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Artillery Row

A Christmas plea for pen and ink

In praise of the small features of civilisation

The writer and journalist Quentin Letts used to present a wireless programme on Radio Four. In “What’s the Point Of …?” he irreverently questioned the reason for various British institutions, from Lord Lieutenants, pubs, lawns and golf, to the Book of Common Prayer, the Chief Rabbi, Methodists and the London Black Cab. He always ended up justifying them. Informative and amusing, it struck me as a series with a future, but instead seems to have drifted off the airwaves. It may be that the Broadcasting Corporation was unable to answer, “What’s the Point of Quentin Letts?” I hope not.

He and I are not dissimilar in years. We were brought up in an era when bowler hats, cravats, cufflinks and cummerbunds, plus fours, signet rings and smoking jackets, three-piece suits, tie pins and watch chains were still in vogue. Well, just. Some of these were natural choices for parents and relatives on significant birthdays and at Christmas, but all have virtually disappeared from the planet. They seem to have followed the codpiece, ruff, tricorn hat, frock coat, pince-nez and monocle into Tardis time-travelling oblivion.

I was only made aware of this fluidity of fashion last year in a discussion about cravats (Ascots to our transatlantic brethren), of the kind made popular by Edward Fox in Day of the Jackal. It seems that Mr Letts needs to turn his attention to cravat-wards, too. The neck adornment originated in Croatia, from where I write, casting a wintry eye over the restless Adriatic. Cravate, which in French refers to a necktie, was a corruption of Croate. Legions from the Balkan state, clad in fur hats, flowing red cloaks and scarlet neck scarves, were first paraded in 1633 before Louis XIII, who had hired their services. Instantly the piece of cloth caught the royal eye and became the fashion accessory of the moment. So, too, did their owners. “Cravats” of Croatian light cavalry were soon roving around Bavaria, France and Spain, in search of a well-turned ankle and a jolly good scrap, in that order. 

Ostentatious crimson neckwear was an essential element of the Croat legions, the work of their female admirers. “To our wives and sweethearts — may they never meet was the toast of many a regiment of horse. It was to identify their partners in battle that the womenfolk of the Balkans wove and stitched ornate red neckcloths. The fine silk accessory soon spread throughout Europe, often found wrapped around the necks of its soldiery. Go to St Mark’s Square, Zagreb, and you can still witness the Cravat Guard Regiment, resplendent in the uniform of their antecedents, performing ceremonial duties. For their colourful contribution to world fashion, Croatia celebrates Cravat Day each 18 October. 

Central heating sounded the death knell first for spats

In my impeccably well-spent youth, I acquired a gorgeous collection, but neckscarves are no longer common currency. I find myself in mourning over the world famine of cravats, for they have become an endangered species. The same goes for many of the other, aforementioned accessories. Technology is partly to blame. Compasses, cameras, pocket watches and all but the most expensive wrist watches have been replaced by mobile phones. Cars, central heating and air conditioning sounded the death knell first for spats, then silver-topped walking canes, boaters, bowlers, homburgs and trilbys, leather shoes with laces (Oxfords in Americanese) and more recently even gloves, scarves and overcoats. Braces (suspenders across the Atlantic), waistcoats (vests, ditto) have disappeared, whilst even collars and ties, never mind cufflinks, look to be departing in the same direction. They are already absent in the lives of many an otherwise distinguished colleague. 

All but the British royal family seem to be succumbing to this retrograde progress. Another fast-disappearing, formerly vital, accessory to life is the fountain pen. I was probably the last of maybe half a dozen generations to be packed off to school with a compulsory Parker, Pelikan, Schaeffer or Waterman pen (Cross or Mont Blanc for those with deeper parental pockets), blotting paper, and blue, black, or brown ink, lurking in a square glass bottle. Often gifted from aged aunts and uncles at Christmas, they helped meet our requirement to furnish weekly essays and end of term exam scripts in a neat, joined-up hand. The contents of the bottles, dribbled into twists of paper, made superb ink-bombs, too.

All was going swimmingly well for the world of nib-and-ink, until László Bíró, a Hungarian newspaper editor, filed a patent for a new design of pen in June 1938. As war forced the family to flee, László and his brother George ushered in the era of the ballpoint from Argentina, their creations becoming cheaper and tackier with each decade. The situation worsened when the Italo-French Baron, Marcel Bic, bought the Bíró patent for $2 million soon after Hitler’s defeat and swamped the world. This was certainly the view of my teachers at primary and secondary school, who regarded the contributions made by the Bíró and Bic families to English handwriting as nothing less than an invasion of inky Fascism.

If you pause to think about it, the once-popular Christmas present of a superior fountain pen, with its metal nib, connects us straight back to Ancient Egypt. We can picture the sweating scribe at the side of the Nile, busy with his hieroglyphs, reed and ink. A copper nib found at Pompeii, frozen in time over two days in AD 79, tells us that the Romans had further perfected the tool for neat lettering. Crucially both types, along with quills, helped writers develop their craft in an attractive, uniform way, legible to all who could read. Unlike the later creations of the Brothers Bíró, fountain pens enabled neat, flowing, joined-up handwriting. 

