Yesterday, I was lured into a stationery shop by a display of notebooks and pens in the window. It’s a minor addiction – a new notebook makes me happy. Even though I vowed not to buy more, I couldn’t resist this one with its satiny paper and pictures of leaves. Oh…and I bought a ‘starter’ fountain pen to go with it.
Two things prompted the purchase: reading that hand writing might not be taught in schools as an essential skill and the following widely quoted extract from an article in the Guardian 27th February by the nature writer Robert MacFarlane. Eight years ago he discovered that when “a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary was published…a sharp-eyed reader noticed that there had been a culling of words concerning nature. Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow. The words taking their places in the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point,, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail, celebrity.”
Wandering alone down the lanes of my girlhood and on through pastures or by the river in the 1950s and 60s, I frequently saw, heard, smelled, tasted or touched all of the plants, birds and animals named in this deleted list. At the age of eight or nine they were part of my everyday world. And I loved the names – catkin, acorn, adder, ash – repeated them like spells.
When I first joined a creative writing group, the tutor, novelist and poet Lyndsay Clarke, advocated using Anglo Saxon words as much as possible Several of the deleted words, like ivy and cowslip and adder are Old English in origin. I learned these words when I saw the living things in their natural landscape, so for me their meanings are multi-layered. The dictionary ‘replacements’ are hard-edged and airless. They don’t belong in any specific environment.
So, what about hand-writing ? I have always enjoyed using a pen on paper and making letter shapes that are uniquely me. At school we had ‘penmanship’ lessons – joined up rows of ‘p’s or ‘s’s in long patterns. It wasn’t a waste of time. I can’t think how it would be even now. Learning cursive script established me in a particular way. It’s obvious that a person’s identity is embedded in their handwriting. As a young child, I observed that my best friend’s writing had an entirely different character from mine. Seeing the way she formed shapes when we sat together learning how to write, helped me recognise her individuality.
My neighbour just received a letter from her twenty-five year old son and she told me that reading his handwriting was an entirely different from reading an email. Immediately, she wanted to write a letter back. Most people who receive personal letters like to keep at least some of them. You can’t unfold an email in years to come, smell the paper, study the writing and remember the person in the same way. I treasure a letter from my mother written before she had a stroke. Afterwards, with reduced motor skills, her handwriting became pinched and cramped, her identity shrunk, along with the space in her hand writing.
Buying the notebook and the pad was a small act of defiance. I’ll write draft stories in it with my loopy, untidy script, naming adders, acorns, beeches and bluebells, kingfishers and newts. No bullet points, no celebrities.