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The disappearing art of handwriting

By Clem Sunter

There I was on the side of the aisle at the extreme back of the aircraft handwriting one of these columns for News24. It was the two-hour flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg in the late morning and you have plenty of time to read or write.

On the other side of the aisle was a young woman on her way to a friend’s wedding, while fretting that she had left her husband in charge of the children for the whole weekend. This I ascertained when I glanced across to see what she was doing to occupy herself during the flight. She had her laptop computer open and was playing the keys like a classical pianist. Her speed made me envious, as I am still part of the two-finger brigade that has to search for a specific letter or punctuation mark.

In a similar way, she was checking what I was doing and smiled. "That is the difference between the generations," she said. "You are communicating with pen and paper and I am communicating with printed text on the screen." We then had a fascinating conversation around how often she used handwriting to get her message across. It turned out to be making lists, filling out forms and signing her name. All personal stuff was handled by SMS or e-mail. Again I am in awe of the two-thumb technique involved in dashing off an SMS, whereas I hold the phone in one hand and prod it with the other.

She said her children were computer-savvy at the ages of five and six and took their mobile phones everywhere, even to school. But, and this is the whole point of the article, she grimaced as she added: "They can hardly write their names, let alone an essay or letter." It is true: the younger generation are beginning to lose the ability to write with their hands as they do it much more infrequently than I used to do it when I was their age. It is like sport which you have to practise to be any good at.

As I write this article, I have in front of me a letter written by my late mother in the 1980s thanking me for a wonderful holiday she and my father had in South Africa. She ends it with the words: "God speed, all the luck in the world, and you are and always will be our most dear son." Somehow, in a handwritten form, these words are so much more beautiful than in a printed e-mail which I might well have deleted anyway. Also they are part of my mother which nothing on a computer can really be. Handwriting is the extension of the spirit through the movement of the hand. Her style is unique in contrast to the printed word which is always the same.

There. I wrote this article without making one mistake.

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