To describe the downside of ink-and-nib, for there are downsides to most things, I defer to P.G. Wodehouse. In a short story, he recollected, “there was only one handwriting common to the whole school when it came to penning lines. It resembled the movements of a fly that had fallen into an inkpot, and subsequently had taken a little brisk exercise on a sheet of foolscap, by way of restoring the circulation.” Perhaps the tool also reminds us of our newly minted King’s frustration when signing a document shortly after his mother’s death in September. Microphones picked up his complaint that the royal fountain pen “was leaking everywhere … I can’t bear this bloody thing!” Criticisms were met with the magisterial defence, “but most people have never used one in their lives”.

Remember Winston Churchill’s struggles to enter Harrow School in 1888, unable to answer a single question in the Latin paper. As he recalled in My Early Life, “I wrote my name at the top of the page. I wrote down the number of the question: 1. After much reflection, I put a bracket round it, thus: (1). But thereafter I could not think of anything connected with it, that was either relevant or true. Incidentally, there arrived from nowhere in particular an ink blot and several smudges. I gazed for two whole hours at this sad spectacle and then merciful ushers collected my piece of foolscap with all the others and carried it up to the Headmaster’s table.”

Done well, the acrobatic flow of ink becomes an effortless joy

Elsewhere, joined-up writing is known as script, or cursive, the latter word a Norman French import. It originates from the Latin cursivus, meaning “running”. You can see why. A well-balanced fountain pen allows the hand to race along the paper, making letters without breaking contact. Done well, the acrobatic flow of ink becomes an effortless joy, like a Spitfire spiralling through the clouds, an artform. For several centuries before the reign of the typewriter, cursive was the preferred hand for letters and documents. Lawyers and doctors required it. The young Charles Dickens learned his first trade as a reporter with it. Full of hope, Daniel Defoe, Jane Austen and Walter Scott dispatched their adventures in cursive longhand to expectant publishers. Puddles of Wodehousian ink apart, the results are always superior to anything generated by those modern interlopers, the ballpoint, gel pen or felt tip marker.

Imagine my dismay at a recent piece in the New York Times, “What’s the Point of Teaching Cursive?” In decades past, learning good penmanship was a key part of a child’s education. Nowadays, whilst it is still important for handwriting to be legible, concern is no longer attached to how attractive it is. I can see that cursive has become a smaller part of young lives. Outside school, fewer kids, if any, are putting pen to paper, instead texting messages and writing e-mails. As adults, they will rely on computer printers. My inner historian is alarmed by this. Note-taking cannot always be performed on a mobile device. In this winter of power cuts and air raids, there may simply be no printers. Or print cartridges. Or electricity.

What is the message we send when we question the point of good handwriting? Medics the world over can get by on everyone’s expectations of their writing resembling a rheumatic earwig on LSD out for a drunken stroll (this writing concept is well known to my German, French and Italian medical chums), but not the rest of us. Signatures are still required on contracts, legal notices and in banks. In business, politics and war, the public record requires orders to be transmitted in writing, as well as verbally, and signed. As an author, I am expected to deface my publications with something approaching a legible dedication. 

At this time of year, to question cravats is to bark at a piece of fashion. They may return, or not, but human nature has a genetic disposition to always find a way to individualise its appearance. A shinier flint, a better sword, brighter velvet, a bigger ruff, a glitzier cravat. 

The fountain pen enabling a cursive hand is an altogether different concept. It is an appliance for better communication and takes us away from the cut-and-paste temptations of the online world. We are propelled towards original thought and the rhythm of words. The metre of sentences and paragraphs brings a sense of pace, of speed, which often matches the intent of a good storyteller. Concentrating on the shape of words is to peer more closely into their meaning. It is possible, of course, via bad handwriting, but for the writer constructing poetry or prose, tempo more often leaps out of neat, page-borne script. 

There is the artistic side to the joined-up hand, too. It is pleasing to the eye, in the same way that a classical or Art Nouveau building appeals when compared to the concrete brutalism of the immediate postwar era. With a good fountain pen it is almost impossible to produce ugly work. With anything else, you are almost certain to achieve it. I am no graphologist (a science to which whole libraries are dedicated), but on first glance, a well-spaced script in ink conveys a collaborative personality in its kindness to the reader. The careless scrawl induced by a neo-punk biro communicates something altogether more jarring.

As Mr Letts might ask, “What’s the Point of Fountain Pens?” This is my plea for the traditional writing tool and the handwriting it facilitates. Though my offer to submit this piece in joined-up longhand fell on deaf ears at The Critic’s offices, don’t overlook the seasonal gift of a fountain pen. An appropriately-wrapped cravat would be acceptable, but far superior is a pen, an investment for life. It is not old-fashioned technology, but an empowering device for uncovering the hidden depths of language. This used to be the time of year when I succumbed to parental orders to mass-produce thank-you letters. In ink. With cursive. The act and effort was meant to convey genuine gratitude. I think it still does.

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