LATELY — 21 July 2000


At my primary school, you wrote in pencil until you reached grade four. At some time during that year, your teacher (mine: Miss Webb) would present you with a Pen License. Only those who held a Pen License were permitted to write in pen (the instrument of grown-ups). Only they were able to make their letters permanent.

Pen Licenses were not dispensed like toilet paper. Holders were expected to exhibit a certain level of maturity (after all, one could not erase what one had written), but the main criteria was the handsomeness of your letters.

All students were taught the same, government-mandated alphabet; Pen Licenses were only granted to those who formed their loops just so, whose ascenders and descenders ascended or decended the right and proper amount, whose letters came out neatly, one after another, placed neatly on the baseline, and not in clumps. It was a difficult thing to get right.

A Pen License was not to be taken lightly. It could be revoked at any time. Do you know how it feels to write in pencil after writing in pen?

There was a temptation for those newly liscensed to slacken off. The Pen License had required weeks of work, of intense concentration, to attain. And that effort had taken a toll. Now one wrote quickly, sloppily, not as neatly as before. Some became arrogant and smug, flaunting their inked letters in front of their pencil-using friends. They were the ones who quickly found themselves with pencils once again.

I was reminded of all this because tonight I’ve been working on my lettering. My “N” is truly awful. The second vertical line departs at an angle not-quite-vertical, before bending upwards. (That is, somewhat like the profile of an erect penis.) And my “D” is an ugly, mis-shapen beast. (The “D” is an important letter. It’s the first, scene-setting letter of “Dear”, as in “Dear Zoe”, “Dear Nanna” or “Dear Sir”. So it must be got right.) Other unsatisfactory letters include the “B”, “E”, “G”, and (especially) “k”. My “C” was a little screwy too, but I think I fixed it.

I am not sure what to do about my “a”. I presently have two ways of doing it. Where I can, I write it like a printed “a”, a small loop with a handle above it. But in some positions this is inconvenient, so I revert to writing it like a cut-down “d”.

(Those who expect stories to have endings should read Jack London’s The Sun Dog Trail.)

I missed some: Clem, Clay.

(Thanks to Michele, who also suggested “Cleathhiff”. I think this was supposed to be funny. We were not amused.)