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About A Week: Ordered Lines And Blots Of Reality

"Our schooldays were awash with ink,'' writes Peter Hinchliffe.

Dewsbury Grammar I was an orderly school. Throughout the day pupils were forever assembling themselves into queues and lines.

We formed neat rows and squares during gym exercises.
We assembled in parade-ground order in the schoolyard when a bell summoned us back to the torture of learning after mid-morning break.

We arranged ourselves row by row in the school hall at lunch-time, seated in large desk-benches, each containing four or five boys. When silence reigned our formidable headmaster came to dismiss us one desk at a time to the basement canteen.

The desk-benches had inkwells. It was possible to reach beneath these and, with a flat-of-the-hand blow, knock them upwards.

In moments of boredom, before the head appeared, a boy was knocking an inkwell into the air with his left hand then cleverly catching it with his right. Of course, the inkwell was empty.

A pupil at the same desk tried to copy the exhibitionist. Unfortunately he struck the inkwell at an angle. It described a neat arc before coming into contact with the gown of the headmaster, who had appeared without being noticed.

This particular inkwell was full. Ink sprayed onto the head's gown. Ink splattered the floor.

The head was not well pleased. He gave the boy three detentions. The school caretaker was even more annoyed. He was summoned to scrub the ink stains from the floor.

Our schooldays were awash with ink. We had ink on our fingers, ink on our cheeks, sometimes ink in our hair. It was as well that the school blazer was dark navy because cheap fountain pens often leaked into top pockets.

Those without fountain pens used old-fashioned wooden pens with replaceable nibs. These were excellent missile launchers. An experienced rebellious hand could flick ink with great accuracy at a boy on the other side of the classroom.

We who went to school in that era were in at the birth of the Biro. The sprawling squiggles which spewed from the tips of early ball¬points seemed to have been shaped by the metallic hand of a robot.

Mothers and school caretakers welcomed Biros though. Good-bye to inky splotches on walls and floors, shirts and skirts.
Ballpoints have been a boon and a blessing to newspaper reporters. When they're at the scene of a major mill fire, when interviewing a politician on the run between committee rooms, an expensive fountain pen is not the instrument with which to take notes. Journalists never have time to blot the ink.

During my journalistic career, I used Bics by the barrow-load, feverishly scribbling millions of words in Gregg shorthand.
I have owned fountain pens. A Parker 51 for instance, a sleek, streamlined instrument. This pen was far too good to be carried around. I kept it at home, for "special" writing. I bought a couple of exercise books, a bottle of Quink ink, and settled down with the Parker to write my first novel.

Unfortunately, despite the smoothness of the nib and the quality of the ink, the words refused to flow. What few paragraphs did emerge were tedious and unoriginal.
Reluctantly I accepted the fact that even the finest fountain pen can do nothing to improve one's literary creations.

Muriel Spark, author of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, held the view though that pens are important in the creative process. She wrote in black ballpoint, getting a new set of pens for every book.

If someone touched one of her pens she threw it out of the window. "Nobody is allowed to touch my pens," she said. "I lock them up."

A school headmistress banned ballpoint pens and ordered her pupils to write with fountain pens. She attached great importance to handwriting.

The majority of primary schools in her area have handwriting policies which encourage children to write well. "You cannot suddenly ignore that and think a ballpoint is good enough," she said.

I bet her school caretaker dreaded the prospect of ink splish-ing and splashing on his treasured fixtures.

Sadly good handwriting does not inevitably produce good prose. If only the writing business was as easy as that. Writers scribble then scratch out and try again, wrestling with ideas.
Often their writing looks like the consequence of a drunken spider straying into an ink puddle then staggering across the blank page.

Their thoughts and words live on though. In print.

If Shakespeare was alive today you can bet he'd be dashing off his words with a ballpoint. With a head-ful of thoughts and 37 plays waiting to be written, the last thing on his mind would be neat handwriting.


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