HOW HANDWRITING HAS MADE US WHO WE ARE

Phillip Hensher’s highly readable book, The Missing Ink, contrives to inspire the revival of handwriting. His is an eloquent account and a journey through a vanishing world which with technology may be poised to disappear forever.

What spurred Hensher to write his book was a realisation that he had no idea what the handwriting of a friend, he had known for over a decade, looked like. Though the friend had emailed Hensher and sent him text messages, he had never sent a letter written by hand.

Life continues like this and relationships can go forever with people hardly noticing that there was no need for handwriting anymore. He points out that handwriting has stopped being an essential intermediary between people. Will some part of our humanity, Hensher asks, be lost apart from the habit of writing with pen on paper?

With shimmering prose, Hensher delves into the history of handwriting-the pioneers who were handwriting teachers. He looks at the different styles. He looks at what handwriting has meant to humanity. He cites eccentric conclusions about personality, illness, psychosis, and even suitability for employment which students of the pseudo-science of graphology have drawn from the close scrutiny of handwriting.

He muses about his early life at school learning handwriting, the graduation to the adult joined-up style, the callus on his right hand where the pen used to rest, and the school boy penchant to use the pen as a missile. He remembers the spilling of ink onto the shirt, and his constant crunching of the pen until there were indelible tooth marks on it. Hensher repeatedly asks if we should care that handwriting is vanishing since the internet and its keyboard has replaced everything.

After all bad handwriting has cost businesses and governments a fortune. Millions of letters could not be delivered because of bad handwriting. In the 1994 Kodak said that ‘400 000 rolls of film could not be returned because names and addresses were unreadable’ So in the age of computer terminals, who cares if handwriting disappears? Hensher wittily lists a few reasons that drive the decline in handwriting skills. With the dawn of the digital age the curriculum in many western countries increasingly gives little time to the teaching of handwriting.

Fewer than half of British primary schools set aside time to teach handwriting. Some teachers are beginning to see teaching writing as a chore rather than developing a skill. Some education departments encourage ‘only proficiency with the keyboard.’ Some authorities have even recommended that children only be taught how to sign their names, and that the time previously given to teaching handwriting be dedicated to learning key boarding and typing.

Hensher cogently argues for the preservation of handwriting. Far from it being an expression of education or class or involving us in some way with the written word, he conveys superbly the role it still has to play in our lives. He cites research that shows that improvement in writing skills not only forms the building blocks for written language and improves recall, but also made the subjects better students who enjoyed learning. He also mentions a case in Texas in which a man died after a pharmacist misread a doctor’s handwritten prescription. In another case the handwriting of a nurse was so appalling that a colleague misread the instruction to give only four units of insulin of forty-with fatal consequences.

In his sublime conclusion, Hensher writes: ‘Though it would make no sense to give up the clarity and authority of print which is available to anyone with a keyboard, to continue to diminish the place of the handwritten in our lives is to diminish in a small but real way, our humanity. In all sorts of areas of our life we enhance the quality of our lives by going for the slow option, the path which takes a little bit of effort. Sometimes we don’t spend an evening watching Kim Kardashian falling over on YouTube: we read a book. Sometimes, we don’t just push a pre-prepared meal into the oven and take out sometime later. We chop and prepare vegetables; we follow a recipe or some procedure we remember from our family kitchens and we make dinner from scratch, with pleasure. We often do this because we love people, and think they are worthy of our effort from time to time. Sometimes we don’t get in a car and get to where we have to go as soon as we possibly can. Sometimes we open our front doors, and go for a walk in the spring sunshine. We might not get anywhere very far in two or three hours on foot, where in three hours by mechanical means you can get to Yorkshire (by car) or Paris (by train)or Istanbul (by air). But on the other hand, you’ve had a nice walk in the spring sunshine for very little expenditure, and you feel better for it. Perhaps that is the way to get handwriting back on to our lives-as something which is a pleasure, which is good for us, and which is human in way not all communication systems manage to be.’

THE CHILDREN’S ACT-Ian McEwan (A review)

This is another gem from the English author, Ian McEwan-an excellent novel that should be celebrated as one of McEwan’s strongest works of fiction.

