I was thrilled to read in this paper last week that the calligrapher Terry Sykes had won a prize in an international handwriting competition.
Terry is chairman of Pontefract Calligraphers and a couple of years ago he presented me with an exquisite hand-written book about the Featherstone massacre of 1893. It is a thing of beauty, a real one-off and an object I treasure. Terry’s handwriting is, of course, very lovely to look at and if more people like him sent letters to friends, the Royal Mail would be rescued in one fell swoop.
Handwriting is something I’m really interested in, it’s also something I still do a lot of myself. Every book I’ve ever written starts out handwritten. Publishers do chuckle a bit when I tell then how I approach writing, they look for my laptop, then gulp a bit when I show them a chewed biro.
A couple of years ago when I wrote my “Billie” book for Penguin, I did it all by hand and took my manuscript down to London to show them. The interesting thing was, when I finished that book, I had 260 sides of handwritten A4 paper – and when the book came out, it had 260 pages in it.
I felt that there was something quite magical about that, Billie herself had been a keen handwriter and had developed a quirky style. I still keep a list of names and phone numbers she created pinned to the back of our kitchen door.
The book I did before that Bringing it all Back Home bears the line “written by hand and set in Garamond typeface” on its verso page. I still write by hand because that way I feel more connected to what I’m writing about. I think there is something authentic about the connection between brain, hand and paper when you use this method as opposed to using a laptop or computer.
I like to see my crossings out and my scribbles, if you work on screen, you delete that stuff and you never get to see how a piece of work is formed. Writing seems much more crafted when you put pen to paper – after all, a craft is what writing is.
At George Street School in the 1960s we were taught italic writing and did it with special italic pens. I remember them fondly, they were blue with black lids and had ‘platignum’ cartridges. I think that was when I fell in love with handwriting.
You can tell a lot about a person’s nature when they hand write and especially when they send you handwritten correspondence. I get a letter from an artist friend called Karen every now and again and I know it’s from her even before I open the envelope, because I recognise the lovely handwriting.
It’s a thrill to get a nice letter, but the thrill magnifies when you guess who it’s from. It’s the same when I get one from a guy called David Suff, who owns a small record company called Fledg’ling.
He sends me CDs for review, the CDs are great, but the thrill of seeing the way he writes my name and address on the envelope is just as exciting to me.
I play a little game at Christmas time, ‘guess who sent the card.’ I know Robert Wyatt’s immediately because he has writing like a spider’s legs, Brian Lewis’ writing slopes unusually to the left, John Walchester from Norfolk presses his pen on paper very hard and Annie Green from Leeds always uses black ink and I suspect she dips something like a quill into an ancient little pot. Give me that any day before these blooming e-cards and silly little Facebook messages.
Do you think handwriting will disappear in the digital age? I was talking to my mate, the musician Richard Hawley, recently after his gig at the O2 in Leeds.
He is well known for his love of all things analogue and real. When he wants strings on his records, he doesn’t use synthesisers like most modern bands do, he books violinists and cello players to come into the studio.
In this age of downloading and MP3 players he still releases proper vinyl LPs too. As I believe that writing is not just printed words arranged on a page, he is of the opinion that music isn’t just about the sound you hear. It’s about the way it’s made, presented and used.
He told me: “Digital downloading is like going in to a hardware shop and asking for a bucket full of steam, you come out with nothing!”
The next day, I wanted to drop him a line, I went to create an email and then thought no, so I went downstairs found my best pen and wrote him a letter.
I know I had to queue for a quarter of an hour in Pontefract Post Office for a stamp and I know that he wouldn’t be getting my words instantly, but I did feel like I’d struck a blow for friendship and, as the twittering classes would have it, ‘keeping it real’.