More Comment than Review of The Missing Ink by Philip Hensher

The book is certain to have an impact on those who fret over the fate of handwriting. I especially appreciated the last chapter regarding our very human reasons for putting pen to paper.

As one who has taught an italic based method for nearly forty years, and believe I have been successful with it, when I read the chapter, “Preparing the Boys for Death: The Invention of Italic,” I wondered how Hensher had come to such negative bias. He used adjectives like “posh” and “elitist” in describing italic. Then I realized he was presenting valid reasons why the method has not been as successful in education as it should be.

Rosemary Sassoon’s Handwriting of the Twentieth Century illustrates the my-way-or-the-highway attitudes of many who developed handwriting programs.

Another chapter is devoted to Marion Richardson whose work Hensher praises. It was Sassoon who introduced me to Richardson’s work, an exceptional master of handwriting instruction. She spoke to me abut Richardson’s belief that students should not stick to a model, but rather let their own personal hand evolve. I try to heed this belief, and to put fun and pleasure into instruction.

Marion Richardson’s model, except for zed, is far closer to italic than the copperplate derivatives, as Hensher acknowledges, “…slightly italic quality….”

If italic became too ornamental among some practitioners, it was a degeneration of a basically simple, legible and rapid method. In fact it can be easily taught to beginning writers, but not with a broad edged tool, a some have done. A crayon or pencil will do, and lots of playful handwriting related activities.

Hensher states that, “Italic is performed with an italic nib,…” Not necessarily. The basic letter formations are the same whether written with a pencil, a ballpoint or italic pen.

I think he does a disservice when he writes about Tom Gourdie whose Simple Modern Hand was just that. It can lead to a rapid, legible hand. He was not a hoity-toity elitist. His fault was that he wanted his students to emulate his model as closely as possible, rather than being free to develop an individual hand. I am grateful for his teaching. He showed me how to hold a pen with relaxed fingers—comfort and fluency when writing for hours, and a diminished carbuncle (a misnomer that is sometimes used to describe the bump that develops on the third finger from a death grip on a pen). What I learned from Gourdie is about the same as the quote Hensher attributes to Richardson, “…only easy movements of the hand….”

Probably personal, but an italic pen slows my writing; I worry too much about how it looks and lose the real purpose, what I am trying to recount. Give me a monoline tool. In my opinion the “italic obsessives,” Henshers words, who insist on the thick and thin marks made by the chisel edged nib of an italic pen detract from good, practical italic instruction.

So I wonder why Hensher devoted a chapter to his search in London stores for an italic pen.

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