Thursday, 30 June 2011

To Boldly Write

For Reginald Piggott there was such thing as national handwriting. The means to achieve it was a fountain pen, a medium nib and black ink. The Scottish calligrapher amassed thousands of handwriting samples from all over the country and provided a glimpse into the British people’s writing styles and preferred writing implements in his book Handwriting: A National Survey, which was published in 1958. More than 50 years on, all his neat classifications are not applicable any more but his findings are still fascinating.

At the time of his research only 15 per cent of his subjects were ballpoint pen users as the Biro had only been recently mass produced and popularised.  Those who took to it readily were farmers, manual workers and entertainers, while students and lawyers stuck with the fountain pen. Biro-wielding manual workers were, however, top of the class as far as legible handwriting was concerned together with typographers and military men who would rather use a fountain pen.

Teachers and secretaries did fine in handwriting neatness but artists, scientists and company directors produced absolutely illegible scribbles. Artists tended to use the italic while lawyers and clerks preferred the round, cursive hand. Peggott called the latter “Civil Service” and found that a staggering 43 per cent of those who answered his questionnaire used it. The most elaborate hand, Copperplate, a style both difficult and time-consuming to produce, was used by railway workers, lorry and bus drivers.

Roland Barthes would be delighted to read Piggott’s investigations on the colour of ink used by the Britons. Black was apparently a bold option and those who chose to boldly write in black ink were university lecturers, architects and artists but also Catholic priests and Grammar school boys. Blue-black was the colour men chose, blue the colour preferred by women. Lady novelists chose green ink while ballet dancers went for violet. Typographers favoured brown and teachers red.

Piggott wanted to instill good, solid, modern handwriting – “something of which we can be justly proud.” What national means today? It has rightly disintegrated. Biros or rollerballs have prevailed. Fountain pens have been marginalised as quills have been before them. I don’t know that lady novelists still go for green. Ink is rarely dispensed into pens manually; pens come pre-inked and clean. It is all fine. I am not for the oppression of handwriting rules and I never understood why schools still insist that letters should be “joined.” And why should we be subjected to the tyranny of the inkwell and the scratchiness of the steel pen. Let the nation revel in unclassified script and Uni-Balls.

But I see that handwriting is becoming a somewhat quaint way of communicating with others. Would a railway worker unionist write a letter of protest to his boss in copperplate hand? Would a student compose her thesis with a fountain pen?  Handwriting is becoming an antiquated art. It is usually directed to oneself (in journaling), is restricted to jotted notes on the family fridge, in schools they still write but for how long.

I am confronted with this excellent quality G. Lalo correspondence cards sent to me kindly by Exaclair. Confronted with this exquisite paper I become reticent. There is pressure. G. Lalo invites me, nay demands of me, to perform not only my best handwriting but also to put down my best thoughts lest I defile with meaningless outpourings the ribbed writing surface, and what then? Erasure is of course impossible.

And thus I reach for the keyboard. Which promises the possibility of clean expurgation, the elimination of unworthy thoughts and typos. And thus, I can boldly write.


  1. I've been thinking about handwriting as well - by a coincidence I've just posted something about it after seeing a newspaper article in the Graun on proposals to reform the teaching of handwriting in German schools.

    Funny, I've always favoured black ink. For years I thought blue ink was dull, and blue-black ink even worse (I've since changed my mind and use all of them). I don't suppose Piggott categorised people who use turquoise ink, then?

    BTW that G.Lalo stationery looks lovely. You're right; better practise your handwriting before you use that paper.

  2. Yes, writing on a piece of good paper puts the pressure on. And then you do write and then you have to cross things out and the whole thing is a mess. Of course one can always make a "feature" out of mess. G.Lalo is marvellous, I've written on one card with a dip pen and it feels just great.