The Missing Ink

The Missing Ink

Philip Hensher, Pan MacMillan

There’s a longstanding tradition in the Insights offices that if a staff member goes on leave they must pen the other staff a postcard (or ten!) so we can vicariously share their adventures.

Much more than receiving their emails, the handwriting of these colleagues moves me as it conjures each individual and their enthusiasms, quirks and human foibles.

Philip Hensher tells a similar, if much sadder story at the end of The Missing Ink, about one of his students who was required to produce a handwritten writer’s notebook as part of an undergraduate writing course.

Unfortunately, the student died quite suddenly. However, when Hensher retrieved her notebook from the archive, he found it redolent of her being. “Some part of the writer’s spirit had passed into the handwriting and had stayed there. Her humanity and her hand overlapped, and something remained, indelibly, in these physical traces.”

In this beautifully produced book, Philip Hensher makes an eloquent plea for keeping the dying art of handwriting alive.

Its pages are dotted with anecdotes from his own life, including one I particularly enjoyed about a frustrated attempt to find a fountain pen with an italic nib and a refillable, pump-action, hydraulic-type reservoir.

Hensher’s set of unexamined prejudices about handwriting make for humorous reading and also prompt the reader to think about their own. (Perhaps I’m hanging with the wrong crowd but my straw poll reveals there are quite a few people who think — as Hensher does — that anyone who writes a circle or a heart over their i’s is a moron.)

Transcripts of interviews Hensher conducted with friends and associates draw out personal qualms or shame about handwriting and even a confession from one person that she’s drawn more to others when she realises they have handwriting she admires.

My all-time favourite quotation from the book is from Marcel Proust writing to Emmanuel Berl about “the mysterious arabesques which you ironically call handwriting … [the] signs which, though devoid of rational meaning, nevertheless conjure up your face.” Classic!

Hensher traces handwriting’s intriguing history. Did you know, for example, that before the 19th century, handwriting was not thought of as something which was particularly individual? Or that the principle that a person could be identified by their writing was established in English law in 1836?

He also says that, while handwriting is definitely disappearing, “We don’t quite know what will take its place — the transmission of thought via a keyboard into words; the rendering of voice commands into action; the understanding by a piece of technology of a gesture or, conceivably, a thought.”

Ironically, what drew me to Hensher’s book was a large number of rather interesting anecdotes from Guardian website readers who felt they needed to respond to an extract from The Invisible Ink published on the site. These comments were typewritten, of course, but they made me glad that ordinary people still cared enough about handwriting to want to recount their own stories about it.

Their stories reminded me that what most inspired me to become a writer was a handwritten travel journal written by my mother long before I was born.

As a child, I also practised hard to emulate my mother’s marvellous handwriting because I aspired to be like her and to communicate with a similar clarity and style.

What about you? Why not share with me the stories of the development of your own handwriting and your thoughts about why handwriting is still important? Handwritten letters, postcards, cards will be gladly accepted. If you can’t find a pen and paper you can email me or look for this review online and post a comment there or on Insights’ Facebook page. The best anecdotes will be published as letters in Insights and we’ll send a stylish pen to the person whose communique is judged as outstanding by the Insights team.

Let’s join Philip Hensher in his noble quest to keep the gentle act of handwriting alive.

Marjorie Lewis-Jones

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