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This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, win a hamper full of language at the village fete.
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The first time I heard of graphology - the analysis of someone’s character through their handwriting - I was aged about 10, and I had a charity shop book called The Complete Book of Fortune. I read with interest and mild cynicism about how the layout of your moles reveals your personality, about divination from egg whites you’ve left out for 24 hours, and that it’s a portent of terrible times ahead if you dream of a walnut. The graphology chapter of this book didn’t amount to much more than “If your line of handwriting slopes upwards, you’re an optimist! If it slopes down, you’re a pessimist. If it goes up and down and up and down, you’re unstable.”
So that was my first exposure to graphology. My second exposure was in tabloids every so often, when they’d wheel out a graphologist to analyse the handwriting of serial killers. “It was a dead giveaway when he signed his name Ted Bundy.”
Let me warn you, listeners: when you are revealed to be a serial killer, whatever your handwriting is like, it will be interpreted to have been riddled with warning signs.
So, yeah, I didn’t take graphology all that seriously.
ADAM BRAND: It's known as a pseudo science.
HZ: And perhaps nor did Adam Brand, who has been a graphologist for twenty years.
ADAM BRAND: Oh yes. It goes back to the 19th century when I think it was a sort of joke subject people did; and it's had that image, and it's therefore been difficult to be taken seriously.
HZ: How do you feel about that?
ADAM BRAND: Well, it doesn't worry me. If people find it a lightweight subject, that's up to them; but there's so much more to it than people realise. It may not be something they can absolutely nail down with a scientific test but I think it's got tremendous value. To prove something is scientific is not easy. So I say it's a useful art.
HZ: Many countries do take graphology quite seriously - Russia, Switzerland, Israel for instance. As a practice, its modern European incarnation first took hold in France, when in 1816 Edouard Hocquart published the first full-length tract about handwriting analysis, The Art of Judging The Mind and Character of Men and Women from their Handwriting. And over the following decades, it veered between being controversial and scientifically legitimate and back again, sometimes enjoying wild popularity with the general public - whereas not everyone could draw up their own astrological chart or phrenologise their own skull or access the nascent psychoanalysis, Victorians could pore over newspaper supplements instructing them how to discover their unique true selves from their handwriting, at a time when the understanding was developing of concepts of the self.
And, simultaneously, handwriting was shifting from being a rare skill to being more and more common. For a while, there were various prescribed styles of handwriting, as exact as typefaces are now: separate hands for legal vs mercantile work, hands for the different social strata, hands for men, hands for women. In contrast, there were crazes amongst the upper classes for messy handwriting, as it showed that you were an original - or at the very least that you were way too posh and rich to have a job. But as the printing press took on more and more production of written materials, handwriting could depart from the exact styles set in handwriting manuals and professional practices, and thus be more revealing about its writer.
ADAM BRAND: Yes, it just told me what an appalling character I am.
HZ: Yeah, that’s the catch.
Before I met Adam, I sent him a sample of my handwriting and he analysed it, and he said:
ADAM BRAND: You'd be glad to hear that graphologists would call that very intelligent writing.
HZ: Ooh actually, I think there might be something in graphology.
ADAM BRAND: It's an intelligent, dynamic, sensitive, going for it writing. Very high form standard. It's excellent writing.
HZ: Oh stop, Adam! (Don’t stop.)
ADAM BRAND: Well my name's Adam Brand; I'm a graphologist, and I work in the area of recruitment, helping companies when they're deciding who to invite for interview. And I also do some work on the forensic side when one's looking to see who might have done graffiti or written an anonymous letter, and the graphological training one has gives you a chance to give some sort of indication as to who a culprit might be.
HZ: In both lines of work, Adam studies the shape of letters, the size, the way the writer formed them, the spacing of characters and words and punctuation, the pressure of the pen on the page - it’s not that any of these features in isolation equates to a particular personality trait, but he looks at them in context and the way they mitigate each other and from the overall picture, he deduces certain things about the writer. When working on legal cases, it’s not so much personality he’s looking for, rather he might need to establish whether or not someone was the person who did graffiti or wrote a particular piece of evidence or committed a forgery. For example, Adam was called in to one case where somebody was accused of stealing packages, and he had to work out whether they had written fraudulent signatures to receive them. Adam analysed the signature on the delivery form for the package, and then he watched the suspect write signatures over and over again.
ADAM BRAND: Somebody denied that they'd taken packages from another flat in their building and all these signatures came and they said it wasn't theirs. But actually, when I got them to fill in these little boxes about 40 times, they then started to slide into their own way of writing.
HZ: Often forgers will adopt handwriting characteristics they think are as dissimilar as possible to their own, which can instead be a real giveaway - especially if a graphologist is watching them while they write.
ADAM BRAND: If you start slowing your writing down, one of the things that you're checking in dishonesty is speed. And if somebody suddenly slows down it's a sign of, hang on, what's going on, they're covering up, you see. So if you start pretending that you've got lovely writing, people start getting immediately very suspicious because the speed is all wrong.
HZ: So if you’re planning to forge, practice your new style until you can go at competent speed. Don’t go in cold. You’ve got to rehearse for live performance as well.
In the recruitment side of Adam’s work, he’s looking for clues about the writer’s personality and emotional landscape.
