The reader of unreadable things

Smith Journal - - Opinion - Writer James Shack­ell •

CAN’T DE­CI­PHER YOUR DOC­TOR’S HAND­WRIT­ING? LINDA WAT­SON, A WOMAN OF LET­TERS BOTH

GOOD AND BAD, IS HERE TO HELP.

FLICK THROUGH LINDA WAT­SON’S BOOK­SHELF AND YOU’LL STUM­BLE ON SOME UN­USUAL ITEMS: THE WILL OF MARY TU­DOR; A LET­TER BE­TWEEN CON­FED­ER­ATE SOL­DIERS; THE SEC­OND DRAFT OF WUTHER­ING HEIGHTS. IF IT’S OLD AND WRIT­TEN IN SMUDGED INK, WAT­SON HAS

EYES FOR IT.

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Wat­son is what’s known in the biz as a palaeog­ra­pher – which in her case means she is paid to read unreadable things. Not ‘in­tel­lec­tu­ally unreadable’, like the corkscrew syn­tax of Michel Fou­cault, but the lit­er­ally unreadable: an­cient, chicken-scratch hand­writ­ing scrawled in haste by peo­ple who barely knew their hith­ers from their thith­ers. The sort of hand­writ­ing, in other words, that in­spired the in­ven­tion of the Pen Li­cence.

Rare and an­cient manuscripts from all over the world find their way to Wat­son’s lit­tle house on the storm-racked Isle of Man in the Ir­ish Sea. When they ar­rive, she brews a pot of tea and tran­scribes them into read­able, use­able, com­pre­hen­si­ble English. “Most of what I do is wills,” she says. “Peo­ple are trac­ing their fam­ily his­tory, or­der a will from the ar­chives, and then find they can’t ac­tu­ally read it.”

Wat­son says the process is like do­ing a cross­word and a jig­saw puzzle at the same time. “P is par­tic­u­lar tricky. It can turn into ‘pre’, ‘pro’ or ‘par’ depend­ing on the di­rec­tion of the tail, so you have to look at the di­rec­tion of the stroke.” But de­ci­pher­ing the in­di­vid­ual let­ters in a squig­gle is just the first step to un­der­stand­ing what it might mean. Not only did our an­ces­tors have atro­cious hand­writ­ing, they also used ob­scure ab­bre­vi­a­tions, ar­chaic con­ven­tions and me­dieval slang – the Shake­spearean equiv­a­lent of ‘ICYMI’. “For­tu­nately, I’m quite good at puz­zles.”

Wat­son dis­cov­ered her tal­ent when a cousin asked her for help mak­ing sense of an old fam­ily will. Be­fore long she was field­ing re­quests from stumped read­ers around the world. Af­ter a few years build­ing her small busi­ness, Tran­scrip­tion Ser­vices Ltd, word of Wat­son’s pe­cu­liar skill reached the tweedy ears of the British Li­brary, home to an ex­ten­sive col­lec­tion of rare and dodgy hand­writ­ing.

She soon found her­self por­ing over orig­i­nal manuscripts from By­ron and Co­leridge (all that opium didn’t help the pen­man­ship), the Bron­tës, Wil­liam Wordsworth and

Jane Austen. “Most of them had ter­ri­ble hand­writ­ing,” she says with a smidge of dis­ap­proval. “Emily Brontë was very messy, al­though Jane Austen had a lovely hand.”

The work al­lows Wat­son to get into these authors’ heads. “It’s like I’m sit­ting be­side Jane Austen as she goes, ‘Oh no, that’s not quite right.’ Scrib­ble scrib­ble.”

You might have ex­pected hand­writ­ing to im­prove over the cen­turies, as lit­er­acy be­came more wide­spread. But Wat­son says we’ve ac­tu­ally got­ten worse. In El­iz­a­bethan times, tools for writ­ing were com­par­a­tively rare, so peo­ple took a lot of time over their words. By the 1900s, por­ta­ble foun­tain pens were tucked in ev­ery shirt pocket from Scot­land to Shang­hai, which en­cour­aged hur­ried, slap­dash pen­man­ship. “I’m do­ing some let­ters at the mo­ment from a man in China in 1905,” Wat­son says. “You can tell he’s a lazy writer. It looks like a spi­der has crawled across the page.”

Over the years, Wat­son has ex­panded the busi­ness, as­sem­bling an in­ter­na­tional team of palaeog­ra­phers to trans­late every­thing from Dutch, Ger­man, Span­ish, Latin, Rus­sian and Ukrainian. Only one doc­u­ment has stumped her, and it’s writ­ten in Ti­betic. Ev­ery Ahab needs a white whale. “It’s very hard to find a Ti­betan hand­writ­ing ex­pert. You don’t know any­one, do you?”

Ul­ti­mately, it’s not the ti­tans of lit­er­a­ture that tickle Wat­son’s in­ner palaeog­ra­pher; it’s the wills that first drew her to the pro­fes­sion – dusty ac­counts of or­di­nary lives, tucked away for hun­dreds of years. “I’m not both­ered by the great and the good,” she says. “Just nor­mal every­day peo­ple. With these in­ven­to­ries, it’s like they’re open­ing the door and say­ing, ‘Come in. Have a poke around.’

“Ev­ery morn­ing some­thing new ar­rives, and I think, ‘Great! What will I be read­ing to­day?”

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