Thursday, 23 February 2017

Yours sincerely, scribble

God, I look a mess. Or rather, my signature does. I've been half-consciously dissatisfied with my analogue avatar for years, but this fuzzy background feeling of discontent came into sharp focus when my 10 year old started to develop his own signature.

He's a good kid and I'm proud of him in many ways, but even as a doting parent, I wouldn't claim that an innate gift for neat handwriting is one of his particular talents. Having said that, he's worked hard on his writing over the last year at school and he can now produce a neat, legible, hand when he puts his mind to it.

Except when he's signing greeting cards or letters. I've seen a gradual upward slope of improvement since he first started adding his mark to family greeting cards, some time back in pre-school, culminating a pinnacle some time in this last year, when I got a little glow of vicarious pride in a completely clear and legible signature that boasted "this is the handwriting of a literate, well-educated child - aren't we good parents?" But, recently, we got past peak signature and things have gone downhill ever since. Now I'm imagining any adult who sees a birthday card, or thank you note, signed by our lad silently judging us for producing a kid who can't write properly, or is too lazy to try.

But, of course, he can write properly. He's still making an effort with his school work and his general handwriting is still improving. What he's doing is exactly the same daft thing I did as a kid.

I learned to read and write to a certain level and was taught to sign my name at the bottom of cards, letters and suchlike.  So far, so good. But, eventually, I noticed that grown-ups and some older kids didn't just write their name to sign off. They wrote it in a special way, with extra loops and flourishes, exaggerated, elaborated, or simplified out of all recognition, until the name that finished off their correspondence was an indecipherable scrawl. Nobody taught me to to copy this style, but, to me, the people doing it were grown up, worldly and sophisticated, so having an almost unreadable grown-up signature became aspirational.

In went the swoops and swirls and simplifications and flourishes and I ended up with more or less the same signature I have today. The signature hasn't changed much in all those years, but as a kid, I thought it looked pretty cool. Today, I think it looks rubbish. Come to think of it, it probably looked rubbish even back then (except to my uncritical eye), because I was using the wrong tools.The style I was attempting could have potentially looked OK(ish), but in those days, a lad transitioned from writing in pencil to using a Biro at about the same time he graduated from shorts to big boy trousers [ex-lasses can insert the female equivalent of big boy trousers here] and attempted copperplate flourishes in ballpoint pen are not a good look.

Interestingly, one of the few bits of Orwell's 1984 that works as a specific prediction (as opposed to a broad satire on 1940s propaganda and authoritarianism which each subsequent generation has appropriated to label the real, or perceived, political bullying and obfuscation of its own day), was a throwaway line about how bad everybody's writing would get when people started routinely using ballpoints (I'm guessing that the "ink pencil" in this passage was inspired by Mr Bíró's invention, which would have been a novelty and shorthand for modernity when Orwell was writing):
Winston fitted a nib into the pen holder and sucked it to get the grease off. The pen was an archaic instrument, seldom used even for signatures, and he had procured one, furtively and with some difficulty, simply because of a feeling that the beautiful creamy paper deserved to be written on with a real nib instead of being scratched with an ink pencil. Actually he was not used to writing by hand. Apart from very short notes, it was usual to dictate everything into the speakwrite, which was of course impossible for his present purpose. He dipped the pen into the ink and then faltered for just a second.
This would work as a time-specific prediction for somebody of my generation, whose writing habits were formed in the 1960s and 70s (I turned 21 in 1984). But not for my son's generation (teachers have clearly learned a thing or two about handwriting since the 1970s), as newsletters we get from school these days contain the following guidance on the right stuff for your child's pencil case - "a black ink pen (not biro) - in Years 3/4 we request that these are self-inked and do not require cartridges".Orwell's line about not being used to writing by hand came true, too, although the erosion of handwriting by the routine use of technology (keyboard as opposed to speakwrite) happened a bit later than 1984.

Mind you, if you think your scribbly signature looks bad in Biro, just look at what you just did the last time a delivery person bearing a package got your signature on one of those digital thingies you sign with a stylus. A monkey could have signed that for you and nobody would be the wiser.

These days, I'd be far happier if my signature wasn't the one that looked dead cool to the prepubescent me. Just my name in my own normal handwriting would be fine. OK, the scribble is a fraction of a second quicker than writing it out properly, but who signs things so often that the time saved matters? Prescribing doctors, perhaps (and we all know what a mess their spider signatures can be), and autograph-pestered celebs (although these days, knowing how to quickly insert yourself into a fan's selfie, then gracefully slip away is probably a more useful celebrity time-management skill). But most of us don't sign things so regularly that the odd half-second matters.

Maybe I'm just turning into grumpy old bugger, but my scribbly signature now looks to me like a number plate in some daft italic font that some boy racer stuck on his pimped ride, fondly imagining that it makes him look like the king of the road, when it really just looks a bit prattish. The only thing that stops me changing is (perceived?) path dependency. I kind of think that so many authorities and organisations have my signature that if I started changing it now, it'd raise all sorts of questions and lead to confusion and delay.

For example, my passport just ran out. I'll need to send off another application soon. The signature I'd like to use in my application is probably sufficiently different from the scrawl they have on file to raise questions. I'm sure I'd be able to convince them that I'm not an impostor trying to obtain a fake passport, but is it worth the hassle? I even thought about phoning the passport office and asking whether it would cause a problem if my signature looked different from the one they've already got, but I couldn't imagine the question not sounding suspicious, nor could I think of a good answer to the question "Why would you want to change your signature?" - "Because I just decided I don't like the one I've been  using for the last forty or so years" sounded a bit feeble.

So I'll probably stick with the ugly scribble I came up with when I was too young to know better. But then I look at my son's signature and say ""Just don't do it - you'll regret this one day, when you realise that your normal handwriting looks way better." But I only say it in my head, because there's nothing like parental disapproval to turn a thing that a child already thinks is awesome into something that's definitely super-awesome, with a side-order of amazing.