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Jewish World Review
March 8, 2006
/ 8 Adar, 5766
Kindly write on only one side of the paper
A scare article in the U.K. paper, Guardian, says that handwriting will soon disappear. Not so. In fact, in the last two years I have reverted
to doing all my writing by hand as they no longer make the machines I like, and my eyes object to staring at a screen.
assistant, the angelic Mary, puts my scribbles on computer or disk. Being left-handed, I have to hold my pen in a funny way, as writing from left to right is unnatural to sinistrals. I envy the Ancient Egyptians, who carved their hieroglyphs either way and
wrote hieratic (the written version) from right to left. When I was writing my history of Ancient Egypt, my favourite book was
Egyptian Grammar by Alan Gardiner, from which I learned hieroglyphs, and a little hieratic (the commercial cursive, demotic,
was much too difficult). Gardiner not only knew more about these scripts than anyone who has ever lived, he also wrote a
beautiful hieroglyphic hand. What kind of pen he used I do not know, as he died in 1963 and I never met him to ask.
scribes of Memphis had to hold their instruments three inches from the end and were never allowed to rest the heel of their
hand on the papyrus. Hard work, eh? I sometimes use my Egyptian lore for birthday cards. I paint the limestone bust of Queen
Nefertiti (putting in the missing eye) and have her speaking a balloon-message: 'Happy Birthday!' Then I put a bit underneath in
hieroglyphics, using Gardiner's Grammar.
Writing a book by hand is more fun than using a computer, and perhaps quicker in my case. I was taught copybook writing by
a gifted Dominican nun who loved doing illuminated manuscripts in coloured inks and got me to develop a clear and rapid
script. ('Do it as if you were writing a letter to Jesus.') If I were younger, I would be tempted to take up writing with a quill on
parchment. Quills are very subtle and versatile tools with a natural affinity for this kind of 'support', to use the technical term.
You can't get ink to flow in a steady stream (as in a modern pen). You must skillfully direct a puddle of ink on to the surface,
manipulating its flow to get tiny variations in form. You can cut the nib wide or narrow and make it as sharp or as blunt as you
please — you can also vary the angle of the nib-tip, the way you hold the quill in the hand, and the angle of the surface. All
these delightful variables make for complexity and explain the pleasure which a major artist like Matthew Paris got from writing
his manuscripts in the 13th century.
And not only professionals.
It is clear to me that Michelangelo, writing in the beautiful italic
which Renaissance scholars had developed from the old Carolingian minuscule, loved writing. So did Queen Elizabeth, though
she used a different version of the script. Some of her giant signatures, dotted about state papers, are real works of art. She
was a great mistress of the personal footnote, too, added to formal letters penned by her secretary, Robert Beale. And she
was up to the deadly tricks of Tudor England.
As child and girl she had lived in the shadow of the Tower axe, then at its
busiest. If she had to write a letter which might be used in evidence, and ended it halfway down the page, she would fill it with
bold, vertical strokes, to prevent an intercepting enemy putting in treasonable matter in an imitation of her hand. Looking at
such a page, you can almost feel the anxious heartbeats in the lines. Handwriting is a mirror of the emotions, and in Chinese
calligraphy the way the brush is used to convey thought-forms and even philosophical principles is a miracle of skill.
We cannot aspire to such subtlety in the West. All the same, a lot can be learned about the state of mind of the writer by a
careful scrutiny of a holograph. If I have the chance to pop into the Bibliothèque Nationale, I like to ponder over the
manuscripts and proofs of Flaubert's Madame Bovary, one of the most painfully corrected texts in all literature. How the big,
heavy, mustachioed Norman sweated over that marvelous story! He knew he was writing a masterpiece but, mon dieu! he
wanted to get it exactly right down to the last sordid syllable.
Another manuscript which radiates the mind of the author is
Dickens's A Christmas Carol. The original is in the Morgan Library, New York, and after I gave a course of public lectures
there on American history they presented me with a photocopied text of it, which I love to study. There are a plentiful number
of crossings-out on every page, but what emerges is the sheer joy of what Dickens called 'my creative frenzy', experienced
when he had hit on a superb story-idea. The opening page, one of the best passages he ever wrote, positively wriggles with
pleasure. Only handwriting can convey such instances of what I call 'writer's orgasm'.
I enjoy looking at W.M. Thackeray's manuscripts too, with their neat little handwriting, and dotted with his funny drawings.
One's pleasure is heightened by the knowledge that the writer was an enormous man, well described as 'looking like a gigantic
baby', crouched over his tiny traveling-desk and periodically emitting groans prompted by hangovers, dyspepsia from last
night's seven-course dinner etc. With Jane Austen it is not the writing so much as the spelling mistakes which move me —
'Surry is the garden of England,' remarks Mrs Elton, or 'Fanny watered her geraniums'.
Another form of handwritten message which haunts me is the terse military order, given by an old-style general, usually in
pencil, during a battle. The brief, ambiguous and stupidly worded order from Lord Raglan which led to the charge of the Light
Brigade is an outstanding case. One has to imagine a background of often dense smoke, the smell of cordite (and blood) and
the screams of the wounded, for commanding generals were well within cannon shot, and often wrote such notes in peril of
Wellington's were of a high order, clear like his mind, tersely to the point. He kept a pad of them in his waistcoat
pocket, of reusable material which could be scrubbed clean. Some can be seen at Apsley House. Wellington flicked off
thousands of short holograph letters, even when he was Prime Minister, answering all degrees of correspondents, some of
them nonentities like artists, writers etc., nearly always by return of messenger. Think of that today! (Though I must admit I
have scores from Tony Blair, all entirely in his own hand — good manners.)
There survives a letter from Lord Palmerston, written in his clear, elegant hand, complaining of the atrocious handwriting of the
Foreign Office clerks, usually badly educated louts from good families who had got their jobs by 'interest'. He compared it to
'Iron Railings leaning out of the perpendicular' and described letters sloping backwards 'like the raking masts of an American
schooner'. Reading stuff by one of them was 'like running Penknives into one's eyes'. Ambassadors and consuls got stick, too,
especially for using poor-quality ink. Thus: 'Send Mr Pakenham back one of these invisible ink dispatches & say that I hope I
shall not again have to observe upon such a neglect of standing instructions.' Today, all things considered, the handwriting of
the great and famous is not as bad as you'd expect.
President Bush sent me a fan letter the other day: a neat piece of explosive
penmanship. And Princess Diana, poor soul, wrote a beautiful hand; obviously taught by an old-fashioned governess. What I cannot find is a really good pen.
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02/28/06:Creators versus critics
02/21/06: The Rhino Principle
© 2006, Paul Johnson