ADAM BRAND: So companies that are interviewing people and they want to check what we call red flags - do we have a problem here that we haven't picked up in interview? Has this person got a temper? Are they prepared to work in a group? So it's more of the things you can’t really find out. And the classic one is do they have a tendency to dishonesty, because it's very difficult to ask somebody "Are you honest?" because what's the answer?
HZ: And even if they say “No, I’m not,” can you believe them?
But, while I am rather dubious of making decisions about a person based on a graphologist’s interpretation, I can’t throw out graphology with my bowlful of fortune-telling day old egg whites. Because when we see handwriting, we do make conscious or subconscious judgements about the person who wrote it.
ADAM BRAND: It's sort of frozen body language; that's what handwriting analysis is about.
HZ: Back in my youth, a man chatted me up on the basis of my handwriting. We’d been passing acquaintances for a little while, but seeing me countersign a cheque was his “Why Miss Zaltzman…” moment.
That worked out quite well for us both. Whereas a less fun example of handwriting judgement happened in 2013 after the birth of Prince George, the child who is third in line to the British throne. Most birth certificates in Britain are filled in electronically now, but for King Baby, the superintendent registrar of Westminster Council, Alison Cathcart, had to go to Kensington Palace and fill it in by hand. And because of her handwriting, she had people saying she should be fired, that it looked like a cat written it - she even received death threats.
Looking at Prince George’s birth certificate, the thing I’m judgemental about is that any parent can still fill in the box for occupation with ‘prince’ and ‘princess’, but whatever, kill the woman for her handwriting.
To my eyes, it’s perfectly fine, legible handwriting. But should Westminster Council have ditched Alison Cathcart in favour of a superintendent registrar with perfect copybook handwriting?
ADAM BRAND: But then of course that's dangerous because they would have been boring administrative dull people.
HZ: Can’t win!
ADAM BRAND: But often when you see writing that's very sort of - how can I say - irregular, people get very worried and I say, "no it's really rich writing that you've got." So don't feel upset when people say "What irregular writing you've got." Because it can be quite a good sign.
HZ: Although not necessarily. I’ve certainly noticed that throughout my life, during periods of turmoil or depression, my handwriting will be all out of whack. It’ll be uglier, messier, then after a while resolve again. Or another example: my father has Parkinson’s Disease. For years before he was officially diagnosed, we knew something was wrong with him, we just didn't know what; people associate Parkinson’s with tremors, which not every sufferer has. But the first real sign was that dad’s handwriting had transformed from swooping and dramatic to small and crabbed. There are many ways in which your brain betrays itself in your body, and because writing uses such fine motor control, something is more evident than in, say, the motion of your elbows.
ADAM BRAND: Yes, the nerve endings go into your hand, if you open them up, are the size - each hand has the size of a large umbrella. And I gather there are more there than anywhere else apart from, I think, the eye. So the connection to the brain is incredibly complicated. And that is absolutely why you know that close connection means that you can see things in your handwriting you haven't even noticed.
HZ: Or that you couldn’t control if you tried. We’re taught how to form letter shapes; eventually we come to do so without even thinking about it - and even if the shapes are the same and the method of teaching is the same, we all end up doing it differently. It’s this minute, involuntary demonstration of individuality
ADAM BRAND: Clearly your brain is doing the writing. If you pick up a pen with your mouth you can have the same movement. If you write with your feet - and some peopledo write with their feet.
I've got a photograph of a man who had both his hands blown off, and the writing before his hands were blown off, and after he had prosthetics put on, the writing is graphologically the same. So here you have the mind coming down into the handwriting. And it doesn't change even though mechanically it's using a different system.
HZ: So your brain governs your handwriting very strongly, but let’s follow this thought down the logical path: does it work the other way round? If your personality shapes your handwriting, can your handwriting shape your personality?
ADAM BRAND: I think the French would agree as you can, because they have a school called graphotherapy where they look at your writing and say, "Hang on there are problems here," and they give you a sort of yoga type relaxing, to try and get you to rethink the way you write.
HZ: Some believe that graphotherapy can counteract depression, low confidence, introversion, by retraining the way you form words on the page. For instance, if you want to improve your powers of concentration, make sure you are conscientious about dotting your ‘I’s. But deploy graphotherapy cautiously.
ADAM BRAND: Some people have a very low T bar. In other words, their self-esteem is very low. The graphotherapist would say, "try and lift that up, try and get that T bar up," and it's quite difficult for somebody to lift that T bar and get it up there. And there was a case - a couple - where the wife was taught how to lift her T bar, and it did have an impact on her, and after about six or seven months - because she realized that she's being pushed around by her husband - and she said, "I've had enough!" Her self-esteem increased; she had enough; and she got a divorce. And you think, hang on, this is rather a dangerous thing to do!
HZ: Grounds for divorce: irreconcilable differences in calligraphy.
Adam Brand is a graphologist based in London; his website is adambrand.co.uk. you can hire him to analyse handwriting of job applicants; you can hire him to analyse your handwriting; just don’t blame him if he uncovers your true terrible self.
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Your randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
jink, i. verb: change direction suddenly and nimbly; ii. noun: a sudden quick change of direction.
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This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman. The music is by Martin Austwick. Many thanks to Cheeka Eyers. Find me online - seek out facebook.com/allusionistshow and twitter.com/allusionistshow - and pay a home visit to theallusionist.org.