Today, the word ‘pen’ is all but disappearing from our vocabulary; and the term ‘quill’ has virtually gone extinct. But 500 years ago, if one didn’t know how to wield either, one was deemed to be ‘inadequate’, to say the least.
Writing, in perfectly formed letters, was a much sought-after requirement, and scribes trained tirelessly to excel in this field. These days, although pupils are taught in kindergarten to write and form clear, precise letters, by grade four and five nobody’s really fussy about how their written work turns out — i.e., slanted to the left, to the right, or plain upright; whether the letters are rounded or squashed; whether consistent in height, or varied.
In the days of yore, however, if one’s writing was described as ‘copperplate’, that was a huge compliment. Copperplate, basically, is lettering that comprises thick and thin strokes, written with a flourish that recalls the writing masters of the sixteenth century. One tribe that will profess (and confess) to having not the slightest skill in copperplate writing would be doctors. One would imagine that because their profession deals with matters of life and death on a daily basis, they’d be the first ones to embrace good, clear writing so that the pharmacist doesn’t misread their prescriptions and provide arsenic instead of aricept, for instance; or cyanide for Cytoxan.
Anyhow, a part of this column is dedicated to a man named Arthur Stace, a man who had no formal education and, it is said, could hardly write his own name legibly; a man who, nevertheless, became so obsessed with the word ‘eternity’ in the 1930s, after hearing a powerful sermon on the theme delivered by a well-known clergyman of the time in Sydney, that he found he was able to write the word using chalk in the most elegant copperplate font — all without the least training. A man who had had a rough upbringing: he was both petty criminal and alcoholic before reforming and becoming devoutly religious, he took to writing ‘eternity’ on the footpaths of streets in various suburbs of Sydney.
At first, this invoked the ire of the local council authorities but soon people began to look out for ‘the eternity man’s’ autograph, as it were, a sign that he had visited their neighbourhood. And each time, the word would be chalked in the same, copperplate style until this too became a recognisable symbol. For years nobody knew who the ‘perpetrator’ was until, eventually, he was discovered and ‘outed’ and went on to become even more well known.
It is thought that during this period he, at a modest estimate, wrote the word ‘eternity’ at least half a million times on various footpaths as far away as 90 kilometres from where he lived, leaving a mark that many who still remember it say in some small way lifted their own lives and provided them with a positivity they might not have otherwise encountered on the day. As a mate of mine pointed out recently, it takes a bit of luck, when time and place meet on a common coordinate and, suddenly, a life that was heading one way could be turned around and take off in another direction.
I guess that can be said for the reverse, too. History is replete with stories of men — good men, greatly admired men — who have somehow, through some quirk of circumstance, some sense of ill-fated timing, found themselves trapped in that downward spiral from which, oftentimes, recovery is well-nigh impossible.
As Benjamin Franklin — often mistakenly named as a president, but who was one of the founding fathers of the United States said: “If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”
Arthur Stace, it would seem, despite his lowly and humble circumstances, managed to do both. A commemorative occasion was held this year to mark the 50th year of the passing of Sydney’s Mr Eternity.
Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.