Keep Write On

By Peter Clayton
Date Added: 17/07/2009


From my enormous repertoire of nightmares, let me give you a preview of the latest production. In it I am on my way back by train from somewhere up north with the only tape-recorded interview ever given by some revered figure or other, who, on his deathbed, has consented to utter revelatory things into my microphone. Up on the rack, therefore, among my modest luggage, is a unique, priceless piece of history.

Only later do I discover that the pleasant young man who put his bag next to mine is a traveller in children's magnets. Since the great natural enemies of the tape recording are roving bands of stray magnetic fields, I realise that instead of bringing me luck, that man's box of little red-and-silver horseshoes has wiped the tape clean of the only version in existence of an important message for mankind. I wake up, panic stricken, in the deep end of my own sweat.

I suppose the moral is that those who live by magnetism shall perish by magnetism, and it serves us right for neglecting pen, ink and paper. But we are being encouraged almost every day to neglect them, even to forsake them altogether. Only last week there appeared an advert which suggested that before the year is out you could 'put an end to the illegible note'. By learning to write gracefully? No, by buying yet another little tape recorder to which you can confide all your notes and thoughts.

Suddenly I had a horrible vision of the death of handwriting. To anyone who believes that even 'Please leave three pints', written on the inside of a cigarette packet apparently during an earth tremor, is fundamentally a piece of magic, the idea is depressing enough. For someone who grew up in admiration of his father's elegant and decorative copperplate, as I did, who learned to write from an old-fashioned copybook, all loops and pothooks, and who later turned in his springy Waverley nib for the straight-edged Relief model and defected to the Italic side, the notion is nothing short of appalling.

Writing in longhand is about the last of the humbler artforms still available to everybody old enough and fit enough to hold a pen properly. I say properly because there are those among us who have invented marvellously illogical ways of bringing nib into contact with paper-assassins who grasp the pen like a dagger, gluttons who handle it like a knife and fork, sailors who tie their fingers into sheet-bends and clove-hitches round it, acrobats and contortionists who curl their arms in such a way as to approach the paper from the top, like someone drinking water out of the far side of the glass to cure hiccups. These painful complexities apart, it is the only aesthetic pleasure left that you can indulge in during the course of ordinary daily life.

The necessary equipment is dazzlingly simple. I went through an arty phase of helping myself to reeds from Dulwich Park lake when the keeper was not looking, but I never managed to shape them satisfactorily; quills I abandoned after I found that geese and swans had no interest whatever in penmanship and resented my advances (they do say that an enraged swan can break a calligrapher's arm with one blow, and I see no cause to doubt it).

A reasonable fountain pen with reasonable ink in it is all you need. It is possible to write handsomely with a ballpoint, but that little bearing, in spite of its name, has no sense of direction, no inherent grain you can work with; it doesn't guide the hand into attractive shapes; it is about as stable as a one-legged unicyclist.

Besides, there's something against the feel of the times in a ballpoint pen. Ideas on conservation are spreading, and people are less happy than they were about throwing away the exhausted husks of old writing implements. When they first came out, about 1946 or so, there were not even any refills.

For practical reasons I have to use one occasionally, just as I have to use a typewriter. But I can respect a typewriter, not only because its alphabet has its own conventions and its own aesthetic, but because it has a life of its own. I've had my present one for years, and it still can't spell. And it creates fantastic new song titles, 'I've Got You Under My Sink' is one of its recent compositions.

I also rely on the tape recorder for part of my living, but its purpose there is the laudable one of capturing not only what this or that person said, but how he said it. And here we come upon the final disadvantage of the electronically recorded message as against the laboriously (but perhaps beautifully) hand-written one: nobody yet knows how long tape will last. Someone once put forward the theory that the Earth's magnetic field, weak though it is, is steadily eroding away everything we've ever committed to tape. How galling for future archaeologists to rush home with freshly-excavated reels of the stuff only to find that they'd dug up several miles of silence.

But if the batteries are fully charged, if the built-in microphone is working, if the tape is properly lined up, if the recording head hasn't been damaged, then maybe the new pocket recorder will do away with the exertion, usually shirked, at the end of the day of keeping a diary. 'Dear cassette. . . .'.