The How-to of Graceful Handwriting

That's the thing about joined-up writing,'' said the lady behind the bulletproof glass in the post office. ''It flows.'' She was watching me write and sign a check.

I was flattered. I always feel one should be flattered whenever possible, even if flattery may not be entirely intended. What made me feel good was that she had noticed how I wrote my check with a kind of liberated bravura, a sort of liquid aplomb. How my ''e's'' swept gracefully into my ''n's,'' my ''t's'' going together with my ''h's'' like a horse and carriage, letter easing itself into letter as my pen hissed along the polished ice of the paper and concluded its scrupulously choreographed passage with an accomplished triple Lutz....

So much for Walter Mitty.

The brute fact is that my handwriting, while it may indeed be joined-up (at least in places), has become a messy event over which a veil of secrecy were best drawn -- a visual cacophony wrought by an overhasty clash of fingers, thumbs, pen, and paper.

I always set out with good intentions. But years of note-taking (that's my excuse) have turned my handwriting to soup. A word or sentence may begin promisingly, but I soon discover it has no idea at all where it is going. Paul Klee may have talked about drawing as taking a line for a walk. But for me writing has become a line taking me for a ride.

When people ask what I do for a living, I generally reply, ''I'm a writer.'' It is true that I do not say I am a calligrapher, but I still wonder if the claim to anything like competence that one makes by calling oneself a ''writer'' might not still lead to misunderstanding.

A friend just sent me an item he had spotted in the London Times, an extract from a speech by Harold Pinter, the playwright:

''In a career attended by a great deal of dramatic criticism, one of the most interesting -- and indeed acute -- critical questions I've ever heard was when I was introduced to a young woman and her six-year-old son. The woman looked down at her son and said: 'This man is a very good writer.' The little boy looked up at me and then at his mother and said: 'Can he do a W?' ''

There is no doubt about it. Pinter -- a real writer -- can write virtually every letter in the alphabet. On the other hand, I find that my own modest ''w's'' are more and more a thing of speculation and unpredictability.

When I was away at school, my dad used to type his weekly letter to me because he was convinced of the unfairness of expecting even a son to read his handwriting. It was certainly joined-up -- in fact it was all joins. He did attempt something like a recognizable letter at the beginning of most words and occasionally even at the end, but in between there was little more than a lethargically wriggling earthworm.

Quite astonishingly, it was possible to read a percentage of what he wrote to arrive at an guesstimate as to meaning.

One of my earliest school memories, in the kindergarten near the Bingley gasworks, was scribing line upon line of capital ''s's,'' all joined-up. I had no idea what these glorious swan-necked, repeat-patterns signified, but I loved doing them. I still do. They are the consummate becalming doodle to forestall impending ''meeting-sleep.'' In fact, if people were to practice their handwriting during meetings, the world might well become a more beautiful and legible domain.

I have just the book here to help.

I was taken back to those infantile ''s's'' by a re-acquaintance with them -- and many other letter formations that seem remarkably familiar -- in a slim paperback manual acquired from a second-hand dealer. It is called ''Good Writing: How to Acquire It Easily With Instructions and Examples. British Made Throughout.'' There is no publication date. The bookseller thinks it may be based on a train of earlier manuals with similar content, while he agrees with me that its one-color cover looks like it's from the 1930s or '40s.

It is a truly charming little volume, packed with peculiarities as well as with some absolutely beautiful examples of good writing (and handwriting).

The instructions are a particular pleasure in this day of fiber-tip, ballpoint, and suchlike lowering of tool standards.

Under ''Choice of Pen,'' it advises: ''Choose a light, wooden holder about seven inches in length and not too thin.... Discard holders made of bone, glass or metal for they are usually badly balanced, slippery and cumbersome. Avoid pen nibs with long prongs.''

Under ''Position of Body,'' it recommends that we should ''avoid lolling or crouching'' and should not ''press the body against the desk.''

And under ''How to Hold the Pen,'' it suggests that ''your hand and arm should touch the desk at three points.... The pen should not be gripped tightly. If held loosely a free movement will follow.''

I admit to a slight surprise with regard to this last instruction. I have tried it. The pen simply flies across the room as my free movements follow.

Running counter to such easy kinetics are some of the samples of sentences that occur in the later (more advanced) pages. In the most beautiful copperplate italics are such words as:

''In any undertaking, the most fatal thing is apathy. Rouse yourself!''

And: ''Inspiration is more likely to come to a busy person than an idle one.''

And finally my favorite:

''Of all the meals you can buy for money,

Give me a meal of bread and honey.''

Now that really is good writing. Well, I think so.

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