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.
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.