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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Writing, pens, ink and bad boys

I haven't forgotten about tackling God in my continuing journey through my mini-series on personal philosophy. The mood will strike and it will come oozing out of the remainder of my brain.

  Maybe that's not the best analogy, but you get what you paid for today. And this is what came to me. Part of it was in response to the charming blog by a writer called Alex, whose work you can see here.

  Because I went to primary school in the 1950s (Queensland, Australia), we learned genuine cursive writing; flowing running writing that you never see today. We practised in copybooks, and our wooden pens had long steel nibs. We had inkwells in our desks.

  The State Department of Education sent these nibs to schools by the thousand, so they weren't the expensive sort you see on sale now. The best fun was snapping off the point of the nib and using the pen as a dart. If you didn't snap off the point and just used them as darts as they were, they wouldn't stick in the ceiling when you threw them, but our modified versions did.

  This was, needless to say, a boy thing, but you had to be careful. Firstly, you didn't want to get caught throwing them. It was an offence instantly punishable by four cuts with the cane. The other was not to sit under one that was stuck into the high wooden ceiling. Gravity being what it is, what went up eventually (or quickly, depending on certain variables) did come down. You could be unlucky enough if sitting or standing under it to have it drop points first and spear you in the top of your head. At the very least it could leave two bloody wounds as if you'd been bitten by a carpet snake.

  The ink came powdered in large sachets, and a couple of the most responsible of the boys were despatched to add the right amount of water, stir it well, put it in the ink-jug and fill the china inkwells in the desk. When I got this coveted job on one occasion, I remember the headmaster saying,

  'Now you chaps, be careful making that ink. Don't get your hands dirty. Just... use your heads!'

  Everyone burst out laughing, including the Headmaster.

  But back to our copybooks. The script was completely different from that of printing. It was designed to flow, and it did. Generally we didn't lift the pen from the paper from beginning to end of the word. Dotting the i and crossing the t were done last, of course!

Cursive, but not quite OUR cursive!
  This illustration isn't quite what we learned, but it's close enough to give the idea. Our script was more graceful than this, but I don't have a steady enough hand for it these days. An attempt now would be as bad as it was when I first attempted it. Perhaps Jan might still be able to do a fair one - I don't know. Lyn - you weren't much better at writing than I was!

  Now this was hard enough for right handers to learn, but I was left handed, and right-handers have no idea of the extra problems we encountered. Ink is wet and runny stuff, and left-handers would smudge ink from the newly written characters if we held the pen in a 'normal' way. I don't remember anyone getting caned for that, but some came close. Mostly we put our left hand right around the top of the page and wrote as if we had a crab-claw instead of a hand. It was ugly and the writing was usually awful, but at least smudging what you had laboured over was avoided. Sometimes.

  Worse was that these letter forms were all designed for right-handers, with their nibs angled the way they do. Left-handers tended to accidentally spear their nibs into the paper, and the steel tip would release with a flick, and you'd have a series of spots appear on your copybook that Jackson Pollock would have been proud of.

  Maybe that's how he did Blue Poles. I wonder if he was left-handed?

  What surprises me is how much better at writing our grandparents were than we slovenly critters. I suspect they did a lot more of it and got a lot worse punishment than we did for penmanship deemed sloppy. Postcards sent back home from the Front in France in WW1 from my grandfather and uncles were written in elegant script that put most of ours to shame. (Yes, we had uncles, my father's older brothers, who fought in Europe in that war!)

  We use computers now, to compose what we write. If we don't like it, we can make adjustments. This means that the thought processes that go into writing by hand are quite different. When you write it down with pen and ink, you try to do it just once, so it has to express the thought as clearly as possible. Even the lovely prattle that my old aunts engaged in when they wrote letters to each other was like a river of thought, often inexpertly punctuated but beautifully penned. They must have enjoyed the experience of writing, and maybe the lack of punctuation was appropriately Hemingway. Very stream of consciousness.

  Yes, this art will go, except amongst the diarists with pens in their hands, the antiquarians and the calligraphers. Artists like Watto and Alex, Joan and Carl. A computer cannot create a personal touch like the hand and eye of a calligrapher, no matter what typeface is used. It will never have quite that connection.


  1. My grandfather *was* left handed.

    He had his arm tied to the chair so he would write with the "correct" hand.


  2. "Ink IS wet and runny stuff," as you wrote. I can't imagine having learned to work with it as a child, even as a right-handed one. Onstead we worked with these chubby navy blue pencils that only fit the large pencil sharpeners bolted to the classroom wall. From your dart nibs to the coiled pencil shavings we'd make, I love the tools, the sensory memory of learning to write. Yet another thing lost to typing.

    When I was recently asked why I enjoy doing calligraphy work, I explained that ink is messy business and it requires patience. I like that it requires me to slow down and take my time. That is a rare treat.

  3. Dee: it happened, just as you say. Left-handedness was discouraged in my time but if the child kept favouring the hand, then that was it. It was allowed.

    A girl came to our school when she was about 12. She was strongly left-handed but at her previous school was forced to write with the right.

    She wrote beautifully but at the same time developed a very bad stammer which blighted her life all the years I knew her. Don't ever let anyone tell you that there's no relationship. There surely is. I wonder if King George VI was forced to write right handed as a child?

    I am not that strongly left-handed (material for another story there!) but she did EVERYTHING else with her left hand.

  4. Alex: I see calligraphy as a meditation. I'm sure my friend the good Dr Watson, an expert calligrapher, derives that sort of mindset as he err... calligraphs. Joan would have to have that mindset when she does her beautiful Chinese style work. Of course, calligraphy and painting, especially water-colour painting, are hand in hand in the Chinese and Japanese traditions.

    Maybe this is your 'slowing down,' Alex. When it comes to calligraphy and water-colours, it is as much being confident in your own ability to achieve the goal as anything else. There's not much leeway once you commit brush or pen with the 'wet and runny' stuff on it to the medium you're using.

    Thanks for your welcome comment. I'll continue to be a voyeur on your blog as you contemplate and calligrate!

  5. I've studied calligraphy briefly, both Chinese and Western. I prefer the brush, but it's not the right shape for the Latin script, which requires a pen and nib.

    One of my most cherished brush paintings resulted from a fit of rage. I slashed the rice paper with my brush when, yet again, I failed to get the right result. I calmed down and just as I was about to crumple the spoiled paper and throw it into the trash, I noticed the lovely spontenaity of the splash, turned the paper it upside down, scratched in a couple of branches and dabbed on a few plumb blossoms. I dare anyone to find the spoiled cat face amongst the branches.

    Mindset indeed. Not always so meditative :). I'm off on retreat for a week and taking my brush with me.


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