When did you learn to do “real writing”? I ask, because Finnish schools are abandoning the teaching of joined up writing in primary schools in favour of keyboard skills. The response is a bit difficult to gauge, mainly because it’s in Finnish, but one commentator is quoted as saying “Handwriting is a totally useless skill. Maybe not as useless as compulsory Swedish, but coming pretty close to it”.

At my school, you got taught “real writing” (that’s what we called it) at the age (I think) of about 9 (Miss Bagshaw’s class). Bizarrely, we were taught using BIC biros – I can only imagine that they’d been some sort of gift or special offer, because they were dreadful things to hold and rubbed against your middle finger. We were taught a form of cursive script which was probably becoming old fashioned by that time. The only sample of my handwriting from this time is a geography book from when I was 11. The irony is not lost on me – geography was my least favourite subject (apart from needlework, obviously, but needlework isn’t a proper subject).

Handwriting example - geography age 11

When I went up to grammar school*, pretty much the first thing they assessed was your handwriting. Mine failed to pass muster, so for part of the first year I had to attend remedial handwriting classes at the end of the main school day on Tuesdays (or possibly Thursdays) which were taken by one of the art mistresses (the nice on, not the batty one).

Here, we unlearned our old habits and learned to do italic writing with proper ink – in my case, this meant learning a completely new style using an unfamiliar medium. We were given dip pens – they had a specially designed nib that held quite a lot of ink, but they were still essentially a stick with a metal nib that you dipped into an ink well on the corner of your desk. And of course, because it was wet, you had to use blotting paper to dry your writing before turning over a new page and to clean your pen before putting it in your pencil case.

NeedleworkI do actually have my original hand writing exercise book from my first term in the third form (i.e. first year – long story). Somewhere. Unfortunately, I can’t find it, so will have to make do with my third form cookery/ needlework book (by this time “third form” was the same as “third year”, so I would have been about 14). The only reason this has survived is because it contains Miss George’s legendary recipe for cheese straws (total cost 6d).

I think that the Finns are wrong. Of course people need to use keyboards and there are whole groups of people for whom keyboards make writing possible, but being able to write fluidly by hand is a useful and wonderful skill. I’m convinced that the physicality of writing things down – shaping the words and arranging them on the page – helps you to think, understand and remember in a way that typing never does. Somehow the business of operating a machine seems to get in the way, whereas a pen is essentially an extension of your hand – almost a part of your body to which you stay connected, rather than constantly connecting and disconnecting as your fingers connect and disconnect with the keys. It’s also an intensely practical skill – you can take a notebook and pen anywhere and you don’t just have to write – you can add drawings and diagrams.

And then, there’s the sheer unadulterated sensuality of using a good quality fountain pen on good quality writing paper …

So no, it’s not a useless skill. It’s certainly a lot more useful needlework and at least as useful as compulsory Swedish.

Links and clarification
Finland: Typing takes over as handwriting lessons end (BBC News, 21 Nov 2014)
* a “grammar school” in the UK was a senior school (11-18) with an academic bias