Sunday 6 November 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

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.

© 2011

Next Post: “While My MP3 Gently Plays”, to be published on Wednesday 9th November at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. What a crazy idea. I'm a great new technology fan (I love using the internet) but we're living increasingly in the thrall of these glowing screens. The more we do so, the more we're contracting out our brain functions. Good news for Microsoft, Apple, Intel, etc. - bad news for the rest of us.

    On no - that's it! Our brains are being "privatised"!

  2. I love my fountain pen!

  3. My son just walked into the room and announced new app on his phone that he could text by voice. And here he was standing over me and talking to his phone that refused to listen to him, Text Mom! Text Mom!

  4. It is hard for me to claim a high moral ground when most of the time I am using a keyboard to "write" my thoughts. Yet, I too bemoan the loss of handwriting, especially the cursive style(remember that?). I bemoan it not just for aesthetic reasons but also because it conjoins even more to the vise of technology. Am I a Luddite? No. I just think we are, ironically, reducing our world to what is possible only through the intervention of "machines."

  5. When I retired, I offered to teach calligraphy in the schools for free - and was refused. Thank heavens there are those who keep the art of handwriting alive. For me, there is nothing better than sitting down with a fresh sheet of paper and slowly, thoughtfully composing a letter or writing a piece in my journal. I think that there might be less hatred, certainly less written stupidity, if more people had to write something out before they could post it.
    I'm sorry that you feel your handwriting wasn't very good. For that, I think you can lay some responsibility on your teacher. I'm putting together a post on all sorts of calligraphy happenings - and I'm going to include your post.

  6. Many thanks for your kind comments. Calligraphy is one of those arts I've come to fall in love with over the years, understandably given my own collision with handwriting when I started.

    I guess that I could lay part of the blame on my teacher for not being patient, but I also take part of the responsibility. When I learnt how to read and write, about a year before my peers, I somehow got the (wrong) idea that in order to become clever I had to read faster, both aloud and in silence. I think that attitude spilled over to my writing a bit and that was one of the reasons why it was messy.

    Had to chuckle at the thought of our brains being privatised. That remains the last frontier. And may it be long so!

    Machines, machines. There's a song by Pink Floyd, funnily enough, called "Welcome to the Machine". One line reads: "What did you dream? It's all right, we told what to dream". Scary.

    Have a great week.

    Greetings from London.

  7. This made me panic!! Until I got to the stats about the increased sales of fountain pens, I was seriously bothered. It would be like losing, I don't know, an important body part! It's unthinkable. Oh dear.

    I can remember the first pen I ever used, in grade 2. I was in love with the whole idea of writing, and the sight of perfectly printed letters a la grade school blackboards still makes me swoon. I write more easily, less hesitantly and probably better when I have a pen in my hand. I just can't imagine being without one.
    A wonderful post, Cuban. As always.

  8. Wonderful post - I love cursive and
    I make a concentrated effort to write
    beautifully. And I'd rather receive a handwritten letter from someone
    whose penmanship isn't that great,
    than a email.

    I once purchased a bottle of expensive perfume simply because
    the bottled was decorated in cursive writing.

    Viva la script!

    I would be a shame to discontinue
    teaching penmanship in school.

  9. Oh Cubano, it's always the sign of a writer when the handwriting is terrible. My English teacher mother was always horrified at how bad mine is. The connection between pen and paper is still important if you learned to write that way. My reporters notebooks are as important to me as my PC. Alas, many education experts are trying to phase out writing since keyboards are so dominant. One of the most memorable arguments I ever had with my son's 4th grade teacher was over why he would learn to write cursive, despite her thinking that it was useless beyond writing his signature.

  10. My son has awful handwriting too although he writes well. This may trouble him on our SAT tests for college that have a handwritten essay. His father’s handwriting is even worse, but his sister’s is beautiful. She learned her style at age 6 at a school in London. The Brits failed to train her brother. It actually might be a disability. My handwriting is only nice if I put extra effort into it, which I rarely do. I penned the calligraphy for our wedding invitations, but these days I invite guests to parties via email. What did people do before computers and typewriters?

    I love the Talking Heads and the Road to Nowhere especially. They combine whimsical musicality with amusing lyrics. Unfortunately that uploader won’t work in my country, a message said.

  11. Thank you very much for your comments. I would love to think that the phasing out of handwriting is just a lot of hot air. But with a government that hasn't got a clue of what to do with education and technology taking such giant strides, we might see, if not the total disappearance of cursive, at least a decrease. And that would be catastrophic.

    Greetings from London.



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