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Book Review

‘The Missing Ink’ by Philip Hensher

Eamonn McCabe

“The book had better be written while it still makes some sense,” Philip Hensher notes in the introduction to his history and reflections about handwriting. Of course: What with e-mail and texting, and typing from long before that, the subject and its practice are in radical decline.

Hensher’s book ranges widely over its subject, touching on the development of handwriting, the varying fashions and methods of teaching it, its use as identification, its reputed relationship to individual and even national character, attempts to bend it to derive psychological conclusions, the history of pens and ink, and much else.

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It is considerably marred by Hensher’s weakness for wisecracks — its punning title, “The Missing Ink,” is only one example — and odd whimsical asides that spatter his account like so many inkblots. Sometimes you suspect that his interest in developing his subject may be flagging, or that he suspects the reader’s interest may be; hence the jokiness. Yet it becomes clear that he values handwriting and regrets its passing: At the very end a passage of eloquent, even moving, passion all but redeems the scatter and the facetiousness.

Although there is a brief reference to Egyptians and Babylonians, Hensher’s account, mainly treating handwriting in Britain, goes from the elaborate copperplate style, used through the early 19th century and still to be found in invitations and testimonials, to a simplified script that came to be standard in the civil service and schools. He writes of the mechanical standardization taught by the Palmer method and others, which called for a set way of holding the pen and moving it with the forearm instead of the wrist. He writes of the pedagogical disputes over whether to connect the letters or keep them separate as if they were print.

He praises the stress on handwriting traditionally found in French schools that would begin, at ages 4 and 5, with prewriting movements of the arms. More engaging than the rather wobbly history are some of the anecdotes. Hensher skeptically cites one scholar’s attempt to link handwriting to national character. Italian flowing capitals show “romance and gaiety,” French meticulous letter formation shows “cool and logical thinking and fine sensibilities,” Spanish ornate capitals signify “a stately pride.”

The author gives a history of writing implements, from quill pens to steel nibs to fountain pens. He writes with immense enthusiasm of the ballpoint pen, invented by a Hungarian and marketed by a Frenchman with such success that billions have been sold.

Hensher writes his account in a loose even desultory style. To ginger it up he uses two devices, both annoying. One is a series of interviews alternating with his chapters; casually selected people give casual accounts of their handwriting histories. It is a journalistic man-in-the-street approach with all its limitations: Neither the man nor the street has much to say.

Even more irritating are the wisecracks. Contemplating the elaborately ornamented gravestone of one pioneer of Palmer-like handwriting, Hensher tells himself “you really must lay off the dry sherry.” In a footnote he mentions for no good reason that his father played in a wind ensemble, “named after the conductor, a man named Lucas, who was well-known for having named his own wind ensemble after himself, a man, as I say, called Lucas.’’

If such zigzags seem to reflect a writer fleeing his own book, there is an impressive rally at the end. “[H]andwriting is good for us, “he writes. “It involves us in a relationship with the written word which is sensuous, immediate, and individual.” And he tells of reading the notebook of a student of his who had died.

“[Y]ou would recognize her handwriting as soon as you knew her. It bulged with invention, and cutouts, and marginalia, and massive crossings-out, and all manner of things.” He adds: “You could see where her pen had moved across the page, only months before; you could see her good creative days and the days where nothing much had come; you could see what she had written quickly, in inspiration, and the bits she had gone over and over.”

Richard Eder, who writes reviews for numerous publications, can be reached at richardgeder@gmail.com.
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