Book Review: The Missing Ink

By John Gardner

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'The Missing Ink' by Philip Hensher. Photo / Supplied
'The Missing Ink' by Philip Hensher. Photo / Supplied

The Missing Ink by Philip Hensher
(Macmillan $44.99)

The heart sank at the prospect of another jeremiad lamenting the changes that the modern world has brought upon us. We know that real social discourse has been destroyed by online networks, that hard journalism has crumbled in the face of citizen blogging, that literacy has been submerged by msg shtctz, that any intelligent discourse drowns in the banality of tweeting - and so on.

So my initial reaction to the prolific Philip Hensher's latest effort being sub-titled the lost art of handwriting was a groan. But Hensher is too clever for this to be merely a lament. He makes a cogent case in challenging the assumption that all future writing will be performed on keyboards of some sort.

But apart from his argument that handwriting still matters, he fleshes out his case with a host of captivating material on the history of the art. I have never given it that much thought apart from noticing the more attractive examples on people's Christmas cards and experiencing a certain regret that my own scrawl does not match theirs.

But handwriting has gone through as many changes as any other human endeavour.

Hensher recalls some of the efforts to encourage or impose better writing, introducing such figures as the American A.N. Palmer, who in the best entrepreneurial manner set up an empire of writing schools that prescribed a particular style with "posture dictated in extraordinary detail". His prescriptions were introduced in the 1890s and the last Palmer school did not go bankrupt until the 1980s while his methods persisted until the 21st century.

In Britain the method of Vere Foster survived in British schools for almost a century and Hensher notes that in France the writing of a person who went to school in the 1980s was very similar to that of someone educated 50 years before.

French children may still be found copying examples written on a blackboard by their teacher.

Regardless of style, many of us would like better handwriting for the belief remains that one's own script is somehow revelatory of character, although Hensher throws something of a successful hand grenade at the experts in graphology. He includes samples from people as disparate as Elizabeth I, Dickens and Hitler.

He wanders off on an enjoyable excursion into ink and pens and has great fun recounting experiences trying to buy a particular fountain pen at some of London's finest shops. We learn, he has a considerable regard for the ballpoint.

This is a vigorous, opinionated and self-indulgent book. But it is never dull and it's telling that I now feel rather guilty at writing this review on the keyboard of my computer, rather than digging out my old Sheaffer and the bottle of Watermans gently leaking into a desk drawer.

John Gardner is an Auckland reviewer.

- NZ Herald

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