The lost art of handwriting

Inspired by Philip Hensher’s new book, the NS team reveal their hands.

How do you feel about your handwriting? Did you imitate the elegant cursive script of a school-mate you slightly fancied? Do you hide your ballooning Bs and hearted-topped Is from prospective friends and employers? Chances are you don’t give it much thought anymore. With the advent of keyboards so small you can carry one in your pocket, we write everything from love letters to shopping lists as emails, texts or tweets. We choose the path of greatest ease. I often use a Moleskine App on my smartphone while a Moleskine notebook languishes at the bottom of my satchel - which is just about as vain as it is bizarre.

And yet there is good reason, argues Philip Hensher, for such a paradoxical evaluation of our handwritten style: “We have surrendered our handwriting for something more mechanical, less distinctively human, less telling about ourselves and less present in our moments of the highest happiness and the deepest emotion,” he writes, while simultaneously recognising that “if someone we knew died, I think most of us would still write our letters of condolences on paper, with a pen.”

Hensher’s new book The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting (And Why it Still Matters), rests on the argument that “ink runs in our veins, and tells the world what we are like”. Handwriting “registers our individuality, and the mark which our culture has made on us. It has been seen as the unknowing key to our souls and our innermost nature. It has been regarded as a sign of our health as a society, of our intelligence, and as an object of simplicity, grace, fantasy and beauty in its own right.”

The Observer published an extract from the book last weekend, in which Hensher cited a number of examples from the not-so-distant past when an individual’s hand was considered an irrefutable indicator of their personal traits, and one of inestimable importance. “In 1847, in an American case, a witness testified without hesitation that a signature was genuine, though he had not seen an example of the handwriting for 63 years: the court accepted his testimony.” Hensher continues, “American Demographics claimed that bad handwriting skills were costing American business $200m in 1994”, and recalls the cases of Moira Pullar and Gordon Brown's letter of condolence, in which bad handwriting caused enormous grief.

We ridicule illegibility in our handwriting above all. It is the source of that aphoristic slice of conventional wisdom with which all are familiar (especially Larry David): if you want to read a doctor’s note, take it to a pharmacist. Resisting accusations of ludditism, Hensher in no way advocates we try to slow the advance of keyboard-led communication by refusing to accept it. It’s quick, it’s universal and it works. Instead, his book reminds us of the joy of writing by hand: its mysterious power, its physicality and reflexiveness, likening the pleasures it produces to those of cooking a meal from scratch, or talking an unhurried walk in the sun. These are activities technology has surpassed (think microwaves, cars), yet which continue to produce enjoyments that are unsurpassable. “Sometimes,” Hensher observes, “we don’t spend an evening watching Kim Kardashian falling over on YouTube: we read a book”.

You may recall TV dramas in which the forensic assessment of a suspects’ jagged script enables the just prosecution of a lucid murder rather than an innocent (but pathological). Throughout the 20th century the science of graphology gained traction, crystallising a series of psychological traits detected in the size, layout, slant, connectedness, speed, regularity, letter forms and angularity of a person’s writing, something which fuelled widespread speculation about Hitler’s scrawl, a subject to which Hensher dedicates a short paragraph in the book. In 1942 Time argued, “If taken away from fortune-tellers and given serious study, graphology may yet become a useful handmaiden of psychology, possible revealing important traits, attitudes, values of the ‘hidden’ personality.”

Richard Wiseman, a professor of public understanding has stated explicitly “There is no credible scientific evidence with it at all. Every controlled test has showed that no evidence has emerged”. Hensher too disregards the idea that a sharp slant and thin lower loops might indicate genocidal tendencies (though cf. Caroline Crampton, very suspicious) he is not so willing to believe that the way we make sense with pen and paper has nothing more to tell us.

Some people, when giving a book as a gift, write a personal message on the inside cover. Others insist on continuing the outmoded tradition of sending laughably ugly postcards home from far flung destinations and some even maintain epistolary relations with one or two distant friends. I am one such fossil. Why should we consider quirky or attention-seeking acts which all of fifteen years ago were ubiquitous and everyday, part of the fabric of our lives? We do this because, as Hensher argues, “it has so much of you in it”, and because of what is signified by the act: this matters, it will last a little longer than most of the things we say to one another. Perhaps, I enjoyed doing this for you.

In order to test some of Hensher’s theories, this morning I conducted a pseudo-scientific study, using the subjects most readily available to me – staff in the New Statesman office. I had them write out the famous pangram: “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” (a pangram is a sentence which uses every letter of the alphabet. A perfect pangram does so without repetition, as in “TV quiz jock, Mr PhD, bags few lynx”), to see whether any notable difference emerged between each role, to search for any tell-tale signs of impending fascist megalomania, or discernible differences between culture, design, ads and politics. What emerged was a room full of sheepish journalists, forced to acknowledge the fact that showing off your handwriting means revealing a little piece of yourself.

And finally, in the interest of full disclosure, the blogger:

Look at that “Z”. A lunatic if ever there was one.

The Missing Ink by Philip Hensher is published tomorrow by MacMillan.

Handwriting samples from the NS team.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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