Re-writing history

THERE are moves to make children use fountain pens in a bid to improve their handwriting - but will it really help with their handwriting?

THERE are moves to make children use fountain pens in a bid to improve their handwriting. Scrawling scribe RICHARD BATSON tests the theory.

I should have been a doctor. Not because of my warm bedside manner, or fascination with things medical. But because of my illegible handwriting. Take a look at my notebooks, or a page from the office diary, and it could easily be a prescription written in Latin.

Unfortunately for my colleagues, they are journalists not pharmacists, so it can lead to some grumblings when trying to decipher the day's events.

Court sittings and council meetings obviously should be taken twice daily after meals, but they don't understand.

It is an attempt to make myself indispensable. “We cannot sack him, because he's the only one who can read the diary,” I can hear the bosses saying.

I do admit the failing. My name is Richard. And I am a scribblerholic. And, in a pang of pre-holiday guilt, I always type out a list of daily tasks before going away, to save my staff time on the enigma code-busting machine.

Most Read

My excuse is that after 30 years of using shorthand, which encourages you to swiftly scribble down outlines which are meaningless to others, my longhand has gone the same way.

The concerns about the standards of handwriting, however, go wider than the EDP's Cromer office diary - but apparently the saviour is at hand, in the form of the old-fashioned fountain pen.

An independent school in Scotland has ordered pupils aged nine and over to write only with the traditional nib and ink.

The head of the Mary Erskine and Stewart's Melville Junior School in Edinburgh, Bryan Lewis, blames the demise in handwriting standards on the rise of “progressive” teaching methods, and reckons the reintroduction of the fountain pen will not only aid the pupils' writing but also develop the children's self-esteem.

It is generally accepted that using a fountain pen, which needs more control, produces more elegant writing than the everyday ballpoint.

But the need for them to be compulsory is a view not shared by one leading education expert in Norfolk. Mary Jane Edwards is the primary advisor in English, and feels there is no general problem to be drawn from the Scottish saga.

“We see some super handwriting. Ever since 1998, as part of the national literacy strategy, there have been guidelines identifying at what ages children should be forming and joining letters.

“We encourage them to choose an appropriate style - whether it is formal or notes - and schools will guide students on the best kind of instrument. It could be pencils for notes, and a pen for something smarter.”

Children generally needed something cheap and quick to write with, and there were downsides to fountain pens, particularly for lefthanders, whose work is smudged by the hand travelling across the freshly written words, added Mrs Edwards, who may have said other interesting things, but I cannot read my notes.

Handwriting ought to be under the cosh from new technology. The pen may have once been mightier than the sword. But the keyboard and keypad now appear to be mightier than the pen.

Where we used to sit down with a sheet of paper and best pen, to beautifully script a letter to a friend or relative, it is now done instantly by e-mail or text.

Technology has also threatened the favourite old fountain on the stationer's shelves.

When I was a schoolboy the choice was basically fountain pen or pencil. Ink? Black or blue. Bottle or cartridge.

Now the racks are full with writing choices - gel pens, felt tips, rollerballs, offering a rainbow of inks including silver. What kind of child is going to plump for a dull old fountain against that kind of sexy opposition.

Hence the fountain pen is now more often a gift, rather than an every day tool - handed to students embarking on college, or people retiring, ironically when their days of writing dwindle to doing crosswords, and ringing the TV programmes they plan to watch during their endless leisure hours.

Mums, who have had to deal with countless ink-stained blazers and shirts from oozing cartridges, may be quite relieved.

When our parents were at school they learned writing, much as they did maths, by repeating the teacher's copperplate cursive off the blackboard.

The combination of slavish copying and it being the heyday of the fountain pen bred a generation of neat penmanship that maybe did fall apart during more recent years when the quality of the handwriting, and the grammar, was less important than allowing little Jimmy to express his thoughts.

I know some people with brilliant handwriting - mostly women who seem to take more pride and trouble with the task, maybe knowing that it will be essential in the years ahead as they seem doomed to write all the family Christmas and greetings cards.

But I know many more who are in the same scribble sin bin as me. So I decided to road test the Scottish head's theory to see if it would make my spidery scramblings any more readable.

For the sake of my future employment - despite claims of indispensability - I decided I could only get away with a humble £7.49 Parker on expenses rather than a £150 gold-nibbed presentation box.

But even with a cheap one there is something smooth and satisfying about using a fountain pen. However the acid test was the legibility.

After writing a few lines and showing it to my colleagues the feedback was that it was “better than what's in the diary” and “prettier, but still not sure I can read all the words.”

One small step for man.

“Dear Santa .. as well as the Porsche 911, how about a nice fountain pen or calligraphy set.”

Just hope he can read my writing.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter