Writing: Making Your Mark

Earlier this month a group of 26ers, led by Francesca Baker, took a trip to the British Library to see their latest exhibition. For those who couldn’t make it, you’re in luck, as they tell all.

If you’re not careful, writing can be a lonely business. All that pondering and plotting and performing on the page. At 26 we like to gather our merry band of writers and word lovers together from time to time, so a couple of weeks ago we visited that place of pilgrimage for everyone who loves words – The British Library – for their Writing: Making Your Mark exhibition.

Starting with the origins of writing, which was first created 5,000 years ago in multiple locations around the world for often very practical reasons, such as accounting, record taking and communicating to the afterlife, the exhibition explores how its invention revolutionised society.

Styles vary across the world and time, and writing systems continue to evolve, spread and diversity. Each writing system has its own way of breaking speech into sounds and assigning symbols to them, and we see everything from hieroglyphs through to the Roman alphabet, and everything in between, covering 40 different writing materials.

The writers tools and materials matter. Whether it’s pen and paper, carving and stone, or new technological developments, the very act of making a mark matters.

People use writing as tool, craft, or expression of identity, and it is very much bound up by who we are as individuals and society. The exhibition explores what it means to write and be a writer.

And as well as the history of writing, the exhibition touched on the future, and how digital technology will revolutionise the way we communicate.

So what did we think of Writing: Making Your Mark?

Here’s what 26ers had to say…

Hester Thomas – ‘I was intrigued to explore how much more there is to writing than the simple act of writing i.e. the tools – something to write on, something to write with, the invention and honing of these materials, the development of a method of writing, a means of dissemination (or not) – and so on. It also made me realise how much I love my fountain pens and particular types of paper, the way each complements the other and gives me great pleasure in applying one to t’other.’

Wendy Jones – ‘It did make you think about the physical act of writing and how societies in different parts of the world have codified written language in so many wonderful ways.

There was loads to love, but one artefact that stood out for me was a vitriolic telegram sent by John Osborne in 1966 to the critic Irving Wardle, who had apparently savaged an Osborne play:  ‘…YOU SEEM COMMA INCREDIBLY COMMA TO THINK THAT A PLAY CAN BE WRITTEN BY A SERIOUS DRAMATIST TO SATISFY QUOTES THE ENGLISH APPETITE FOR SADISM UNQUOTE STOP…’ It’s the block capitals and the spelling out of all the punctuation that made telegrams so ponderous and at times entertaining. Text messages may be their modern-day successor, but I reckon they just don’t have the same urgency.’

Faye Sharpe – ‘Making Your Mark displayed a collection of ingenious inventions created to transmit human thought across the distances of space and time.  But unless there is someone, on the other end, able to decode, to understand and give meaning to the symbols, keys, codes and technologies, a writer’s voice is silent.  The writer, sadly, becomes reduced to mere ‘mark maker’.  Writers need Readers.’

Rishi Dastidar – ‘There was something reassuring about the fact that, as long as we’ve been able to, humans have wanted to be able to make some sort of mark that represents language. (I also found it hugely gratifying that Roman contracts and their terms and conditions, turn out to be as long and convoluted as ours today.) I particularly enjoyed finding out the letter ‘a’ developed from representations of an ox head – it suggested to me there’s something stubborn about being the first letter of the alphabet. The best bit? Discovering that my handwriting (analysed instantly by an app) shows me to be a vigorous, ambitious sort, thrusting for success? Wait, what do you mean graphology is bunk…?]’

Jill Hopper – ‘There were so many objects that caught my imagination: the driftwood used in Somalia to practise writing verses from the Qur’an on because paper is so scarce; the albums collecting together examples of calligraphy in Japan, called otekagami, or ‘mirrors of the hand’; the page of notes jotted down by James Joyce when he was writing Ulysses, slanting every which way and highlighted in red or blue pencil to show where each fragment would slot into the text. The feeling I came away with was a sense of unity with writers past, present and yet to come.’ 

Lisa Andrews – ‘I loved the whole exhibition – I’ve always been a sucker for paper, pens, brushes, stationery generally, so to spend a morning with lovely writers learning about the ways in which we write was heaven. I think the exhibition did an excellent job of making you think about what ‘writing’ is. So, for instance, I’d not really considered tattoos a form of writing (which is ridiculous because if I were to ever get one it would be an inscription) but like so many forms of writing, it’s about power and the idea that inscribing your body in this way was a form of protection, bringer of luck or a talisman is fascinating.’

– Francesca Baker

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