In praise of the handwritten word

Regular readers will recall my description of a small orange book (see Have you been eating all the big nuts again?) in which my parents noted down the food they served to an increasingly baffling range of guests in the 1970s. One can scarcely imagine a book more exciting than one recording incidents such as the first time I was sick over somebody else’s trousers (the trousers contained an unfortunate gentleman named Ian. No doubt the menu that day of cheese fondue and blackcurrant parfait cheered him up) or the universal shrug that seems to have greeted experimental puddings – and yet such a book exists. Shortly after Christmas, a parcel arrived from my brother in New Zealand, containing assorted Christmas presents. The most thrilling item[1] was a blue hard-backed book with a plain cover. This turned out to be our baby book.

I say ‘our’ because the first eight pages or so are devoted to me, followed by another six or seven pages focused on my (younger) brother. Not only had I never read this book before, I had no idea it even existed. The most striking thing is how clearly delineated our personalities were, even at a very young age. My mother writes shortly before my second birthday that ‘she is very insistent on everything being in the right place’ and notes my need to arrange my toys into lines; Father comments a few months later that I ‘decided’ to be potty trained; that I ‘accept just punishment only’ (still true); and that I have moved on from arranging toys in lines to ‘patterns, which at first glance have a meaning that only she understands’. Just after my fourth birthday, Mother writes the following: ‘She has very definite opinions and tends to defend them loudly, with no respect for person’. I wonder if one of the reasons that this could have been written yesterday with just as much truth is suggested by Father’s comment a little further down the page: ‘I like her flagrant disrespect’.

What a precious thing this book is! In two different hands and added to over a six-year period in a whole bunch of different inks, it simply could not be replaced or equalled by something electronic. Its new home is on the middle shelf of a bookcase that my father made, next to a red book containing my maternal grandmother’s diary for the year 1930 on one side and the aforementioned tiny orange dinner party book on the other. On the same shelf the literary-minded burglar might consider, for example, a selection of my own excruciating teenage diaries, which are not nearly as interesting or well-written as my grandmother’s. A typical passage from July 24th 1991 (I have written ‘WEDNESDAY’ in scary loner block capitals underneath the date, apparently incredulous that anyone could have a birthday party in the middle of the week): ‘Nothing happened all day until V’s party. We played Musical Statues. J[2] was out almost immediately and spent the rest of the game pretending to be a coffee pot mixer.[3] In other news[4] R’s tortoise has started to attack the lawnmower’. Grandmother’s diaries, by contrast, are much stronger meat. There are her views on the war (‘Russia is being beaten and we are having a very grim time in Egypt’ she writes, shortly before a paragraph about how cross she is to have put on weight recently ‘despite rationing’), a description of her broken engagement to somebody called Chris (this is mentioned in passing and is not even in the first paragraph of the entry for that day) and a touching account of the beginnings of her subsequent relationship with a penniless man nine years younger than her, who later became her husband and my grandfather.

All of these entertaining handwritten offerings are special and wonderful, but only the baby book contains evidence of a small girl who grew up to make a living correcting other people, although I’m a little disturbed by my two-year-old’s tenuous grasp of both spelling and diction:

March 24th 1982
She is very insistent on everything being in the right place … she can speak very well, invent names and situations, and tell brief stories e.g. ‘Once upon a time there was a fox, and he went to bed’. … Vocabulary is wide and always growing. Her only failings are still saying ‘tat’ and ‘tow’ for ‘cat’ and ‘cow’. She even corrects Charlie Eddy on his (correct!) pronunciation of ‘cow’.[5]


[1] Not that I am suggesting for a moment that temporary moustache tattoos, videos of Blake’s Seven and a T-shirt with Popeye on it are anything other than exciting – far from it.

[2] Friend from primary school; boyfriend for a brief but formative period a few years later, during which I remember him breaking off from his usual thoughtful and elegant letter to draw a sperm whale. The whale was never referred to or explained in the text and I therefore felt it would have been crass to mention it in my reply.

[3] This shouldn’t be a footnote in this post, strictly, but it is the only way I can think of conveying the fact that there was a footnote to the diary entry itself. I indicated this with an elaborate and oversized asterisk like a giant blue Catherine wheel. The footnote (I have drawn a monstrous box around it with a blue felt-tip to protect it from the Other Text) reads: ‘what is a coffee pot mixer? J looked at me with scorn when asked’.

[4] A phrase I learnt from television newsreaders and use on almost every page of my diaries from 1991 to about 1994, when it is displaced by the much less interesting word ‘Anyhow’.

[5] Charlie was the same age as me and came from a family of farmers. Total, total fail.


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