The novelist’s light shines on Fiona Maye, a High Court judge- respected by many for the manner in which she handled many complex cases in the family court. McEwan elegantly and elaborately explains the complex world and details of law-the judges and lawyers’ obsession with detail and how they fastidiously pore over facts, sifting what is material from what is not.

But, the story is not just about the intricate workings of the law, or its triumph over religion, but more pointedly about the problems in Fiona’s personal life and character. As often happens, something happens that serves to reveal the demons in our lives. Fiona is asked to adjudicate a case involving a teenage Jehovah’s Witness, Adam Henry, whose parents had refused him the blood transfusion- treatment that according to the doctors would save his life.

Fiona visits the boy in the hospital and is impressed by his gifts and talents – his innate intelligence, and his love for poetry and music. This is not a child that the courts will leave to die- the religious beliefs of the parents and their son’s support of them, notwithstanding. Fiona Maye reaches her judgment-she overrules the family’s wishes, and orders that the boy receives the treatment necessary to save his life.

But, in saving a life, Fiona has to deal with a child who is not just happy to be alive but desperately yearns for parental love and affection. Adam is not getting this at home. He lives with two parents who were prepared to let him die for the sake of upholding their religious beliefs. Even on his return home from the hospital, with his health almost fully restored, instead of a joyful reception from a grateful family, he has to deal with endless and frequent rows.

Unsurprisingly, Adam sees in Fiona the perfect antidote to his poisoned world. He asks her if he could lodge with her and her husband for a while. Fiona, always looking at life from ‘her elevated position at the top of a grand staircase’, sends the boy back to his dysfunctional world. Fiona, ever the warrior that rushes forth barehanded to fight injustice was herself paradoxically unable to demonstrate love-even to the children that she fiercely fought for.

Her childlessness was a deliberate decision, since motherhood would stand in the way of her lofty professional ambitions. Fiona preferred the company of her bewigged colleagues to that of children. As her fertile years of her life rapidly passed, though alarmed she was simply too busy to notice. Even the visits of her grandnephews to her home didn’t pique her maternal instincts but only served to remind her ‘how hard it would be to squeeze an infant into her kind of life.’ The day ‘she was sworn in by the Lord Chief Justice and took her oath of allegiance….she knew the game was up, she belonged to the law as some women had once been brides to Christ’.

This is what tragically Adam later realized: the esteemed High Court judge Fiona Maye was the incarnation of extreme selfishness -‘pursuing her own end, pretending to herself that her career was not in essence self-gratification’.  Fighting for the children was nothing more than an act and a prop in her drama of blind ambition. One has to wonder if she had children, whether they would not have needed to be saved from her as Adam had to be from his parents.

Curiously, the author mentions that though Fiona Maye was an accomplished musician, she could not play jazz. The latter is an art form that requires not just skill, improvisation and innovation: but also passion-the open expression of human feelings. It is no wonder then that after thirty-five years Fiona’s husband, Jack, was prepared to pull the shutters on their sterile marriage- he had fallen for the musical embrace of another woman. Even when her exasperated husband asked her: ‘Fiona, when did we last make love?’ She couldn’t remember.

Romance was replaced by the many demanding, lurid and complex cases in the court documents strewn on her desk. Where was love to fit in all this? Thankfully, Jack changes his mind and is prepared to accept his wife on her selfish terms. But Adam’s fate is drastically different. The kiss he exchanged with Fiona, far from bringing joy and hope, leads to despair, torment and tragedy. Fiona needs to be complemented for spending a lifetime defending the defenseless-whatever drove her. It is an admirable, necessary and scant virtue.

Whether she was also a victim of a loveless childhood in a home where her mother was frequently in hospital with undefined illnesses is not explicitly stated. But the secrets of our homes are often apparent in our lives. They are seldom erased by the passage of time, and even by the professional heights we scale. The Children’s Act is a powerful and an even psychological, work of fiction that is comparable to the very best.

Once again McEwan’s rare and singular writing gifts are apparent. His novel speaks the most harrowing truth about the fanaticism, duplicity and abhorrent hatefulness that enwrap children’s lives. It holds an unflattering mirror and is a fierce polemic against our indifferent world.