The Tells

The Tells --

Since 1971 I've kept a diary. What began as the staving-off of boredom has over the decades mutated from a ballpoint pen on scraps of paper and notebooks to typewritten sheets and computer files: millions of words written to no purpose other than make sense of myself and the world. So when I first read Erica’s journals – written longhand on recycled paper – I could empathise with her urge to use the written word as a form of therapy.

As a 9-year-old, I developed an interest in graphology – the study of handwriting as a means of analysing character traits. In Cardonald Library I found a copy of Nadja Olyanova’s “Handwriting Tells”. One’s handwriting, I learned, is as unique as one’s fingerprints and even to this day major corporations hire graphologists to select potential employees.

At McGill Primary School in Pollok I slavishly copied my teacher, Miss McKelvie’s handwriting – elegant, angular, a right-leaning angle of inclination – the type cultivated by calligraphers and artistic types. It's a harmless kind of snobbery, I hope, but whenever required to write by hand, I favour my Mont Blanc pen and black ink over a biro.

Habits die hard. Even though the opportunity’s rare, today so few of us are required to write by hand that whenever I see anyone signing a document I can’t resist hovering, searching for tells to their personality, just as I still feel the backs of pages for the weight of pen pressure or note the absence of diacritics. Often I compare a person’s body of writing with that of their signature, silently assessing the state of their ego.

Reading Erica’s diaries and other documents, I’m struck by her handwriting. Among her papers I’ve even found samples from her schooldays in Allestree, Derby and later as a pupil at The Perse School, Cambridgeshire, prior to her studies at Newnham, Cambridge and Somerville, Oxford during the 1950s.

Among her papers is a set of letters written to her parents during the late 1950s, announcing her meeting and falling in love with her husband-to-be, Dr. Gwynne Meyler Thomas. Dashed off quickly with a proper fountain pen, Erica’s letters reveal her at her happiest – the script large and expansive, the letters threaded – suggesting a quick intelligence and breathless excitement at what the future might hold.

Later, on the births of her two sons, Erica kept journals of their progress, reprising the small, neat hand of her academic years. In contrast her later diaries betray her depression, lacking what graphologists term ‘air’ in the body of her writing; page after page of small, tightly-bound script with little or no margin.

Written over decades, within these pages it’s possible to build snapshots of Erica’s mental state without actually reading her words, just as my early journals morphed self-consciously from a large garlanded script (optimism, generosity) into a spiky, angular hand (maturity, extroversion). Despite my best attempts however, there was no disguising my own psychological flaws.

The old ways persist but over the years I've happily embraced technology. For my 21st birthday I was given a typewriter by my parents that I used for my final year dissertation at Art School, but not my journals that I continued to write by hand until 1996. In the 1980s I bought my first computer but felt so alienated by the process I created a font - Mayhem - from samples of my own handwriting, a compromise I wasn't convinced of.

There’s something profoundly sad about the prospect of losing the handwritten word but I doubt it will ever happen, just as photography has never replaced drawing. In the future, though, how many people will leave, as Erica did, such tangible and unique evidence of their existence? Texts and emails can never compare with the flow of ink fixed forever on paper and the traits they reveal, marks destined to outlive their maker.

The image shown is a letter written by Erica in 1959 and addressed to her parents.

Comments ---

David Gibson Esq.

The world of handwriting learned from parents, teachers, copied from others. Developing a personal style, in freeflowing ink, the instrument, chosen pen; to write in time with one’s heartbeat and breath.

A time to pause, think, compose from words conveying meaning. Transferring onto the page, the paper so important, white, shaped, grain; all selected for mark after mark.

The letter is a drawing as any mark-making a drawing.

Of Joseph Beuys, thinking is sculpture, a drawing in the form of a letter is most definitely sculpture. And yet still a letter, a drawing.


“Peter from the department” – would that be Peter Higgs, or not yet?


No, not in 1959, I guess.
Interesting what you say about the handwriting – I obviously haven’t compared “early Erica” with “later Erica” as you have done, but the above example is immediately recognisable as Erica’s writing, even though the writing I’m familiar with is from later decades.


Thanks James – Erica’s reference to ‘Peter’ isn’t Peter Higgs, it’s a colleague from the Zoology Department, written shortly before she met Gwynne. Her later handwriting is quite unsettling – she left several notebooks in which her writing gets smaller and more dense with no regard for margins.