One of the more enduring memories from my childhood is how painful writing was. Not physically, though. And think not, either, that I'm referring to the process of forming letters, words and characters on a sheet of paper in order to convey a message, but rather to the act of making said message legible and clear. My handwriting was awful. It was so dire that I was perennially punished by my teacher with countless exercises on how to improve it.
That's why I've always been amazed at how elegant and beautiful my children's handwriting is. In that respect, I'm sad - but relieved - to say, they didn't take after me. Probably after their mother, whose own efforts are a hundred times better than mine. The labyrinth of lines and shapes I produced at my primary school caused my teacher once to quip: "What's that prescription you're making out to me for?". At the time I failed to understand the joke until eventually I came across doctors' hieroglyphical handwriting and so I was able to appreciate her humour better.
Yet this skill, which, to most of us is instinctive, is bound to go the same way as the bank cheque: into partial extinction. According to a recent article in the Times Education Supplement ("Not so might any more", TES, 14th October) plans are afoot to eventually phase out the teaching of handwriting in primary schools in the UK. A quiet revolution is in the making and this time the victim is one of the oldest crafts in history.
At the beginning of this column I mentioned the pain inflicted on me by handwriting when I was little, but what I forgot to add was that in time leaving (un)uniform scratches on the paper's surface became a pleasure in and of its own. I still remember the straight lines in my notebook, the pencil nestled between my thumb and forefinger and the letters appearing, as if by magic, on the blank piece of paper in the wake left behind by the graphite. It's remarkable how much we underestimate our efforts when we write. There's a whole combination of physical and mental factors at play: body posture, shoulders-arms-forearms-hands synchronisation and our ever attentive gaze on the ensuing words. Thoughts materialise and are brought forth on the empty sheet, woven together by the wizardry of our skilled hands. And that's just the beginning.
Are you in the same league of the Hunchback of Notre Dame when you write or do you model yourself perhaps on a straight-backed Sylvie Guillem instead? Handwriting is more than the mere formation of words, it's part of our personality and self-expression. Letters leaning backwards or forwards, joined-up or separate, they all tell a story of who we are.
And now this art, this craft is under serious threat. From the mighty keyboard. In the TES article, Year 6 teacher Andrew Beswick, from Greave primary school in Stockport, is quoted as saying that “The world is changing very, very quickly. Less and less, I’m thinking that you need to teach children to write by hand beautifully. More and more, they need to master the keyboard and the skills they will need there.” As if the blitzkrieg unleashed on us by smartphones, iPads and Blackberrys wasn't enough. The QWERTY Generation march on unchallenged.
It's true that the original idea arrived in these shores from the US where keyboard proficiency has taken over from handwriting in the curriculum. It's also realistic to expect the younger generation to be more fascinated by a shiny, interactive iPad screen than by a blank sheet of paper. However, even the staunchiest technophile will come to rue the demise of the once mighty pen. Already we've seen the decline of the seaside resort saucy postcard (usually sent a day into one's holiday and handwritten). Why bother with witty, sexual innuendoes when you can send a picture of yourself larking about with your mates from your iPhone? Now it's the turn of the once conspicuous Biro. The worst case scenario will give us generations of children devoid of traditional skills for whom the only knowledge required to cope in the world will be that of tapping, copying and pasting. Originality and creativity will give way to impersonality and inanity.
Cursive also has a life outside the world of penmanship. In music for instance, who can forget the handwritten lyrics that appear on Pink Floyd's The Wall? I was never able to decipher the writing and yet that was part of its allure.
Mind you, all is not lost. According to a superb article in the Nov/Dec issue of Intelligent Life ( "Handwriting: an Elegy", I strongly recommend you read it), sales of fountain pens in Britain have increased by 70%, and those of quality writing paper by 79%. A desire for a luxury item? A last-minute Christmas purchase? Or a well-thought present for someone you really care about? You decide. I still have a fountain pen given to me by my ex-colleagues from the travel agency when I left. I only take it out occasionally but it's so precious that I don't want to use it. Recently when I holidayed in Cornwall with my family I bought a beautiful pen with a Celtic encryption. It's the one with which I jot down my thoughts and ideas for columns like this one.
No matter how fast we type on a keyboard, the sense of intimacy, which we develop through our personal writing, is lost. If, like mine, your scrawls on paper look like labyrinthine, endless corridors (minus the Minotaur), then you'll be grateful that blogposts are typed rather than handwritten. Otherwise I wouldn't have any readers or cyber-friends. Except those professionals who took a Hippocratic Oath at the beginning of their working careers. Still, though, whether the letters loop backwards or forwards, or whether we hunch down over our notebooks or merely sit upright, handwriting remains one of those forgotten but essential arts that has added an extra dimension to our human experience. Enough reason to preserve it, ideally whilst using a Parker.
Next Post: “While My MP3 Gently Plays”, to be published on Wednesday 9th November at 11:59pm (GMT)