Each year, as Christmas cards start arriving, I take pleasure in recognising the handwriting on some envelopes, confirming that friends are still alive. On one, my name and address are inscribed in beautiful copperplate, of a kind that is rarely seen nowadays. And another is written in a bold, upright script, with a few distinctive flourishes. It perfectly expresses the character of the sender, someone I met at university 50 years ago: I know that, as well as seasonal greetings, his card will contain some entertaining (and probably rather cheeky) remarks.
Will this simple pleasure be available for much longer? Handwriting, we are told, is being overtaken by electronic devices and an increasing number of cards arrive with printed address labels using a variety of fonts. These are clear but impersonal, reminiscent of business communications.
Mastering handwriting is an important skill in the education of young children, part of their psycho-motor development. From an early age, most children enjoy drawing and painting, initially in a fairly haphazard way, gradually acquiring finer coordination. Learning to write is a natural extension of this process, one that contributes to both physical and mental development.
The chief executive of the Scottish Qualifications Authority, Dr Janet Brown, has predicted that over the next 10 years, handwritten examinations for many subjects are likely to be phased out and replaced with various forms of electronic assessment. This would certainly make the process of marking quicker and easier, and would circumvent the problem of near-illegible papers submitted by some candidates. But there would be a number of dangers in moving too far in this direction. Strong safeguards to prevent cheating would have to be in place. Cutting and pasting from the internet has become so widespread that some students seem unaware that it amounts to plagiarism. At university level, assignments are now routinely checked by software designed to detect material that is not the student's own work.
Electronic assessment is likely to work fairly well with subject matter where questions are designed to elicit short, factual answers. Its use in cases where extended writing is called for is more problematic. An essay, for example, needs to be judged not only in relation to the information it contains, but also in terms of the coherence of its argument, the way it is structured, and the range and quality of its vocabulary. But extended pieces of text, like manual handwriting, are increasingly regarded as tiresome anachronisms.
We live in the Twitter age, where 140 (or, for the wordy, 280) characters are regarded as sufficient to express a thought. Politicians expect their briefing papers to consist of bullet points on one side of A4. Serious newspapers with lengthy, thoughtful articles are in decline. The preferred form of news, to adapt the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, is nasty, brutish and short. Against this tide of philistinism, I fear the case for handwriting may stand little chance.
When the word 'deprivation' is used, it normally refers to one or more of a range of disadvantages: poverty; ill-health; unemployment; poor housing; lack of education; run-down communities; high levels of crime. But a comment by a survivor of the Grenfell disaster in the course of a radio interview made me think of the word in another way.
As the inquiry into the terrible fire got underway, he said: 'People talk about Grenfell as a deprived community. But it was not socially deprived or morally deprived.' He went on to refer to the many ways in which people came together to support each other in the aftermath of the tragedy, the spontaneous acts of kindness and generosity in the days and weeks that followed. In comparison, the official bureaucratic response seemed cold and hard-hearted, couched as it was in the predictable language of public relations.
I began to think of groups in society which are not materially deprived but which might be judged to be socially or morally deprived. Affluent people who live in gated communities to avoid contact with ordinary folk miss out on the richness and diversity of the human condition. Those who conduct their lives on the internet rather than interacting with real people are similarly deprived. Professionals who spend most of their time with others working in the same field can easily fall into routines that limit their social experience. The networking of lawyers, for example, tends to reinforce the public perception of them as a protectionist tribe. To describe this pattern of behaviour as a form of deprivation perhaps stretches the meaning of the word, but it serves to suggest that the restricted interaction of professional groups may diminish their understanding of others.
Similarly, a case can be made for saying that people who are driven by money, who see everything in terms of costs, profits and dividends, tend to become impervious to ethical questions about the consequences of certain actions (takeovers, asset stripping, job losses). In this sense, they are morally deprived or, ironically, 'bankrupt'. They lose the capacity to feel empathy for others who may be financially less fortunate than themselves.
The material sense of deprivation will continue to be the most important, but the remark by the Grenfell survivor reminds us that the concept has emotional and psychological, not just economic, dimensions.
The secret of successful New Year resolutions is to set the bar low. If you resolve to lose three stones in weight, or stop drinking alcohol completely, you are almost certain to fail. But if you announce a more modest target, your chances of success are much greater.
Last year my resolution was quite specific in focus. I determined to cease making disparaging remarks about adult swimmers in my local pool who appeared in January in an effort to improve their fitness. They usually lasted only a few weeks. Previously I had referred to them as 'shipping hazards' who 'cluttered up' the shallow end and impeded OCD swimmers (like myself), intent on completing their self-imposed quota of lengths. I am happy to report that I have managed to stick to that resolution. I have even come to admire the efforts of some novices who persevered, as they have gained in confidence and improved their technique, to the point where we now exchange pleasantries.
But I fear my limited reserves of niceness will not allow me to extend my benevolence to other areas of activity. Thus, for 2018, my resolution is quite different. I have decided to sharpen my journalistic pen and to stop pulling punches when commenting on public affairs. Generosity of spirit is all very well, but it can be taken too far. The various people who have featured in my SR columns – politicians, lawyers, council officials, chief executives, university principals, beneficiaries of government patronage – have hitherto been let off lightly. What is needed is a more sustained analysis of their record, most notably the gap between their self-regarding rhetoric and the reality of their performance.
I shall need to be careful. These people tend to be very touchy about their reputations and are not averse to threatening litigation. Facts will have to be checked, sources cross-referenced and evidence marshalled. If I manage to illuminate some of the dark corners of Scottish public life, without being dragged before the civil courts, I shall feel that my resolution has been fulfilled.