Sometimes I wonder why I bother with my computer. By the time it’s warmed up, and loaded all those new updates I haven’t asked for, and told me there are 6 issues that I need to fix in my antivirus program, and then told me, sorry, there’s one issue it can’t fix, so would I like to have a one-to-one session with an online operator in Delhi - it can all seem like a bit of a big ask. When all I wanted was a simple blank page to get my thoughts down on. At such a time I find myself casting a more than sentimental glance at my old Parker 45, marooned with the highlighters in the chipped mug at the edge of my desk.
How long does it take to ‘boot up’ a sheet of A4? About half a second. Off comes the cap of the pen and away you go. This wonderfully simple system also boasts an on-page memory, retaining your first thoughts right bang next to your corrections. It saves all work automatically. Unless you’re caught in a house fire there’s no danger of losing all your precious morning’s output when you accidentally tap the wrong key with your thumb just as you break for lunch.
Handwriting is also highly portable, versatile and hard-wearing. You may not be able to send your thoughts immediately to Australia, but you can pop a notebook into a pocket or handbag, open it in a jiffy on a bus or plane, use it in bright sunshine outside a café, or leave it face down on a sandy beach without risking irretrievable breakdown.
Fun though it may be watching your ideas bounce neatly into print on a laptop screen, isn’t there something richer and more enjoyable in hand crafting them onto the pristine page? Seeing the ink flowing from the nib, sitting there gleaming wet on the surface of the paper for a few seconds before it sinks in and dries. If you’re writing on a surface like Conqueror the pleasure is almost sensual, as you watch your tiny stream of black, blue, red or even green settle in to the roughness of the surface. If you suddenly want to add a related thought in the margin, how easy is that? A damn sight easier than trying to get up to speed with one of the computer programs that claim to be able to mimic such simplicity of composition. (And mimicking it is. Never forget that.)
There’s little doubt too that the physical process of writing out the words makes for a subtly different result. Whether it’s a better result is debateable. But it’s certainly the case that such experienced writers as John Le Carre, Joanna Trollope, William Boyd and Philip Pullman all handwrite their drafts before typing them up later. And there is surely something about having to write a word out by hand that makes you think about it that much harder. You can sit there pondering for as long as you like. There’s no cursor blinking away at you, crying ‘Get on with it!’
Perhaps, too, seeing your work in immediate print gives it an authenticity it doesn’t deserve; you may be less likely to correct something that already looks so finished. Then again, if you do correct it on a laptop, it’s all too easy; so deeply tempting to be slapdash with that first draft. All too easy, too, to lose track of the endless corrections you’ve made, and how they impact on the work that’s already there.
In the universal change from script to screen, posterity is an undoubted loser. The fine collection of manuscripts that you can see at the British Library just wouldn’t be half so interesting if you couldn’t clock how Thomas Hardy had crossed out the first word of Daughter of the D’Urbervilles and replaced it with the more immediate Tess. And how revealing it is to see all those heavy scratchings-out of Sylvia Plath, contrasted with the neat annotations of Angela Carter. (It’s a comic irony that the BL now bans ink pens in its reading rooms, a policy enforced by a team of burly security guards, who can be seen most mornings startling a visiting French or Japanese PhDs who aren’t yet aware of the diktat.)
No longer used for workaday purposes, handwriting now carries an undoubted cachet. A handwritten thank-you note for dinner or a weekend is more substantial than a mere email – and certainly more pleasurable to receive. Doesn’t the effort involved somehow reflect an appreciation of all the trouble your host took? A postcard is still a much nicer thing to receive than an email or – God forbid – a text (even if it does have that mobile snap of your friend getting fresh with the holiday rep attached). Certain other communications still demand handwriting. When a friend’s mother died recently I didn’t even consider email. Out came the mothballed pad of Basildon Bond and the Parker 45. Even though it took me four drafts to get my letter right, it felt appropriate to the seriousness of the sentiment.
And isn’t a diary an altogether better idea than a blog? You can be really honest in a handwritten diary, not just faux-honest as in so many blogs, which repackage diary-style sentiments for their bored or non-existent audience. A diary is meant to be read only by the writer, who is entitled to be cross when loved ones are caught snooping. Not so the poor blogger, who can only sit and wonder why he still has O COMMENTS for the latest update on his oh-so-fascinating life. And who will want to read the damn thing post-mortem? Somehow The Mitford Blogs just doesn’t have the same ring.
So is handwriting likely to go the way of mental arithmetic, something only done by a dying breed of fuddy-duddies? There are plenty of scary indications to suggest that this might be the case. Earlier this year the BBC reported that four out of ten boys and a quarter of girls aged 11 failed to meet the required standards of writing in their national tests. Meanwhile one in five parents admitted to My Child magazine that they hadn’t handwritten a letter in over a year. The chat rooms and comment forums of the Net are awash with stories of businessmen who find they can no longer write anything without a laptop.
But I doubt it. The very simplicity of the process (once learnt) will surely save it. If the oil runs out, or the nuclear power stations prove unfeasible, or super viruses overrun cyberspace, or some other unforeseen catastrophe overwhelms us, the laptop will be no more than a museum piece, a wonderfully sophisticated highpoint of the Age of Electricity. But handwriting will remain – just so long as we keep teaching our children how to do it.