We should cherish handwriting: the scribbled one, the scribbled one, the stubbornly jotted one | Alex Clark

TThings aren’t what they used to be, and it’s hard to imagine a beleaguered institution suffering reputational damage these days sending out filmmakers, a composer, and a poet, as the General Post Office did in 1936 Indeed, it is now the filmmakers who seem to have shed light on the injustices committed against so many sub-postmasters and hidden for so long. But in the 1930s, collaboration between a public institution and the creative arts resulted in Night maila short black and white film illustrating journey of a mail train from Euston to Aberdeen, set to music by Benjamin Britten and ending with a poem by WH Auden, carefully constructed to reflect the rhythm and speed of the train’s progress. The GPO’s ambition – to present its service as modern, reliable and vital to the life of the nation, as well as to boost the morale of its underpaid workers – has been largely met.

Auden’s poem – until Four weddings and a funeral stopped all clocks – became perhaps the most quoted, and among his achievements is a deep understanding of what the position meant to its recipients; the daily raffle which can bring back brown envelopes from the administration but also a love letter, an unexpected card from abroad, an invitation to a party. “The talkative, the wicked, the boring, the worshipful, / The cold and the official and the outpouring of the heart, / The intelligent, the stupid, the short and the long, / The typed, the printed and spelling are all wrong.”

But outpourings of heart and trashy, nasty remarks are now more likely to arrive by email or WhatsApp, and rarely in handwritten form; the distinction between the institutional and the personal is no longer marked by the process of dragging ink on paper. The Christmas cards we so recently pulled from chimneys and precarious cords may be one of the few times we see the handwriting of our friends and family. If, indeed, we do: one accusation against the Royal Mail is that it has recently prioritized package delivery by letters, our birthday wishes can therefore still hang around in a sorting office and arrive in June.

From next year some GCSE students will have the opportunity to type their exam answersand this practice is likely to become more widespread in the future – an innovation that is difficult to dispute if it promotes an ease and inclusiveness that allows students to best demonstrate what they have learned.

But could we lose anything if we stopped doodling altogether? The mass shift of our lives to the digital realm – to-do lists in our phones, meetings organized by online calendars, endless streams of emails – seems to somehow flatten our communications, making everything the same, a mass of life indistinguishable. administrator. Or maybe that’s exactly what older people like me think, as we stubbornly take notes and reminders on often-misplaced scraps of paper, scribble our subconscious in their margins, cross out our first thoughts, underline our tasks the most urgent, express our daily lives in our outmoded and increasingly illegible writing.

Ingrid Swenson’s wonderful book Shopping lists: A devouring fascination, based on a collection she assembled in a single branch of Waitrose in north London, entertained and informed precisely because of its banality. It was an individual life story, from which we now know that a guest at Jamie’s barmitzvah reused his memory paper to remind himself that he needed Viakal, Shreddies and maybe – a point of The scribbled question suggests doubt – of golden syrup. Call me old-fashioned, but this is the kind of detail that makes me happy to be alive.

Alex Clark is a columnist for the Observer

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