Philip Hensher is a keen proponent of the fountain pen. Photo: George Fetting
THE MISSING INK: THE LOST ART OF HANDWRITING (AND WHY IT STILL MATTERS)
By Philip Hensher
IF PHILIP Hensher is a snob, he is the rare Proustian sort: a snob who recognises snobbery and reveals it with playful honesty. But I'm writing this in blue ink and, as Hensher explains in The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting (and Why It Still Matters), ''blue ink … is cosy and friendly, but perhaps not very serious''. Read me with caution, sober readers.
The subtitle of Hensher's book suggests a popular polemic or earnest manifesto, but it is, thankfully, neither. The Missing Ink is instead a personal defence of the value of handwriting. This is sometimes achieved straightforwardly, with the help of research: Washington academics, for example, found correlations between good handwriting and higher educational results, among ''problem children''. Better-formed letters went hand-in-hand with better memory and word recognition.
But more engaging than the few cited studies is Hensher's obvious pleasure in pens, ink and penmanship. His detailed descriptions of letters and ligatures invite the reader to smile and scowl along with him.
On a note he received from a fellow Oxford student: ''What it said has been lost in the mists of time, but the style of the thing was unforgettable: triangular, oval, thick-and-thin pen strokes, meticulous down strokes and curving up strokes. I had had my first living encounter with a living italic hand.''
Importantly, The Missing Ink is not filled with fawning odes to any one style. This very same ''living italic'' style, for example, is also panned as an adolescent fad, or the plaything of pretentious ''arses''. (Hensher's own striking hand is italic.)
The nearest thing in Hensher's book to hero worship is, as he admits, the chapter on English educator Marion Richardson. While the American acolytes of P. R. Spencer and A. N. Palmer were dedicated to rote drilling and discipline - often for ''moral improvement'' or social climbing - Richardson encouraged her pupils to draw, doodle, colour in. She taught them the rhythms and gestures of writing, but she also made it fun: spontaneous, inventive, imaginative. In Richardson's classrooms, handwriting was not a military duty or mystical rite, but a kind of play.
This is very much the spirit of Hensher's book. While he devotes several well-researched chapters to the history of writing styles, inks and pens - including a corker on that apex of modern design, the Bic Cristal - what really makes The Missing Ink are the stories, jokes, mocking asides and parenthetical grumbles.
The mood of his footnotes skips from curious (''Definition: a 'looped' alphabet would return along a different path to the upper portions …'') to grumpy (''Seriously, what crap'') to wicked (''I mean, I'm all for the baroque in its place'' - the footnote to ''place'' reads ''Dresden''). Hensher breaks up the traditional chapters of history and argument with interviews and anecdotes, including a story of the author's hunt for a good piston-filled fountain pen with an oddly uncommon nib.
His novelistic observations on retail pretence, and London's generic touchscreen pecking, are skewering and sad in equal measure. His chapter on Proust and the allure of illegibility is outstanding.
While Hensher recognises that graphology is quackery to most professional psychologists, he seems to want a bob each way, noting one graphologist's surprising triumph. But this does nothing to overturn the evidence. He is more convincing on the Humean associations we make between handwriting and character: distinctive lines on paper stand in for a distinctive self. Passages on the notebook of a student who died are particularly moving.
Hensher can be surprisingly sentimental (''Ink runs in our veins'') and huffy, but his refusal to censor his impressions adds to the book's portrait of an intense and fascinating personality. He contains multitudes. It is this portrait of the author, and his devotion to handwriting's palpable intimacy, that makes the book so enjoyable.
Hensher argues for, but also conveys, the value of slow, spontaneous pleasures. He also fills his book with others' memories: a novelist remembers a ''dapper, sarcastic, chain-smoking'' headmaster.
Without fetishising German fountain pens and French paper, Hensher makes a compelling case for manual, artful pursuits and against generic automation.
Like Hensher's italic hand, seemingly reproduced on the cover (in dark-blue ink, with some purple; an ambiguous message to readers), The Missing Ink is an idiosyncratic pleasure.
■ Damon Young's most recent book, Philosophy in the Garden, is published by MUP.