It is no use: I cannot keep my eyes open. Thus, a repost, dusted down as it is taken from the shelf. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Scribe.
Once, I was shopping for a treat for my daughter, when it called in silvery tones from a stationers’ shelf.
It was distinctive: because it was made of hand-made paper, and it came from a country far, far away. When one opened it and shut it, it made a muted ‘flup’ which implored one to write. carefully, in its pages, archiving only the most important and beautiful of words. Once written down, they would whisper silently from the page in the most musical of undertones.
She loved it instantly: and ever since, handmade paper has been king.
It was the perfect gift. I snapped it up and, just as I was turning to go, I spotted a notebook which was singing my name, too. Paler, thicker, with a satin cover decorated with pretty gems, it said: I am a book waiting to be written. Take me home and fill me with words.
OK, I said. Because much of our writing is done on a virtual screen, these days. The creamy criss cross of hand-made paper is true luxury.
Writing on this paper has not always been that way.
Four thousands of years, Scrivener has been a vital profession, far back and further than the Ancient Egyptians.
But with the advent of printing these captors of the written word became less vital. Nevertheless they could still command a salary from the legal profession.
Roundabout 1392, documents from London begin to record people as members of a very distinctive organisation. The Worshipful Company of Scriveners of the City Of London seems to have been sanctioned by no less than The Archbishop Of Canterbury. Its purpose was to make sure all London’s scriveners, engaged in copying documents for the legal profession, maintained integrity in business and were competent in their work.
By 1498 a test was instigated, to make sure these learned copyists knew their grammar.
Over the centuries, members included Dr Samuel Johnson’s great friend John (Jack) Ellis. Scriveners were often fathers of the great: among their sons are Milton, Thomas Kyd, and Thomas Gray, who wrote that Elegy in a Country Churchyard.
My favourite – if most unsettling – scrivener, though, did not hail from these shores, but washed up on a sea of listless inaction, in nineteenth century New York.
Bartleby the Scrivener took shape in the hands of Herman Melville, of Moby Dick fame. His story hinges not on a plot, but on a character: Bartleby, a scrivener who would prefer not.
There is something of the grotesque pariah about this character; but reading his story is compelling. And it is told by a master. It was first published in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine of American Literature at the end of 1853. The story is told by an old lawyer who likes a quiet life and has designed a comfortable business which ensures he never has to do anything too strenuous.
Recruitment is not his strong point. He already has two flawed scriveners in his employ, and when Bartleby turns up his ‘sedate aspect’ impresses the old man. Perhaps, he thinks hopefully, this man will be a beneficial influence on the other two.
Bartleby starts well, gorging himself on written documents. But one day soon after his arrival, the old lawyer asks Bartleby to accompany him and the other scriveners in proof reading ‘quadruplicates’ of a document taken before him the week before in the High Court of Chancery.
Bartleby simply says: “I would prefer not to”, and disappears behind some screen or other.
The lawyer is dumbfounded: but there is something about this strange man that prevents him from taking him to task. And this is the first of many negative preferences, to a point where Bartleby is doing no work at all. It becomes clear presently that he is sleeping in the office; and when the firm moves he continues to occupy the premises. sleeping on the steps outside when the new occupants evict him.
I will not spoil the outcome of the story for those who have not read it: there are few stranger characters than this, who eschews, one by one, all the elements of a normal life, and all with courtesy and gravity.
That paper: it does beckon so.
It seduces writers young and old. It has framed our statutes and precedents in the legal profession for centuries, and before that the words of kings written were drawn to tablets and papyrus.
But paper is a call to arms for a writer and scrivener: a summons to move forward and act.
Which is why a scrivener unable to act, caught in stasis or inaction, or depression, is a terrible thing indeed.
It gives a whole new meaning to the term ‘Writer’s Block’.