No Mean Pen

Date Added: 17/07/2009


Humphrey Lyttelton tried hard to think of a connection between jazz and calligraphy. 'Well, all my jazz heroes were American. Some couldn't write at all and when they could it was mostly in block capitals.' But, 'there's no way I would say: not only did I admire Louis Armstrong's trumpet playing but his handwriting was terrific.'

The question arises because Humphrey Lyttelton, the doyen of jazz trumpeters, is also the president of the Society for Italic Handwriting, succeeding the late Dowager Marchioness of Cholmondeley .

In the busy lounge of the St. George's Hotel off Portland Place, handy for the B.B.C. where he was doing a recording session - and where he has become known as host of the cult Radio 4 comedy quiz I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue - he laid out half a dozen pens on the coffee table and started producing italic script with calligraphic flourishes.

No need to observe how at home he seemed: 'This kind of place is my natural habitat.' He moves around so much, producing caricatures and calligraphy so readily, that he has even come across his own doodling in directories in telephone booths. 'Yes, defacing public property. That's the naughty-kid element of the jazz musician.'

Nothing identifies him as a trumpeter except, for those in the know, the paler skin at the centre of his lips - like the mark under the chin of a violinist. He is a scion of the aristocratic Lyttelton family (an earlier Humphrey was executed for collaborating with Guy Fawkes in the Gunpowder Plot) and son of an Eton housemaster who was also a keen calligrapher. When his father died, Lyttelton inherited his roll-top desk and its contents.

'These included a jar of buckshot which, at great risk to himself, he had got out of cartridges, still fully primed, that he'd cadged from brothers and cousins. Someone had told him buckshot was good for cleaning pen nibs. In fact it was a rotten idea. The buckshot lurked under the nib and just when you'd a marvellous page, it would blob out.'

The story of how the young Humphrey absconded from the Eton and Harrow cricket match to look for a trumpet in the seedy music shops of Charing Cross Road is justly famous.

'I used to play the mouth organ, Larry Adler style – but badly - in a band I ran at school. One summer half-term I sneaked away with my mother from the cricket match. Half the Lytteltons were keen cricketers, the other half hated it. I wasn't good enough to be serious about it and frivolous cricket is a terrible pain.

'I was dressed in top hat, tail coat and all the regalia of an Etonian at the Eton and Harrow match: pale blue-dyed carnation, silver waistcoat, rolled umbrella with a pale blue tassel.

'This apparition arrived dragging with him his protesting mother - who fought a rearguard action ("Wouldn't the clarinet be more fun?") - and we finally bought a new trumpet, with a mute, tutor and a free lesson all for £4.'

He spent the weekend learning to playa scale, in the lavatory on the top floor of his grandfather's house in Cadogan Square, in preparation for his free lesson on Monday. The tutor, duly impressed, told the young Humphrey that he would go far. It was the only lesson he ever had.

His school band, which once briefly included Ludovic Kennedy on the drums ('He wasn't 'great but he loved it') performed for fellow Etonians in his father's house.

'He went to his grave believing that what I did was far more obscure than Chinese music. When we did these sessions, every now and then I'd see the door open and he would look in. It was always at the wrong time - I was embarking on some terrible over-the-top scat vocal and he had that sort of a look parents get when their kids come home with orange hair.

'Later he actually came to the club at 100, Oxford Street to hear me. In fact it became quite a job fighting off my relatives, who all came at various times. I never feel at ease playing when I see members of my family in the audience. Jazz people leap about a bit, and when my children first saw me on the stage they were terrible afterwards, saying I pranced about, and imitating my movements. I rather discouraged them from coming again.'

As his father, George, had turned to calligraphy on golfing holidays, when bored with his Eton colleagues in the long, evenings after the game was over, so Humphrey Lyttelton on tour is never without a clutch of pens and a wadge of paper, preferably W. H. Smith's recycled, nor a book on his other passion, bird-watching.

'The evening takes care of itself: you've got the show. But there is the rest of the day, and as you get older, four hours on a golf course means you're good for nothing when you get on stage.

He does not regard himself as a proselytiser, but when autograph-hunters at concerts admire his writing ('Sometimes they say they want my real signature and I say: this is it!') he suggests they get a pen and instruction leaflets and try it for themselves.

'I'm keen on getting across the idea that it's the look of the whole page that matters, not whether this '0' or 'g' is perfect. Don't tear up a sheet of paper because the loop of an 'e' has gone 'blind' and filled with ink. Say to hell with that, and make sure the page is well laid-out and looks nice.

'There's so much antiquarianism connected with script and handwriting that it's difficult to get the message across that it should be enjoyment and fun. Nobody thinks their own work is marvellous. I'm certain monks got up at the end of the day and felt dissatisfied, and when you study some of the monks' scripts they are full of mistakes. They run off the end of a line, they don't have room for the last word and have to put an '0' in above. But as long as it's all done with an eye for the page, you can correct your 'mistakes'. If you run off the page, you can write sideways, which looks lovely at the end.

'Once you know the basic forms, even a scribble like "Supper's in the oven. Gone to the movies" will have a certain style.'

He wrote while he talked, changing pens, even producing a graceful italic hand with my fine metal roller-tipped pen and at remarkable speed.

'My father had marvellous initials, GWL, whereas he gave me HRAL, which is all straights and uprights: horrible! He wrote, with splendid flourishes, the word 'calligraph'; it was from a record label design he had devised.

'Maybe,' he reflected finally, 'calligraphy is really a form of vanity. '