Ewan Clayton is an award-winning British calligrapher and the author of the book “The Golden Thread: The Story of Writing”. It describes how the written word came to be, from ancient Egypt to modern times, and sheds light on how technology is making people rethink the ways in which they communicate.
I meet Clayton at Oxford University, where he has come to deliver a talk. A former monk and consultant to Xerox PARC, he lives in Brighton and is a professor of Design at the University of Sunderland. So what led him to calligraphy? “I got into it because my handwriting was so bad,” he says. “When I was 12 years old I was put back into the junior class in the school to re-learn how to write. But I was very lucky. I was living in an extraordinary village in the south of England which had a tradition of fine-lettering and calligraphy. So everyone started giving me books, and I just suddenly discovered I really love this area.”
Unlike some parts of the world, such as the Middle East or China, calligraphy is not a very common art in Britain. “The problem for us in Europe really is that our calligraphy is a revival as the invention of printing dealt it quite a blow. It retreated to the margins because it was no longer so important to society in general. So it was William Morris and the Arts & Crafts movement in the late 19th century that really revived an interest in writing. They asked, ‘How could you have wonderfully printed documents if you didn’t have a living tradition of calligraphy?’”
One strange aspect about writing is it was invented in different parts of the world at different times. “I think there is something within human nature that connects with writing. It is also something to do with art. It is the same thing that propels us to make pictures of things, or decoration outside ourselves that somehow stand for things. And I think that is what writing does. It somehow stands for something.
“So the Roman alphabet comes ultimately from hieroglyphics, [which] comes from Egypt,” he says. “And it comes from the phonetic component in hieroglyphics. That idea of the alphabet spreads out up north towards Turkey, down across Africa’s northern coast, and down across into Arabia and India. And the Roman alphabet is a variant of that. But as well as that, we have got writing that was invented in Mesopotamia that does seem to be slightly separate from the Egyptian [kind].
“There was writing in the Indus Valley Civilisation, which disappeared after a thousand years or so. There is writing in China, where it has a different origin in divination and soothsaying. And then there was Latin America. Writing seems to have developed in Latin America quite independently of everywhere else.”
The discussion turns to a comparison of the development of writing in Europe and the Middle East. “There has been a continuous connection with Middle Eastern writing systems right through European history,” he says.
Although paper originated in China, it arrived in Europe through the Arab world. “It came into those areas of Europe such as Sicily and Spain that were influenced by Arab culture,” Clayton says. “So paper is a really important part of that.” Another was the reed pen. “Both in art and calligraphy the reed pen was a tool used all the way through. Edward Johnston, that great reviver of calligraphy in the West — I saw his pencil case the other day and he had six or seven Iraqi reed pens that he used for his calligraphy. And I used reed pens for my calligraphy too. So these are the materials and tools. But there are also the decorative things. If you look at medieval illumination, you will see Arabic letter forms built into the margins. You don’t know what they mean. But you are entranced by the visual look. So it is built into the decoration of medieval manuscripts. And even coinage.” This is seen from Anglo-Saxon times right through to the high Middle Ages. “For us now, one of the most important things is the way Arabic calligraphy is taught. The use of proportional script in Arabic calligraphy is really interesting to us British calligraphers today because it gives us a way of measuring proportions in writing. And instinctively we have already been using the sort of rhomboid dot or a square thing that the nib makes for our modern revival.”
The influence from the Arab world continues even today. “Looking at the example of Arabic, I realised I have got a really wonderful tool for teaching Western calligraphy as well. Of course that was invented in around 940 by Ibn Makhlad in Baghdad. So it is more than 1,000 years old for the Arab world but it is kind of a new discovery for us.”
Developments in European art from Picasso onwards really affected contemporary Arabic calligraphy, says Clayton: “To see that happened is really interesting for us Western calligraphers because it [European art] hasn’t affected us so much until now. Arabic calligraphy is ahead of us in a way because it was able to take some of the abstract qualities that it saw there [in European art] and use them because it is a tradition of moving towards abstraction, which we haven’t had within Western calligraphy until modern times.”
With rapid advancements in technology, could old methods of writing be dying? Clayton appears convinced the written word still has its place. “I absolutely don’t think it is going to die,” he says. “In my book, I have the example of the bank in my high street that has stone-carved lettering on the outside which goes right all the way back to the Romans or the Greeks. Alongside vinyl lettering you see graffiti on the wall round the corner. You see an electronic digital pad in the wall. If you go inside you see the cashier using biros, the bank manager using a fountain pen.
