MASTER MUSINGS: The writing’s on the wall

MASTER MUSINGS: The writing’s on the wall

I type like a demon, yet give me a greeting card to write and I’m highly likely to make a mistake. I’ll transpose two characters or make an ‘o’ look like an ‘a’ and have to fudge it. If I really cock up, I might write ‘oops’ above the error. Not that my handwriting has ever been particularly neat since scribbling at college and as a journalist, but this isn’t a neatness issue. It’s because I handwrite so little and use keyboards so much, putting pen to paper feels rather awkward for my QWERTY-trained fingertips. Given younger generations have grown up with smartphones and social media, using or seeing very little cursive script during their day, is the writing on the wall for, well, writing?

Possibly. Exam regulator Ofqual has announced it’s exploring a ‘pens down’, online approach to GCSEs and A levels. However, some research suggests it might be a mistake to let it slide from schoolwork entirely. In one study, when students took notes on a laptop they tended to type everything verbatim while those taking notes by hand were forced to be more selective, enabling them to understand the material more effectively and remember it better. Another study looked at people filling out a detailed schedule, some inputting the info digitally, others using a notebook. For this kind of task, handwriting not only proved faster and more accurate, the process also activated multiple brain regions associated with memory more robustly.

Science aside, there is something rather special about seeing someone’s thoughts set down in their own hand. I hadn’t spoken in aeons to one school friend who’s lived in the US all her adult life – not until she reconnected with me after reading this column from her Washington base. While she hailed the wonders of digital communication that had allowed us to leap decades of radio silence in a few quick clicks, she also talked movingly about the letters we used to swap as young teenagers when she’d left the English countryside for New York. How they were a lifeline. A link to home. One of her other UK friends, who corresponded with her for longer than me, has kept all their missives. They plan to meet when they’re old to read them all and relive their early angst, amours and adventures.

It's almost as though a person’s spirit exists in their handwriting, their personality intrinsically linked to those strokes on a page. The style decisions they’ve made. Whether their a’s are round like apples or brisk and slim. Whether their writing is contained and economical or showy with a flourish. Writing is as individual as a fingerprint. And it’s still lovely to receive a handwritten envelope – am I the only one who stares at any that come in, not opening them until I’ve managed to put a name to the script?

My friend from America also told me that now her mother has passed away, seeing her handwriting feels especially important. I get that. Whenever I find something my parents have written, however humdrum, the effect is heart-warming. And in the loft nestles a small trunk of letters that my Mum and Dad swapped when Dad was a young lad on a minesweeper during the war and based in India. The paper is so light, so translucent, it’s as if they are written on butterfly wings that flew back and forth across the ocean between them. Whispers on the air through the storms of battle.

My Dad, who left school at 14, later taught himself to write copperplate, which has a decidedly Dickensian appearance. He used it throughout his life, even if he was simply writing a bet on the back of a fag packet. ‘Thin up, thick down,’ he used to say. I’ve just watched a YouTube video of real-time copperplate calligraphy and it’s almost meditative. Even the sound is soothing. Indeed, Monblanc puts each of its iconic Meisterstuck pens through a series of rigorous quality checks, the last requiring experts to listen to the sound the nib makes on paper, with only those deemed smooth, not scratchy, passing the test.

So what will my generation, and those much younger, leave behind that’s handwritten? Not a lot. We may have composed millions of emails and trillions of social posts, but there will be very little of our imprint on a page. Let’s face it, when I’m dead and gone, my WhatsApp group chats with Fight Klub and Purple Bricks aren’t exactly going to tug the heartstrings. Maybe, then, I should consider committing pen to paper on special occasions or to record key memories. Inscribe thoughts within a beautiful leather book. Take my time so I don’t mess it up and speak from the heart. Something that has a little more gravitas than a line of emojis with gritted teeth. Lol.

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