It is no secret that there has been a marked decline in handwriting since the Reformation. Think of those magnificent medieval manuscripts which are now the cherished possessions of museums; many of them with beautiful miniature illustrations married to the text, each text a masterpiece of the art of calligraphy.
Neill Kerr registered one such codex, discovered in the archives of St.Peter’s Seminary in Glasgow, as ‘A Book of Hours’, namely, the Prayer of the Church. He published the details in his catalogue of medieval books and codices and estimated 1492 as the date of publication, which was also a good year for discoveries. As someone who was introduced to handwriting with the help of a slate and stencil at the tender age of five, I consider myself qualified enough to pontificate on this weighty subject. It is a sobering thought that in my lifetime I have travelled from the Stone to the Computer Age. The next Age has to be Telepathic.
There are those who would argue that the real decline in handwriting began with the promotion of the biro pen which was patented in 1943 by Lazlo Biro and had nothing to do with the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. Lazlo was a Hungarian newspaper editor and was fed up messing about with pen and ink and blotting paper and devised a means of avoiding all the hassle. While the biro may have made life much easier for the writer it did nothing for the quality of his handwriting. Our parish Registers of Births, Deaths and Marriages are a monument to the deterioration of handwriting beginning with the 1943 entries! The first biros could be refilled immediately, but it proved just as economical to throw them away when empty and buy an entirely new one at little cost. Goodbye copperplate script, hallo scribbles.
I have prefaced this reflection with a rhyming couplet. This particular piece of doggerel once featured throughout the land in the promotion of versatile pen nibs which were marketed by Macniven and Cameron Ltd, a printing company based in Edinburgh. They specialized in pens with such pretentious names as Pickwick, Owl and Waverly.
The choice of names for their pens takes us into the world of subliminal advertising. Charles Dickens’ ‘Pickwick Papers’ are forever popular and by choosing this pen, who knows to what heights of literary scholarship and prosperity the lucky owner might aspire with Mr. Pickwick guiding his hand? The inscrutable ‘Owl’ was considered wise and who could tell what pearls of wisdom might pour out with the ink that flowed from its nib, if not from its neb? ‘Waverley’ immediately suggests Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly Novels. By using his Waverley pen, a budding author might well surface as a latter day Sir Walter Scott and end his days living in a fine estate in the Scottish Borders overlooking the River Tweed.
Not to possess one or other of these prestigious pens was to be deprived of many ‘a boon and blessing’, one such boon being the ability to produce, effortlessly, a fine copperplate script. Mind you, there is early photographic evidence that Dickens was equally at home with a quill in his hand.
Some years ago I was entrusted with a fine collection of vintage fountain pens from the estate of nurse Jean Hanlon and her sister Lily. Both were midwives and are remembered gliding around the district on their bicycles which had wickerwork baskets attached to the front handlebars. When they were not delivering babies to the citizens of this parish, Jean and Lily were delivering performances in the amateur dramatics which were so popular in paris.
hes in the days before TV, computers, laptops and mobile phones. No show could be deemed a success on Broadway if it had not first opened in St Augustine’s parish hall.
At a distance of more than fifty years, and after a relatively short stay at St Augustine’s, Father Denis Power is still remembered with affection as the inspiration behind the production of hilarious one-act-plays and extravagant productions of many a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ was evidently highly successful and ran for several seasons till Annie got past it. To describe Father Denis, I have searched in vain for the musical equivalent of a polyglot. To date, the nearest I can get is a ‘polyphone’. Denis could pass himself on almost every instrument in the orchestra and the memory of his Easter ‘Exultet’ still brings a tear to many an ageing eye.
Our Lord told his disciples to sort out their priorities and ‘to rejoice that their names were written in heaven’ (Luke 10.20). Is it too much to hope that mine might be among them, even if only scribbled down at the last minute with a biro?