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

Is the writing really on the wall?

Matthew Bell
Saturday 27 October 2012 21:48

At a time when anyone who cares about books or newspapers is wondering what the future holds for print, to worry about handwriting could seem a touch 1440. But it is the scribbled word that is keeping Philip Hensher up at night. When he realised one day that he had no idea what a friend's handwriting looked like, it also struck him that, unlike the printed word, handwriting is more than just an old-fashioned method of communication: it's an expression of the individual; an art form, even. "Will some part of our humanity, as we understood it, disappear as well?" he asks.

To answer this, he takes us on a merry tour of handwriting's history, meeting its pioneers and teachers, examining its fashions and styles, and allowing himself plenty of space to digress along the way. We learn about Vere Foster and A N Palmer, late-19th-century visionaries on either side of the Atlantic who pioneered the formalised teaching of writing; and Marion Richardson, the art teacher who realised that, actually, children are better off being free to write as they please, not straitjacketed.

There are interesting passages on graphology, the pseudo-science that claims your handwriting says something meaningful about you. Certainly, we've all got our own prejudices, such as "anyone who writes a circle or heart over their i's is a moron" (Hensher's words, but I agree). But there are as many lunatics writing in tiny, neat letters as there are in liberal scrawls, and as for being able to diagnose loneliness or honesty or intelligence? The evidence is too thin.

Hensher's own approach is equally pseudo-scientific, in that he makes liberal use of footnotes but then fills them with jaunty asides. The intention is presumably to steer clear of the drier, Education Studies recesses of his subject. But interjections such as "Ibid. Oh, crap. Seriously, what crap" inject a levity that's a bit too reminiscent of undergraduate humour for this reader. And, as for the premise on which his thesis is based, that handwriting is on the verge of extinction, I suspect he frets unduly. A teacher assures me that most exams are still handwritten, and that, in her 40-year career, handwriting hasn't got noticeably worse. After all, it did survive the arrival of Caxton's printing press.

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