image of the letter A in copperplate handwriting

Pleasures of Pen & Ink

I was writing in a cafe recently, trying to amass some raw material for my novel, when a young waiter stopped at my table and admired my handwriting. He seemed genuinely amazed by my fountain pen, and by the fact that, although the pages of my notebook were unlined, my writing was legible and neat. His own handwriting, he said, was square and choppy, nothing like my flowing script. Having inspected my notebook from every angle, he shook his head sadly. "Kids aren't being taught to write anymore," he said.

Kids are being taught to write, it's just that beautiful handwriting, which was once considered a desirable accomplishment, is no longer valued. This is just one of the many losses of the technology-driven 21st century, and it is not difficult to imagine a time when pencils and pens disappear as children are hustled straight onto computer keyboards.

Not long ago I heard Jill Roe speak about her recently published biography of Miles Franklin. She described her research process, an immense undertaking, to which handwritten letters and other materials among Miles Franklin's papers were pivotal. How, she wondered, would future biographers go about their work, since in this century handwritten correspondence has largely been wiped out by email?

I recently heard of a writer who could produce beautiful copperplate script, and decided to find out how that might look on the page. To my surprise, I found that the copperplate alphabet was more or less the system that I was taught in primary school, give or take the odd, purely decorative flourish.

I can still remember the process of learning to write, including the exciting progression from separate letters to cursive. In the small, grey-covered copy books we used there were guidelines for upper and lower loops; even the fifty-four degrees of slope necessary to achieve anything approaching William Hogarth's line of beauty was lightly pencilled in. We used dip pens and ink, in fact true copperplate is impossible without a pointed nib because the up strokes and down strokes require different thicknesses of line.

Looking back, I see that learning to write like this required great discipline, although at the time it must have been everyday practice in South Australian primary schools. In today's classrooms, with their lack of formal seating and their first-name-basis teachers, copperplate handwriting would hardly be possible, I think.

So except for a few determined souls who are hooked on calligraphy, joined up writing is set to disappear, along with bottles of ink and blotters, suburban letter boxes, public telephones, paper books, and so much else besides. But If children skip pencil and pen and move straight onto computers, every power cut will return us to the illiterate society we once were, just as now, when computerised tills crash, cash transactions grind to a standstill.

Call me a Luddite if you will, but I am thankful to have come along before the complete demise of pen and ink and paper. And apart from the enduring pleasure of sending and receiving handwritten letters, I am convinced that there is a special relationship between brain and hand in the act of writing fiction.