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.)