Revert to Type

Category: Writing

Maybe it is because I have such terrible handwriting that I have always had a thing for fonts and typefaces. From a young age my school projects were festooned with Letraset decals. I loved shading away with a pencil to coax them off the milky sheet, then fixing the letters to the page with a rub with the side of the thumb through tracing paper. Younger readers will have no idea what I am talking about. Older ones will be remembering Chopper bikes and rickets.

Computers arrived and changed everything of course. When I began work at a newspaper just over twenty years ago all the writing, editing and layout was already done digitally. Pages didn’t enter the real physical world until a plastic sheet kissed the ink onto big rolls of newsprint. But the presses could still be stopped for late-breaking news stories, and these were still done in old school hot metal Linotype. I still have a slug of it, my name picked out in reverse along the edge in little letter cubes. I was thrilled to be given my name in type on my first day as a trainee. It felt like I was being given a little shard of the trade’s romance and heritage.

My favourite fonts are Helvetica and Gill Sans. These are what I write and submit my stories in. Helvetica for the long stuff, and Gill Sans for the shorter things.

So I got very excited the other day when I drove down a little back street in Portobello and was confronted with my name in giant Gill Sans letters running down the side of an elegant old building. Finding the Royal George bingo hall made my day. It was almost on a par with that Linotype slug I still treasure.

Gill Sans has turned up in lots of places. It was on railway signs and timetables for many years, and on the jackets of Penguin books. It is still used by The BBC, Channel 4, Benetton, The Communist Party of Britain, Save the Children, The John Lewis Partnership, and The Campaign for Real Ale. The Church of England prints common worship material with it. The Liberal Democrats use it for their leaflets.  The names on the side of Cunard’s ships are painted in it.

All this despite the fact its creator Eric Gill had sex with his sister, his children and his dog, as revealled when his diaries were read after his death. There isn’t really a font that can make that information palatable. And yet I still value Gill Sans over most other typefaces.

There is an otherwise stylish and highly regarded literary magazine, which insists that all submissions be in Times New Roman. Ugh! I write my stories in Helvetica, as the good Lord intended, before converting to this awful typeface seconds before I hit print. I hold the resulting document with a thumb and finger at one corner like it is a week-old herring. I can’t get it in the envelope quick enough.

Courier is another ugly font but if you are a screenwriter you have no choice but to use it.  All screenplays are written, like this sentence, in 12-point Courier text.

This format was arrived at in the earliest days of Hollywood, based on the attributes of a typical manual typewriter of the day, and aiming to deliver roughly a minute of screen time per page of script. Every Courier letter is the same width, and that helps keep you on track for that minute per page target regardless of what words are actually typed. In the much more elegant world of Helvetica the letter I is a lot narrower than the M or the W for instance.

While I don’t like the font – I like the story about why it’s used – and the way it has linked screenplays for a century or more. It’s a wee whiff of that romance and heritage again. I’m still a sucker for it.

Thanks to a new book, Just My Type by Simon Garfield, I can now put a name to a typeface I already knew quite well. You know it too I am sure, even if the name Cooper Black means nothing to you. It’s used on the Easyjet logo, and on the front cover of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, and in the closing credits of Dad’s Army. “You have been watching Arthur Lowe, John Le Mesurier et al” just doesn’t have the same ring as You have been watching… Arthur Lowe, John Le Mesurier…” 

Good lord, I can see the spiv take a pull on his fag and everything. Evocative things fonts. Don’t get me started on Arial though. Or Comic Sans!




George Anderson

George Anderson received a New Writers Award in 2008.