Sunday, 13 January 2013

Hensher: The Missing Ink

Philip Hensher (2012) The Missing Ink, The Lost Art of Handwriting (and Why it Still Matters) Macmillan, London; 300 pp.; ISBN 978-0-2307-6712-6

Every age sees some technology disappear, either to become irrelevant or to be replaced by another. In the past century we have seen an extraordinary shift in the way we write and communicate with each other. Handwriting, once the most common form of written communication, is now a minority activity. Philip Hensher realises that he has known a friend for well over a decade but has no idea what his friend’s handwriting looks like. Everyone can identify with that experience, but probably few of us have given it a second thought.

At school I first learnt to print, though even then we pupils knew it was not a ‘grown up’ way to write and we loved to experiment with joining the letters. We eventually received lessons in cursive writing – or ‘running writing’ as we called it – and were taught a form of copperplate. As I moved into teenage I tried to personalise my writing, as did most of my friends, and some of the modifications were done in order to speed up my writing, essential for taking notes in class. Today my script is looped and retains traces of copperplate, but some ascenders have been clipped and several decorative capitals have been simplified in order to speed things along. The most dramatic change has resulted from my learning to touch type over twenty years ago, causing me to largely abandon handwriting other than to take field notes or write cards for special occasions. Paucity of practice has meant my handwriting is now chaotic and less fluid, and I often have to type up written notes within a day or many of the words become illegible to me. My handwriting is also very small, the product of an obsessive teacher who made us all write two lines of script into each printed line in our exercise books in order to save paper. When I first submitted an essay at university the tutor appended a note in return asking that I supply a magnifying glass and aspirin with my next assignment.

Hensher’s interesting if sometimes wandering tale of handwriting contains a number of reminiscences like the above and most readers will recall their own experiences of learning to write. The book covers the changes that took place in handwriting styles from the nineteenth century onwards and the attempts to introduce standard styles in a number of countries. Good handwriting was for a long time associated with education and refinement, and today in many countries that is still true. It is both a discipline and a motor skill and can therefore be seen as an art form.

It might come as a surprise that before the twentieth century children were taught cursive script without learning to print first. In the early 1900s there were advocates for printing to replace cursive script completely, though they made little headway. Cursive script was much faster than printing, as typing is now much faster than handwriting, and we live in an industrial culture that adores speed.

Hensher discusses handwriting in the works of Dickens and Proust (neither had a very attractive hand) and the script of Adolf Hitler, touching on the scandal of the Hitler diaries that raised questions about how we authenticate handwriting.

The history of both ink and pens is dealt with in the later chapters, and reading them brought to mind my embarrassing experiences with ink – I once had a schoolbook with a large blot that bled through a dozen or so pages. Hensher mentions the role of the ink monitor in school. I did this in primary classes and in reading about it – something I had almost forgotten – I remembered the odd smell of the ink we used. Quills and metal nibs co-existed for a long time and ink reservoirs were designed for quills well before the advent of metal fountain pens.

Hensher discusses graphology and its Janus-faced character. On the one hand it is used in police investigations and courts to identify someone by comparison with that person's known script, while on the other hand it has been used to try and discern people’s character. The latter face of graphology is utter rubbish, but like other pseudo-sciences it still holds strong sway in the minds of many. Hensher is open about his prejudices in relation to handwriting, but two of them – people who write in green ink are psychotic, and people who dot an ‘i’ with a circle or heart are morons – looked more like scientific facts to me.

I was not allowed to use a ballpoint pen until high school, but I was overjoyed when that happy day came to pass - no more blots on my landscape. Hensher recounts the invention and marketing of ballpoint pens and their rise to dominance in the second half of the twentieth century. It is a remarkable story, though a nightmare in terms of the environment. Pencils and fountain pens are far more eco-friendly.

In the final chapter, Hensher cites a longitudinal study of 700 children that shows those with good handwriting skills also fared better in reading, composition and memory recall. He argues that we need to resurrect handwriting, not as a standard mode of communication (keyboards and texting have put paid to that), but rather as an artistic pursuit that gives pleasure and a sense of accomplishment. It is an appealing argument.

This book tells a good story and will make you reflect on the astounding changes that have taken place in the way we write. The narrative could have been more clearly structured. There are eight chapters titled ‘Witness’ which are verbatim accounts by people of various ages telling of their handwriting experiences. These do not fit well into the narrative and lack sufficient context to add to the book’s reasoning. Still, there is much here to enjoy and the re-framing of handwriting as a pleasurable pastime is a nice finishing flourish.


  1. I have lost the ability to write with legibility. Far too many years on a keyboard, compounded by failed experiments with italic script. Fascinating review. I've added you to my blogroll

  2. Thanks Tom. You have been on my blogroll for a while and I really enjoy your site. Since reading Hensher's book I have been doing more handwriting and I find it's better the more I practise, but only a doting mother could call it stylish.