take one home. I wanted to learn to write with my right hand. My teacher told me “under one condition”. That condition was that I stopped circling the tittle on letters such as i and j; something that Hensher refers to as “moronic” (I was indeed a moron child. I admit that now). I never learnt to write with my right hand, but I did break the habit of circling certain letters. So much so that from the age of 15-17 I wouldn’t do the dot at all (perhaps I was just really angsty?)

And this is a subject that Hensher brings up in his book – that handwriting is a reflection of our own selves. Now, I’m going to put my hands up and admit I don’t know what I’m on about right now, but I’m fairly certain there are psychological papers/studies surrounding this subject. I remember seeing an infographic in which it explained how people do different descenders and what it reflects about their personality. To me, this is so so so so SO important (though, I don’t 100% agree with the idea that just because you have a short descender you’re shy..). Maybe it’s the poet within me, but handwriting gives an additional insight into the person who’s writing the passage. If they’re worried, it’s likely to be ill-formed. Happy then you’d expect it to be flowing, presented impeccably. Right? Again, I’m doing my A levels, maybe I need to hold off on my literature revision for a while because analysis is clearly going to my head (he says, doing a blog post inspired by a work of literature). If I get a letter from someone, not only is it more personal, but I’ll get to understand their writing, rather than just reading their writing. To me, that’s something that’s very important; it takes reading between the lines to a whole new level.

But who sends letters anymore? Well, this is another thing that Hensher questions. What inspired his book was that one day he realised he had never seen his best friend’s handwriting. I have known my best friend since the first day of nursery, which would have been about the age of 3 maybe? So 16 and a quarter years. I’ve seen his handwriting many times because we’d sit next to each other in school. But outside of school? Never. In fact, I have never seen my brother’s handwriting for things other than school work. But I journal, I write out quotes, song lyrics, lists.. Anything, just because. Sometimes I’ll just want to write. But other than my own, I very rarely witness the handwriting of others unless it’s in a situation that calls for it (which sounds stupidly obvious. By that I mean (school) work or where it’s not for leisure like writing a letter or journalling). That’s a sad reality, I suppose. It makes me think (and this has been in my mind ever since she was born) whether my sister will actually write. As I was leaving primary school, we were already getting iPads and laptops. Gone are the days when you’d get the school’s TV in your classroom after coming in from break-time (damn, weren’t those the best days?). What about wet play, as we called it? When it was too wet to go outside so we played games inside. Will children be glued to their phone screens or playing snap and snakes & ladders? I fear the former.

But what about the technological ‘uprising’? Sure, technology is super useful. You wouldn’t be reading this without a laptop and an Internet connection. I have a few meetings coming up and to let others know, I just put it in my iCloud calendar and instantly people know that I’m not free (of course, for personal use I stick to things like my Bullet Journal. I don’t use technology for that sort of stuff – when I can make it analogue, I’ll make it such). Hensher says that humans “to a certain degree think of their phones as an extension of themselves”, which is true. In fact, I’m FaceTiming one of my best friends in Canada as I write this (and they say men can’t multi-task, pfft ((we can’t))). It goes back to what he says about sending letters – I’ve received a few letters from people (including the same friend from Canada; I still have one she sent me 6 years ago, even) but for every letter I’ve received, I’ve probably had about 93234372637 text messages. Technology can make things easier for us. I worded that sentence very carefully – because technology can be an absolute pain in the backside sometimes. That doesn’t mean pens are absolutely perfect. They can run dry/not write, you can easily misplace them (though, since getting into expensive fountain pens, I have never lost one in the year since I’ve been in the hobby), nibs can break/splay, you can get ink all over your clothes.. One incident that would always happen at my primary school was ink being sucked up by students into their mouths because they’d be sucking on the back end of a pen. Blue tongues, lips and stained teeth eventually became part of the school uniform. I especially remember my headmistress coming in to our class saying “if you were supposed to have ink in your mouth then we’d give it to you to put on your Cornflakes in the morning.” I didn’t like this; I never liked Cornflakes. Why Cornflakes?

I can’t remember the Cornflake pens, but I remember using the Pilot G-2 pens for most of my primary school. They were great pens, but I never had a fountain pen. In fact, I never used a fountain pen until I was 14. Fountain pens have certainly been phased out of primary schools. Perhaps because of practicality? In fact, I believe in Germany, fountain pens are seen as immature because they learn with them in primary school. My brother is in secondary school at the moment (Year 10) and everyday he has a new pen that he “found off the floor” that particular day. So I am really interested to see what my sister will be using when she starts school. I have every intention to at least teach her to write neatly.

As a brief aside from the content of the book, I would like to give my thanks to Hensher for writing this informative book. Not only is it an interesting and thought provoking read, it’s also a funny one. Hensher includes many footnotes to accompany his book with cheeky comments, and even a few in the text itself. If I wasn’t already interested in the topic then the writing style (ironic..) would certainly keep me reading on, much like a typical fiction book. It’s also a nice conversation piece.

All in all, my stance is that handwriting should never be phased out. A pen is easy to carry around, but you can’t stand up, type down a quick thought on your laptop and go about your day. Pros and cons to both so they should be able to work hand in hand and compliment each other.

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