All power to a uniform hand

23rd June 2006 at 01:00
I have spent a lot of my life avoiding graphologists and working out ways not to pick up a pen in public. Having been to school in four countries before I was 12, I have handwriting which grew up erratic in the extreme.

This is further aggravated by general messiness, idleness and lack of aesthetic sense.

Reports on my wavering fist range from "Elisabeth ecrit tr s, tr s mal" in my French convent to "there is no point being clever if the examiner cannot read a word of it" in Tunbridge Wells. I typed my essays all through university simply in order to know what on earth I was saying, and struggled to stay legible in finals.

Since then, it has got even worse. Whatever talent I have for ad-libbing in speeches or broadcasts and remembering interviews verbatim for newspapers is due to the fact that I can rarely decipher the drunken spider scrawls on the page. When I pass notes along to panellists on a platform I am chairing, they stare at me with helpless dismay.

My diary is full of mysterious entries such as "Broo Kipperflake" and "Ardent Gloap", so my whole life has been one long desperate bluff. I often end up ringing up everyone with a name or organisation that might sound like Gloap to ask whether they want me next Thursday. If there were a support group for illegible writers, I would be a senior member. I am graphologically challenged, if not disabled.

As for the psychological and image implications of all this, I have been aware since I was eight years old that people think I am less literate than I am the moment they see my writing, and are likely to write me off entirely if I am ever stupid enough to fill in a form by hand.

The only time I failed to avoid letting a graphologist look at my writing was when I interviewed one for a radio programme and the producer thought it would be "fun" for me to give her a sample of writing. The expert took one look and reared back in unfeigned alarm. "Gosh you're... you're all over the place!" she croaked. "Out of control! Do you have big financial problems... because I'd have guessed..." Everyone looked at me - Ms Middle Britain in my sensible jacket and Radio 4 hairdo - and marvelled at this revelation of my chaotic, near-bankrupt, desperate inner self. I shrank in shame.

So I was interested in the view of London university's institute of education, reported in recent weeks, that all primary schools should have a handwriting policy and a dedicated staff member to teach it. Pens and paper would be prescribed. Children would be taught to write neatly and quickly.

Graphologists reckon they would still betray their character, but there would be a reasonable chance of legibility. Advocates say handwriting lessons will help prevent depression and low self-esteem and give a sense of "stability and security".

Well, dammit, they're right. Bethan Marshall, a free spirit I normally agree with, scoffed that this is just another creepy central way of imposing uniformity, but for once I shake my head. Sorry, Bethan: bring back the pot-hooks and drills, I say. It'll be worth it.

Uniformity is a small price to pay for legibility and lack of hideous lifelong embarrassment. I know this from a simple family comparison: while I was ricocheting from school to school in Bangkok, Johannesburg and the rest, my eldest brother was sent to an English prep school where they were old-fashioned enough to teach italic script. To this day, his writing is fast and neat and always legible. My mother and her generation are invariably nice, tidy writers. Many of my own generation and younger are scrawlers, and almost as bad as I am.

It is ironic that this suggestion should come up now - just as we are entering the definitive age, so it seems, of the keyboard. Yet it isn't really. The same purblindness which gave up teaching tidy handwriting has betrayed the keyboard generation too.

If there is one skill that ought to be in the national curriculum, a sine qua non of modern education, it is full-fingered touch-typing, yet that is often not there either. They stab away with two fingers, give up on whole words in favour of "txt msg" language, and end up with repetitive strain injury.

We are raising a generation that cannot write easily with either pen or keyboard, and we aren't even ashamed. Yet failure to use your tools properly is always a bad idea - especially when you miss a "car service"

because you misread it as "carnival" and decided you were too busy to go.

Do you suppose it's too late for me to learn italic?

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