Do you remember learning to write? I don’t think I do. So I guess my schooling lacked anything like the educational trauma Worthian Ewan Clayton (in Chapman House in the 1970s) recalls at the beginning of The Golden Thread.
At the age of six, he burst into tears on discovering that his print script for the letter ‘f” was, apparently, wrong. At age 12 and having just arrived at Worth, he tells us that he found himself ignominiously booted back to the bottom class to sort out “what shapes letters ought to be”.
Now a professional calligrapher of international standing, Professor in Design at the University of Sunderland and newly minted MBE (Queen’s New Year Honours, 2014) for services to calligraphy, Ewan is uniquely well placed to assess the effectiveness (or otherwise) of this educational strategy. It has to be said that, if The Golden Thread is anything to go by, something seems to have worked.
Over 12 chapters in this recently published book, Ewan is our guide to how “writing – at its best – can celebrate the whole way we explore the material world”. His theme is how, throughout human history, people, “Wake space” (as the American poet Allen Ginsberg puts it) when we “take this wheel of syllables in hand”. The physical act of writing “is like a profuse garden, a kitchen of activity, a parliament of voices”, Ewan tells us, and his book guides us, the reader, to recognise that in touring the history of the written word we find ourselves alternately challenged and enriched by the sheer variety of blooms, the array of tastes, and interplay of discourses we will encounter.
The cover of The Golden Thread offers us a portrait of the 19th Century Cherokee statesman, Sequoyah, the originator of the first writing system for a Native American language. Pipe in mouth, the turbaned scribe sits beside his pen and inkpot, pointing us towards the written product of his labours, a page of Cherokee text. Until Sequoyah showed them otherwise, his compatriots had viewed the “talking leaves” as a white man’s preserve. Appropriately, Sequoyah’s name is now immortalised in the botanical name of the Giant Redwood trees of his native land.
As The Golden Thread demonstrates, the written word towers as high as the giants of the Sequoia National Forest.