“You see Post-it notes, which were developed in the past 20 years — they are new, they are not in history, but they are everywhere today. You see them stuck on computers. You see fax machines. You see rubber stamps. You see all this stuff from different ages in the history of writing being used simultaneously.”
On the question of whether newspapers are dying, Clayton also takes a middle-of-the-road approach. “Well, newspapers are certainly having to rethink their business model,” he says. “I still think that newspapers as a physical object have a place in the world. I read mine in the bath. You can read them in all sorts of different places and you can flick through them. You can see a whole range of stories much quicker in newspapers than you can on screen by just turning the pages. It is very easy. On a screen it is quite difficult to access quite a range of things, whereas in a newspaper you can flick to and fro.
“I think the other thing about newspapers is the physical document itself gives a context to a story. If it is on an outside page, the front cover, it means something more important than if it is on the inside because it tells you this is news, this is happening right now.” So the positioning of stories within a newspaper tells the reader how to read it, which Clayton feels is not quite the case on a website.
Another worry with online communications is a growing trust deficit. In the wake of revelations of widespread spying by the NSA, there are serious concerns globally about privacy. Jimmy Carter, former president of the United States, in a recent interview said he felt his own communications were being monitored by intelligence agencies. He revealed that when he wants to send a private message to a foreign leader he types or writes a letter and sends by snail mail. I ask Clayton if such privacy concerns could draw people away from technology.
“You are absolutely right. And if you read comments made recently by the guy who started the internet [Sir Tim Berners-Lee], he said this is a really serious problem because it means we can no longer trust the medium. And people will stop using it in various ways. He is urging everyone to encrypt their own mail. So actually we can see building privacy rules into the internet is vital for people’s future use of it.
“So there you have got the person who started the internet actually saying what Edward Snowden said,” says Clayton. “At a conference of media people in Austin, Texas, he gave the name of an alternative, encrypted search engine that people can use. So there is definitely a move for people wanting to do that. And just like Jimmy Carter’s, there is another interesting story out there of today’s equivalent of the KGB. They have just spent more than $10,000 [Dh36,700) buying typewriters to type their top secret documents. And actually I am told that the Indian embassy in London is also using typewriters for security reasons.” Instead of blindly using one medium, Clayton feels people need to select the medium that is the most appropriate for a particular use.
Was there something which surprised Clayton while working on the book? He mentions wax tablets, or more accurately the experience of writing on wax. “I realised that they were like recordings of sound in vinyl. They were absolute recordings of touch because the stylus sinks into the wax, or skates across the surface.”
Clayton’s father is a beekeeper, which is how he was able to get hold of wax. “He had lots of wax from bees. So I was able to use that wax and try. I found I had to mix it with olive oil to make it soft enough to write on. You couldn’t just use wax straight away.”
Outside of his usual work Clayton is involved with a number of charities, for which he was recently awarded an MBE. One of his more curious commitments is with The Pakistan Islamic Arts Institute in Lahore. “We meet in Dubai because it is half way,” he says. “We met last year in Dubai. We have been doing it probably for five years now and it came out of my involvement first of all with a group of calligraphers in Pakistan, and then moving more into the whole arts and crafts area and realising that actually it is a real source of employment. Particularly where you have a problem when people leave school and yet tertiary education does not pick them up straight away, there is a gap, what do people do then?”
They will have classes in Urdu and Arabic, Clayton tells me, along with some Persian influences. And the other area they maybe looking at is wood working, glass, metal working and gemstone cutting because there is quite a tradition of that.
Returning to his book, I am curious if he wrote it by hand or typed it? “Both,” laughs Clayton. “I used A4 sheets to collect notes, so those would be on my desk. I used a notebook to collect my random thoughts because I was always wandering and thinking about it. While planning the structure of the book, I used Post-it notes on a huge mirror on my wall.
“And then I began piecing together individual chapters on the computer from all this material. So it began as handwritten, but I also used the computer as a search tool. I could go out into the libraries, I could get the photographs of actual documents and things. And then the final work was all revised on the computer.”
Syed Hamad Ali is a writer based in London.