On parallel lines

In 1947 George Orwell wrote this:

Mr Harold Nicolson… perceived [that] the only positive satisfaction in growing older is that after a certain point you can begin boasting of having seen things that no one will ever have the chance to see again. It set me wondering what boasts I could make myself… Mr Nicolson had seen the Czar, surrounded by his bodyguard of enormous Cossacks, blessing the Neva. I never saw that, but I did see Marie Lloyd, already almost a legendary figure, and I saw Little Tich… and I have seen a whole string of crowned heads and other celebrities from Edward VII onwards.

But my subject today is things which happened in my lifetime but which I didn’t see, and which were quite different from the world I thought I lived in then as well as the one I live in now. For my taste this is best illustrated by railways.

I was a child of the Southern Electric – and my particular corner of it, in south west Middlesex, had been electrified before the first world war. I understood that steam, though much talked about, was now dead; only diesels and electrics were to be found. As far as I know I never saw a steam locomotive in passenger service. My first encounter with a working steam locomotive was a footplate ride on an industrial locomotive at the Steamtown museum in Carnforth – and this was, decidedly, an exotic novelty.

I was in fact nearly five before British Rail finally dispensed with steam, and their last steam locomotive, as is well known, was built in 1960, only three years before I was born. These may be thought of as residual. But the former London & South Western Railway main line to Southampton and Bournemouth – perhaps the principal main line of the Southern Region – was steam worked until 1967. Many of the minor railways which were closed post-Beeching were operating into my lifetime. We went on holiday to east Devon in June 1966, and paid a visit to Lyme Regis. Lyme Regis had lost its railway only seven months before, and it was worked as late as 1960 by William Adams’s radial tank engines of the 1870s, which would have seemed to me quite impossibly historic.

Steam, then, played no part in my emerging consciousness except as something legendary. I thought I not only never had seen, but never could see steam in regular service, but other people were then regularly seeing Oliver Bulleid’s by now decidedly grubby Merchant Navy pacifics as close to our home as Surbiton, and I certainly could have seen them at Waterloo on family visits to London. The historical record shows that it was so. But what the record shows is not something I have a sense of, even though it was contemporary with me. When I examine the record of this part of railway history, especially in photographs, it requires an effort of imagination, just as a genuinely remote age does, to use what the documents show to re-create it as an age of living, feeling people. We all have a sense of the ages we have lived through; but here is a corner of life where two quite different senses were formed concurrently by different people – and they do not touch.


The moving finger writes

The Society for Italic Handwriting, which has existed for over sixty years, is nowadays a small body of dedicated enthusiasts – despite having an international membership it is so small that it can no longer afford to hold the meetings and workshops which were once a large part of its activities. It cannot afford even to hold an AGM; the committee has to be re-elected, and the accounts adopted, by postal ballot sent out with the society’s journal. This journal, Writing Matters, is still a finely-produced, serious and readable publication, but how much longer can it continue when the society is steadily losing money?

It was very different at the start. Alfred Fairbank, whose publications pretty much began the Italic revival in the 1920s, recalled that though interest had at first been small, shortly after World War II

there arose quickly, from causes unknown, an interest in handwriting… The pressure of this new interest on the Society of Scribes and Illuminators was an embarrassment; for the Society’s concern was illuminated manuscripts and professional calligraphy. Accordingly, Miss Heather Child, then honorary secretary… at my instigation put to the committee a proposal to found a Society for Italic Handwriting. At the inaugural meeting in November 1952 Sir Francis Meynell spoke in favour…*

Anna Hornby, who served as the new society’s secretary in the 1960s, records* that an initial membership of 63 rose to 500 by the end of its first year and rapidly thereafter. The society was active in three fields: teaching, by such means as courses and members’ days; propaganda; and research into original manuscripts (of, largely, the sixteenth century writing masters).

According to Anna Hornby, early analysis showed that about a third of the society’s membership came from the world of education, and by 1965 Italic was slowly entering schools, successfully when well-taught. I see the post-war surge of interest in handwriting as part of the larger flourishing of social liberalism and creative ideas at that time, which showed itself especially in primary schools. The italic handwriting movement was one result: it put an artistic achievement within reach of every pupil through subjecting them to the discipline of the underlying rhythm and of practising the characteristic letterforms. (This incidentally gives the lie to the view that progressive educators lacked high standards or rigour, but that is a subject for another day.)

That social liberalism and creativity have declined. The laptop, the smartphone and the tablet have for many caused handwriting to drop out of use. It is these phenomena that between them have probably caused the decline of the Society for Italic Handwriting. But what if its enthusiasts, resolute as they are, were to dry up or become too few to sustain a society? What would remain to posterity? The society has an archive: some of it would be put on display when the society still held meetings. This could doubtless be deposited in a scholarly library. But a historian’s interest in the archive would be a very specialised kind of historical study, and could be no more than a historical study – a fascination with, or a marvelling at, what once was, leading to a desire to tell its story and illuminate its times. The vein of enthusiasm which sustained the society might be conjured up by such a study, but when the vein of enthusiasm itself disappears it is lost – it cannot be archived.

The loss of an enlightened social movement such as this is like the death of a language: a part of humanity is gone. Perhaps a future generation will re-create it, but it is easier to rekindle a flame if the embers are still alight. How can they be kept alight, to illuminate the present age as well as the future?

*J A Cole, “A Scholar Penman”; Anna Hornby, “The Society for Italic Handwriting”, both in A S Osley (ed.) Calligraphy and palaeography: essays presented to Alfred Fairbank on his 70th birthday. Faber & Faber, 1965.