Handy jobs, just back to basics

Did you watch BBC Four The Silk Road?  It was an excellent programme but this isn’t the reason for writing this blog as it has nothing to do with ancient routes, history or archaeology, but with Dr Sam Willis’s handwriting.

For those of you who haven’t followed that documentary, Dr Willis is a writer and presenter, a very lively, amiable and learned guy,  who travels around from China to Europe with a magnificent leather-bound journal into which he painstakingly and quaintly add notes, drawings, Polaroid pictures (yes!) and other memorabilia, all beautifully illustrated in his copperplate-like calligraphy.  Truly, I hadn’t seen anything so extravagantly rococo in ages and when I was watching the series I wasn’t sure what was more interesting, the handwriting or the narrative.

This got me thinking.  These days my own handwriting is appalling.  I seldom write more than a word or two, bar the occasional cheque to my window cleaner, who stubbornly refuses to accept bank transfer (cash or cheque only Mr.), oh, and the occasional post-it note, though perhaps we should exclude them from the realm of handwriting given that like most people I make an effort to write them in block capitals, for ease of understanding.  I have so much lost the ‘art’ of handwriting that when the other week I had to sign several documents I nearly panicked and by the third signature I had to stop and think hard,  trying to prevent my signature from turning into a squiggle that looked more like a squirrel’s head than my name.

Worried by this recent development and spurred by that TV program  I decided therefore to write this blog,  but to do it first in my own handwriting, rather than sitting at the computer, or using a tablet.  

my squiggles

my squiggles


his handwriting

What ended up on paper was more akin to shorthand than handwriting – a mysterious collection of glyph which I could somewhat interpret, but that wouldn’t have made sense to anyone else. I was surprised though that in reality it didn’t take me that much longer than using a keyboard, even though corrections were an issue.

Whether this operation has been a futile exercise I cannot say.   But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that sooner or later, like Dr Willis, we may be travelling through some remote areas of the world, long after our laptop’s batteries may have given up the ghost and therefore having to rely entirely on pen and paper.  If your handwriting turned out as bad as mine by the time you got your emergency instructions to someone else and the notes were delivered to the nearest forensic lab you’d long be dead.

So from now I will make an effort to use pen and paper more often, maybe twice a year instead of only once for the Christmas cards to those elderly recipients not on email.  It doesn’t matter if I may never really use it in an emergency as it is unlikely I will ever find myself in the Gobi desert, but there was something inherently satisfying at the end my very brief manuscript, even if I was the only human being capable of deciphering that stuff.  Who knows, maybe, that was my own way of encrypting the message and perhaps it should have stayed that way…

Thank you then Dr Sam Willis for making many of us feel so inadequate with your beautiful handwriting, or maybe we should really thank you instead  for having unwittingly just saved our lives while on an expedition to the sources of Nile.  Perhaps that’s really what your program was all about, but as survival technique goes it certainly beats any of that gory Bear Grylls stuff any time.


Creativity by numbers

Creativity killed by numbers?

Do you subscribe to a technical or professional e-zine?  If you do, like most people who are engaged in some of online occupation, you wouldn’t have failed to notice that these days you are almost obliged to do things by numbers.  Puzzled?  Well, just access your getprismatic.com page for instance, or a similar news aggregator, and you will see what I mean.

In my latest foray in these information channels today I counted about 40% of all the featured articles as starting with a numeral, like ‘Seven ways of optimising your content (I am making it up, the article in question actually stated nine…)’, ‘Ten ways to impress your partner’, ‘Three exclusive tips to ensure your profile is visible on LinkedIn’… you’ll get my drift.

Chopping onions

I know that you and I and all those a little longer in the tooth like me, will appreciate that this is just a bit of sensationalism, a way of attracting readers’ attention, but there is an inherent and subtle danger in such elementary approach.  The thing is that in life you can’t even realistically list seemingly simple steps like those enumerated in a recipe.  Confused?  Well, take a banal action like chopping an onion.  It would be listed as a single step in most recipe books, but you and I know that in real life this is rubbish.  You don’t just ‘chop an onion’, you search for it first, then you try to locate the chopping board, which is never in its place but has temporarily migrated inside the dishwasher and therefore needs cleaning, grab a suitably sharp knife, scrimmage around in the veggies basked for the only onion left and which has started germinating, peel it and look for the nearest box of tissues to wipe copious tears off your eyes, etc. – hardly a single step…!

In moderation a step by step approach is fine of course (and recipe books are the ideal example), but we are truly exaggerating now when it comes to professional activities and this may be to the detriment of experimentation and creativity.  The point is that there is hardly ever an instance where your specific business needs will be addressed by a single 1-2-3 approach.  There are at best milestones, but quite often you will need to add a variety of other paces in between and the more creative the task the least concerned about form filling and steps you’ll be.

Too many lists stifle creativity

So a step by step approach is particularly inappropriate and obnoxious when it comes to original thinking.  Do you think that Michelangelo was painting by numbers when he created the Sistine Chapel, or that he opened a manual and followed the ‘twelve steps to

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

paint an awkward ceiling’? Of course not.  Like all artists, architects and sculptors he was instinctively aware of the necessary milestones, but he used his limitless human inspiration to achieve that masterpiece, untrammelled by unnecessary and artificial impositions.

If by now you have lost the thread it’s probably because I am not setting myself artificial boundaries in making my point.  All I wanted to say, in simple terms,  is that a stepped approach may be practical, but too much of it, like too much of all good things, may stifle creativity and may give you a false sense of security too.

But if your mind only works in steps and want to know 7 things you didn’t know about the Sistine chapel just click here

Now enjoy the summer, in three easy steps:

a) stop browsing the Internet reading inconsequential blogs like this

b) get outdoors

c) lie down in the sun


Related articles