When the Biro was born, writing skills began to decline. Betty Tadman suggests ways for schools to revive the art of calligraphy. Rummage through a box of Victorian postcards and you'd be forgiven for thinking they were written by the same person. The reason is copperplate, a method of handwriting that was taught uniformly in British schools in the 19th century and which became ubiquitous as a result.
Those were the days when writing was a careful process and legibility was the primary objective. Initially, quill pens were used, then metal nibs. By exerting pressure on the down-strokes, variations in width could be achieved, which gave the script its elegance and variety. Things began to deteriorate with the invention of the Biro, followed by other ball-points, which slid quickly over the paper leaving no time for care. From that point on, the inkwell became a thing of the past and illegibility a failing of the present.
Copperplate is not infallible, however. At speed, it becomes unreadable and ugly; it breaks down. Italic writing, by contrast, does not. Known as "chancery cursive", italic has its roots in the Italian Renaissance, when formal manuscripts were written by professional scribes. Its beauty is that even at speed it is still legible.
Adapted and simplified, italic writing is easy to teach and practise. Small children introduced to it in simple form graduate to the full thing without difficulty. Adults with unreadable handwriting may find greater difficulty in adapting, because they have to retrain their brains so that it becomes natural to write without loops and with some letters unjoined. In such cases, diligent practice is the only way forward.
As examiners repeatedly complain, illegibility is a bigger handicap than bad spelling. In other words, schools who want to maximise their pupils' chances would be well advised to include handwriting as a central element of the curriculum. Yet with the exception of most colleges in Scotland, and in Exeter and Lincoln, teacher-training colleges don't run handwriting courses, so fledgling teachers emerge with no knowledge of these skills.
Some schools are bucking the trend, notably Putney High School, whose pupils recently won a string of prizes in a competition jointly run by Osmiroid and BBC Education. Gwen Dornan, who works in the school's junior department, gives lessons in handwriting, runs a lunch-time calligraphy club, and makes special efforts to ensure that the left-handers progress at the same rate as right-handers.
In its fourth year, the competition is attracting an increasing number of entries, 16,000 last year, and more than 20,000 this. The prizes include book tokens worth between Pounds 15 and Pounds 50, plus Osmiroid and Berol pens, with school prizes of Pounds 500.
The merchandise available in this field is steadily growying. Berol offers a four-pack fibre-tip set of italic pens in assorted sizes (Pounds 4.99), two of which are too broad for ordinary writing, but they also sell individual pens at Pounds 1.30 each. Osmiroid's calligraphy set includes a pen, three black ink cartridges, and five interchangeable nib units of different widths (good value at Pounds 12.99, and they also stock left-hand versions). After solving a puzzling wrestle with plungers and cartridges, I can report that the Osmiroid pen writes beautifully.
Parker, meanwhile, has a calligraphy set (including a pen, six cartridges, and four nibs at Pounds 18.99) which is easier to slot together, but the nibs feel hard compared with Osmiroid's quill-like refinement.
For serious calligraphers interested in illumination, Platignum has developed a set containing an excellent pen plus three nibs; an embossing pen with a phial of gold powder; four coloured fibre pens; and paper plus illumination-alphabet sheets (very good value at Pounds 16.99). Posters are also available.
Italic fibre pens are a useful alternative to calligraphy pens, and they do give the distinctive thick and thin variations. Their drawback is that they lose their sharp effect with use.
To be really effective, all these materials need either an accomplished teacher, or an instruction book. One of the most useful of the latter is C Jarman's Developing Handwriting Skills (Stanley Thornes Pounds 15), from which photocopies can be made for classroom use. A C Black publishes Tom Gourdie's calligraphy books (averaging Pounds 5 each), as well as Ann Camp's Pen Lettering (also Pounds 5). Tom Barnard's Write Ahead, an invaluable italic manual published by Osmiroid in 1993, is currently out of print.
There really is no rival to the italic hand, whether taken to its most extreme perfection, or used in its basic form, which can develop into a fast cursive style for everyday use. It will never degenerate into the calligraphic equivalent of unravelled knitting.
* The Calligraphy and Lettering Arts Society (CLAS) publishes a magazine six times a year called The Edge. This covers contemporary calligraphy artists, exhibitions, courses, and competitions. The society also runs teaching workshops and an annual summer school and is working on a teacher training and accreditation scheme. "People are more interested in pens now," says CLAS secretary Sue Cavendish. "Good handwriting can help you with your career. Look at the number of companies that ask for a handwritten job application." The Pounds 18 subscription also covers membership of the society. Information on 0181 741 7886.
* Letters aims to educate children between the ages of six and 16 about all forms of letters and lettering, from art and design and graphics, to the finer points of calligraphy. Its newsletter is full of activities and information and it also runs free workshops for children. Subscriptions cost Pounds 5 per individual, or Pounds 12 for a school (every pupil becomes a member). Details from Patricia Lovett, 01732 453951.
* The 1997 Schools Writing Competition will soon be underway. Details from OsmiroidBBC Education Writing Competition, Berol, Oldmedon Road, Kings Lynn, Norfolk PE30 4JR.
* Parker Pens Estate Road, Newhaven, East Sussex BN9 0AU.Tel: 01273 513233. Platignum Pens 20 Greenfield, Royston, Herts SG8 5XX. Tel: 01763 244133. The remaining pens and calligraphy kits reviewed are available from NES Arnold, Ludlow Hill Road, West Bridgford, Nottingham NG2 6HD. Tel: 0115 945 2200