Robert Fisk: The forgotten art of handwriting

I find something painfully human about reading the letters of long-dead heroes
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My father always complained about my handwriting. His almost copperplate accountant's script was measured, careful, full of lots of little squiggles which I noticed he also used in his long-ago King's Liverpool Regiment 12th Battalion war diary, written in the 1918 trenches when he was 19 years old.

My writing was sloppy by comparison and I notice, as the years pass, that it gets worse. My Lebanese civil war notebooks - many scribbled reports from 1976 and 1977 - are still quite legible. But today, I can return from an interview and find to my horror that I've been writing not words but the representation of words - interspersed with bits of old Pitman shorthand - and of course I blame the computer. With an instrument that can almost run at the speed of imagination, it's infuriating to return to a handwriting that simply cannot keep up with my thoughts.

So it was a relief to visit the Musée des Lettres et Manuscrits in Paris the other day to find that the great and the good also wrote in frustration and fury and sadness and - often - almost illegibly. I was greatly struck by Napoleon's script, a dogged, soldier's hand but sometimes signed merely "Nap". Churchill sometimes drew pigs on his letters to his wife.

The great artists enjoyed covering their letters in pictures - Jean Cocteau, I notice, often adorned his letters with astonished faces. Matisse wrote to Martin Fabiani in March of 1943 with a sketch of a girl reading a newspaper. Gauguin once illustrated a missive with a drawing of a huge tube of paint at the bottom of the page.

It reminded me bleakly of a terrible scene I witnessed in Hebron in 2001 when a Palestinian crowd had lynched three collaborators and hanged them semi-naked from lamp posts. So foul was the sight that I drew into my notebook a sketch of their stark figures hanging in front of me; only later could I open it and describe in my report to The Independent the pictures I had drawn.

Handwriting is supposed to betray character - mine is scrappy, uneven and hurried - but I noticed that Catherine de Medici's script sometimes sloped unevenly and Robespierre's could be almost illegible.

I find something painfully human about reading the letters of long-dead heroes, their often pitiful attempts at humour, their mock-schoolboy touch, travelling badly over time. On 13 November 1930, Aircraftsman Shaw (Lawrence of Arabia) wrote to an American anthropologist, Henry Field - who died in 1986 - arranging to discuss Arab affairs in Plymouth. His letter, I notice, is in a simple, childish hand, his "I"s curled on top of each other, the letters of each word neatly joined.

"Dear Mr Field, I hope you are colossally rich, so that the cost of coming all the way to this misery of Plymouth (the last or first town of England, according to your hemisphere) will mean nothing to you. I'm a fraud, as regards both the Middle East and archaeology. Years ago I haunted both, and got fairly expert but the war overdosed me, and nine years ago I relapsed comfortably into the ranks of our Air Force, and have had no interests outside it since. Nine years is long enough to make me out of date but not long enough to make my views quaint and interestingly archaic. I have forgotten all I knew, too."

Poor Lawrence, for ever demeaning himself. I thought at first he described himself as a "friend" of the Middle East but alas it is indeed "fraud" and his letter goes on to advise Mr Field to spot him in the crowd at the station. "Look out for a small and aged creature in a slaty-blue uniform with brass buttons: like an RAC scout or tram driver, perhaps, only smaller and shabbier."

In the French museum, there's now a Titanic exhibition - yes, it foundered on my father's 13th birthday - with a terrifying telegram, recording the death of Thomas Stead, one of the greatest journalists of his time. It expresses - in the compact, official handwriting of the clerk - that with "deep regret" there was "no hope whatsoever" of finding Stead among the survivors. "No hope" is always a killer - but the addition of that word "whatsoever" - with its awful finality - must have left the telegram's recipient in silence.

Then there's Helen Churchill Condee's account of the sinking, a survivor's notes written shortly after the tragedy in sometimes surprisingly short paragraphs, as if the ship was sinking again in her memory as she wrote.

"I was in my bathroom ready for a stinging hot bath.

"The music of the engines was beating and singing, rhythm and harmony.

"Then the shock came.

"Ararat's moment with the Ark stuck fast on top of it, was the mental image. The impact was below me. It toppled me over. We had struck the top of a mountain in the sea, a mountain never before discovered. It must be so.

"With the door of the cabin thrown open two or three things were sinister, a silence absolute, a brilliance of light as in a ballroom, and an utter absence of human presence..."

In later pages, Condee's handwriting begins to slide about and she makes corrections with her fountain pen as she describes, from her lifeboat, the end of the Titanic. "The only space of deck slopes high towards the stern and on this diminished point huddle the close pack awaiting death with the transcendent courage and grief that had been theirs for the last two hours.

"I await the end transfixed. It is inevitable. May God delay it. No, may He in mercy hasten it.

"At last the end of the world..." (Condee has underlined the E of "end" and the W of "world". "Over the waters only a heavy moan as of one being from whom ultimate agony forces a single sound." Condee originally wrote "final agony" but later substituted "ultimate agony", as a composer might choose a different bar to end his tragic opera. Condee was 12 years old when the Titanic went down, a year younger than my father. Their handwriting is eerily similar, the same squiggles and fanciful Ts, as if it was necessary to embroider the very words she was writing.

I suppose the laptop has brought all that to an end. I rarely ever receive handwritten letters - though occasionally one is produced on a faithful typewriter. Now our imagination flies at web-speed. And it's just as well my father can't see my handwriting today ...