Saturday, 30 August 2014

Philip Hensher in Conversation

By Paul C Cumming

Those who favour pink ink are dancers, those who favour blue and black ink are serious thinkers and if you're using green, you're a lady novelist.

Pic. Paul C Cumming
The Deakin Edge, that elaborate, webbed mass of steel and glass perched on Southbank, is today’s venue for reflecting on our handwriting. And I say ‘today’s venue’ because the subject itself is perennial, something that forms some of the classroom’s most tortuous moments, that haunts people through their scrawled University exams and hunts them down at airports as they scratch out their illegible travel documentation.

Hensher estimates that of all the personal responses he received to his book Missing Ink around three quarters of these responses were (like me) ashamed of their handwriting.

Philip Hensher, primarily a writer of fiction, has won a slew of prestigious prizes and awards for his novels The Northern Clemency, King of the Badgers and Scenes from an Early Life. But his writing on the art, history and importance of scrivening is every bit as warm, funny and deeply impassioned as his storytelling. As he and David Astle speak, Hensher’s excitement occasionally causes his distant, honeyed tone to boil over, revealing the same “immediate and powerful response” in himself that he claims to have found in others, when asked about their handwriting.

Pic Paul C Cumming
“It’s a powerful psychological tell” Hensher explains. While trying to account for human captivation with handwriting, he turns to the missives of Jane Austen. Here in Austen's cloistered fictional hamlets, highly personal letters swim freely. But they don't have to swim far. By comparison, the swarming, twisted cities of Dickens and Conan-Doyle showed a burgeoning obsession with the analysis of handwriting, which was used to determine class, behavioural attributes and motive.

So is it just a growing unfamiliarity with our neighbours that make us obsessed with how they write? Hensher doesn't think so. It's also about ourselves.

"Your handwriting has so much of you in it" says Hensher with a sort of restrained joy. It makes sense, he reasons, that we take it so personally. Take Hensher's own examples of our thirst for meaning in handwriting:

- Underlining your signature (which Hensher does) means that the writer is full of self importance
- Closing the loop on your lower case 'g' means that you're good at keeping secrets (Hensher doesn't close his 'g')
- The joining of a 'y' to the next letter and letter stem length both speak quietly about the author's sex life (both in nature and volume)
- Those who favour pink ink are dancers, those who favour blue and black ink are serious thinkers and if you're using green, you're a lady novelist (this one was popular in the 1950s)

But despite what handwriting may say about us, we seem to be losing it. We're in an audience which lists heavily towards the over 55 demographic. An audience where, after David Astle's probing, we find that roughly half have possessed a pen license, around a third learned handwriting from a copybook and three or four audience members were ink monitors. I'm thirty, which for handwriting enthusiasts, seems young.

"I'm not anti-twitter or anti-facebook" Hensher stresses, "I'm asking for variety..."

But it's undeniable, after listening to Astle and Hensher in conversation, that something is being lost.

There's the seaboard diary of his parents' first meeting that Astle still possesses and the enormous, detailed notebook that Hensher was able to pass onto the family of a tragically deceased student. All of which leaves us wondering what kind of watermark text message and email actually leaves upon the world.

"Your handwriting is okay" announces Hensher before the room slowly empties. "Just like people who love you first thing in the morning, they'll love your handwriting no matter what."

Dilemma Hensher shares the optional
methods  for signing the book of fellows
for Royal Society of Literature.
Pic Paul C Cumming

Pen used on the day by Philip Hensher:
Uniball Gel-Grip, given to him by his publicist.
"Not my pen of choice" according to Hensher.
Pic Paul C Cumming


  1. Sorry to have missed this session, it sounds great.

  2. Yeah, comparing the differences in Lada Gaga and the Queen's handwriting was pretty interesting :)

  3. I close my g's, but only to manipulate readers into thinking they should trust me.

    But really, I think drafting in longhand is particularly important for writing careful sentences, especially when you can type faster than you can think.

    Really great writing Paul. It weaves the session and discussion of the ideas it raised into a seamless review


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