Between the lines

In the same year the Bíró brothers escaped Germany for Argentina, I was born. By the time I was attempting to earn the right to graduate from pencil to steel pen the Bíró pen was being sold in stationery shops for as much as a dinner in a fancy city restaurant. In the years before pencil I had learned to write on a slate board. This was because paper was scare and a slate board, once obtained, was cheap because if a new “sheet” was needed all one had to do was erase the last entry. (It does not explain my poor handwriting as other children learnt this way as well, perhaps it just says I never got better at writing than a stone-ager.)

My pencil work was never very good possibly because of the earlier experience I had had with slate so getting my license to use a pen was hard work. A steel pen was even more difficult and I fully understand why pen use was restricted to children who could demonstrate they were not going to leave drips, smudges, or other signs the drying ink, or (forbid the thought) spill the fluid.

It took skill to master the pen. The nib was dipped into an inkwell that sat in a hole bored into the right hand side of the single desk, of if it was a double desk in the centre. The nib once dunked was not to dip further that the hole in had in it that split the steel in two parts before the point. On reaching the paper one had to confidently press the point onto the paper and apply weight enough to allow the ink to flow down the split onto the surface between the red and blue guide line printed on the paper. Some letters dropped below the lines to the red guide lines, some were written between the blue lines, and some reached up to the red line above.

The ink took some time to dry and rather than wait until it did, one dried it with blotting paper. This absorbent paper had to be applied in a rolling motion that soaked up the excess ink as it was applied. If the blotting paper was applied too quickly, or it brushed across the drying ink it left an unsightly smudge. A blot was just as unsightly, as the zealously overfilled nib would leave a trail of blots across the page produced by an untidy boy. This lad would go home each evening with ink stains on his fingers. These formed in much the same style as the nicotine stains, found on the hands of heavy smokers, did.

Just holding the pen took a great deal of dexterity. It had to be held between the thumb and middle finger, with the pointer finger resting lightly on the top to help guide it to form the letters of the alphabet. It was only after competence was shown one could do this were we allowed to join the letters in the running style of copperplate. (As with all things change was as constant then as it is today. No sooner had we started to write in copperplate than the writing style was changed to something called Victorian Cursive.)

There were some perks for good pen writers. The first was to become an ink monitor. The ink the class needed daily was kept in the inkwell on the desk. A child chosen by the teacher could fill each inkwell from the big bottle of ink kept in the classroom each day. The ink bottle had a rubber pourer on it. The stopper-pourer extended about an inch (30 cm). It would hover over the ink well from the bottle stopper as the bottle was tipped. The ink would flow into the inkwell as it tipped and be stopped from overflowing by the monitor when, he or she, pressed a finger against the air intake hole on the rubber stopper and stood the bottle upright.

The best monitor’s job was to be trusted to collect all the class inkwells and wash them out on a Friday afternoon. Because this was messy job a couple of trusty children would be sent from the class to wash them with running water at a drinking trough in the playground. The job was painstaking when done properly, but the perk was to escape the eye of the teacher and miss some class time.

Kids in class were normally well behaved because they had respect for the authority of the teacher, and their parents. (If a teacher complained about the behaviour of a child to the parents they would normally accept the teachers word and the child would cop some additional punishment at home.) Yet despite that many classrooms had nib darts stuck in their ceilings. (A dart was fashioned after splitting the rear end of the nib by jamming it under the desk lid. The enterprising kid would fashion a fletch from a piece of paper. This was inserted into the split. Half of the nib was broken off and when the teacher’s back was turned it was flung at the ceiling. Most times it was left dangling above the class and the teacher was unaware anything was amiss.

At secondary school we were considered mature enough to use fountain pens for note taking. These were not trouble free though. On hot days the ink would leak. Or the owner of an old pen would find the rubber bladder would perish where the lever used to compress the air out of the bladder so it could be filled, rubbed against it. If the pen was dropped, nine times out of ten, the nib would no longer work trouble free. It was customary for kids, and business men, to carry their pens in a shirt pocket, or if the pen was smart enough, in the top pocket of their jacket. (An important person might carry three fountain pens like this. Filled with blue, red, and green ink. The nibs, and the ink filling levers of these jewelled instruments were gold indicating the owner’s distinguished status.)

By the end of my secondary education the biro became ubiquitous. It was now produced by many new manufacturers and cheaper. With the bic, and the Victorian Cursive style writing, Copperplate and calligraphy marched off. Today my grandchildren have more aptitude with the keyboard than any epistle demonstrating mastery of enforced practice at handwriting. The little they do write by hand is printed in lowercase style, and when measured by the past standards, unacceptable to many of my former infant school teachers.

Does that matter? Surely expressing ideas and showing understanding of new concepts is enough?

I very much prefer to think my mother’s hand, or the writing of my late father-in-law Laurie, better conveyed true emotion. For their hand writing was masterful. A message of sympathy penned as condolence to loved ones really meant something to those receiving them when written so neatly. A message cannot be understood as meaningfully to the recipient as an email no matter how heartfelt the messenger.

(Laurie produced the most beautiful hand writing. Each letter was carefully crafted onto paper whether it was important or not. He learned to write so well with his right hand, despite having the tripe beaten out of him because he was a natural left handed from day one at school. (It is worth noting good handwriting is near impossible in left handed people because they cover their work with their hand as they write from left to right. They also have the disadvantage of using implements designed for the opposite hand.))

Those red and blue lined handwriting exercise books of yesterday did help many people develop signatures with sincerity.