Ashley Davies: Pen and paper not write thing to do

The art of writing by hand may not be dead but e-mails and text are taking over. Picture: Getty
The art of writing by hand may not be dead but e-mails and text are taking over. Picture: Getty
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But it’s still an interesting insight into our character as well as being beautiful in itself, writes Ashley Davies

LAST week my mother was going through some old correspondence and came across letters I’d written before and after computer keyboards became a natural extension of my fingertips. In the pre-PC days my script was tidy and measured on the page – written evidence that I, like many other studious young girls, took a disproportionate amount of pride in my handwriting. Over the years, however, like cut-price yoghurt in a hot car, it deteriorated.

How much can you tell from handwriting? Picture: Getty

How much can you tell from handwriting? Picture: Getty

One of my jobs at The Scotsman is editing the letters pages, and one or two of our regular correspondents have handwriting so delectable that I relish receiving their missives. One in particular – a retired teacher, I believe – has a perfect hand: an elegant cursive script that is as easy to read as it is on the eye. The slant is even, the size of the letters as uniform as if the font came from a design programme, and the flourishes on the ascenders and descenders – the tops of the “t”s and bottom of the “g”s, for example – are fluid and artistic. To have handwriting this perfect takes decades of practice, something most of us will never have again. Damn you, the digital age.

My own handwriting style changed several times as I was growing up – evidence both of how easily influenced I was and of how I was educated at a time when a failure to deploy the compulsorily cursive script was no longer regarded as a sign of feeblemindedness. Unlike people of my grandparents’ generation – those whose names you come across in second-hand books, performed with artistry but obeying the strict rules, not unlike a high-scoring waltz on Strictly Come Dancing – we were allowed to let our handwriting express our personalities, however spidery.

In the early days I tried to copy my mother’s style – she’s an artist whose handwriting looks like it was designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh six months into a course of oestrogen. But I couldn’t maintain the focus and my baggy effort flopped back into the default girly hand, with lardy, misshapen characters that – and this pains me to recall – occasionally had bubbles where dots above the “i”s would have been more dignified. I don’t think Hillary Clinton has rubbish like this on her conscience.

Then, in a bid to try to impress my father, I mimicked his writing, which was even more ridiculous than it sounds because he’s left-handed and is able to squash more words onto a single line than a prisoner who knows he has to make the space on an envelope last the duration of his life sentence. Like a smile at lost love’s wedding, it was impossible to sustain.

A few years later, in a lame attempt to emulate one of my first editors, a workaholic perfectionist, I found myself unconsciously copying the way she put pen to paper. Her writing was clear, smallish, upright, and the letters weren’t always connected. I’ve tried to stick with this style but it’s only really possible with a nice pen – ballpoints tend to skid gracelessly across the page like an eejit on ice.

A girl at my secondary school had the most exquisite, unique handwriting I’ve ever seen. Every character a wonder to behold. It looked as if it was written with a calligraphy pen and had the appearance of being put together with zen-like slowness. Decades later it’s still clear in my mind.

It makes me sad that in this age of e-mail and text I don’t recognise the handwriting of friends (other than those of long-standing) or colleagues, and love the fact that everyone can tell at a glance that something has been written by a family member. For years we took for granted how much fun it was trying to gauge what kind of personality somebody had by looking at their script.

These days you don’t even have to risk the inherent dangers that accompany the hilarious and terrifying truth about doctors’ handwriting. Thank God.

In a shabbily thought-out experiment, I asked a few dozen of my colleagues to give me a handwriting sample. Admittedly, this was a wholly unscientific survey, particularly as most journalists write in short-hand more than they do in their normal handwriting, but I was surprised by how bad most people’s scrawl was. Only one had an attractive, grown-up hand, only a handful were tidy, and one displayed what graphologists – those who claim to be able to deduce personality traits from handwriting – describe as a felon’s claw. This is when the round descenders on “y”s or “g”s, for example, invert to form a sharp upside-down U. Those analysts claim this trait is indicative of dishonesty or guilt. (HR have been notified and I’ve hidden my stapler.)

I’m inclined to believe graphology to be as reliable a science as astrology (I know, right? Typical Libra) but it sure is fun seeing what it says about your co-workers.

It is claimed that those with large lower loops (on “g”s and “y”s) have strong physical and sexual drives and are keen on money and food. Short lower loops supposedly indicate laziness.

It is also said that people with a sinuous stroke, a type that looks like a spool of unravelled thread, have a tendency to slither around obstacles, to elude reality with clever language and a refusal to face facts. Some of the experts say that people whose writing slants to the right tend to be compliant and outgoing, emotional and garrulous, while those who slant to the left are reserved, cold and withdrawn. This seems awfully harsh on left-handers, but they should be used to being persecuted by now.

It may all be nonsense, of course, but one graphology claim did catch my eye. Some experts say that people who put a full stop after their signature tend to want to have the last word, and in my little experiment, two of the three people who did this were two of the most senior people on these papers. Hmmm.