Put the kettle on, sit back and relax while I tell you the strange story of the hands that have a will of their own. As daft as it may sound, this is a frequent motif in horror stories and even in crime fiction.
In the cinema it goes right back to Orlacs Hände (The Hands of Orlac), an Austrian silent film from 1924. It’s based on French author Maurice Renard’s novel, and its plot goes something like this…
Mr Orlac is a top-notch concert pianist. Nasty railway accident, Mr O. loses his hands. Surgeon does hand transplant, yet despite his lovely new hands Orlac can’t tinkle the ivories any more. Drat and double drat. And guess where the new hands came from? A recently executed murderer named Vasseur. And there’s that ‘Is this a dagger I see before me?’ moment. Guess what happens next…
The story, with its strong motif and (ahem) gripping plot, has had many cinematic remakes and reworkings. These include a terrible 1960 version with Mel Ferrer and Christopher Lee, and the 1962 American horror movie Hands of a Stranger.
In a sense these horror stories play on popular fears about surgical transplants. But up to the 1960s the tales were still very much in the realm of science fantasy; it took another four decades for such hand transplant procedures to become feasible.
These stories are also science fiction in the sense that it’s (a) one thing to have a “phantom limb” – the quite common sensation that a missing limb is still attached to one’s own body – but (b) quite another to speculate that a donor’s dead brain or his (it’s usually a he, isn’t it?) character traits or his very DNA (which Crick and Watson had only just discovered) will somehow be able to control a transplant recipient’s body and / or brain that are now connected to the transplanted (and now very evil) hand / heart / whatever the organ or limb is.
Yet you don’t need to dive into the realm of science fiction to find real instances of hands that seem to have a will of their own – even ones that are still very much attached to their original owners.
I will use a – sorry – handy term to describe this phenomenon: the “thinking hand”. To see the thinking hand in action in all its mesmerising beauty, I wil give you a dozen or so instances from the worlds of design, art, music, writing, cooking and craftwork…
1. The roadliner
Roadliners are the usually invisible typographers who paint the words and marks on our roads, using molten thermoplastic. Here’s a film about one such roadliner in Glasgow. Thomas Lilley works “freehand”, as they say. Besides watching his handiwork, keep an eye on how his (and his co-worker’s) feet also tip-toe daintily between the wet letters, with hardly a second thought.
2. The sign-painter
Next, a trailer for a documentary about sign-painters: traditional hand-letterers who do shopfronts, murals, banners and billboards.
Like many a skilled trade, this one almost disappeared in the 1980s when soulless machines came along with their computer-designed, die-cut vinyl lettering and inkjet printers and so on. The mechanisation “ushered in a creeping sameness into our landscape”, as the film-makers put it, but sign-painting is currently enjoying a welcome renaissance.
While that new documentary concentrates on the US scene, Dublin also has its own tradition of sign-painters. Colin Brady’s recent film “Gentlemen of Letters” is about some of them, including Colm O’Connor, Maser, James Earley and Kevin Freeney.
Despite the “Gentlemen” of the title you don’t have to be a man to paint signs of course. I’ve come across several recent examples around Smithfield and Stoneybatter, all the splendid work of young sign-painter Vanessa Power.
3. The bookbinder
Do you have a thing about bookbinding? Me too. This is a DIY project uploaded to YouTube by someone called Itai Shemer.
4. The banjo player
Gerry O’Connor is Ireland’s greatest banjo player (though I have a soft spot for Luke Kelly and “Banjo Barney” McKenna). Cue “Time to Time”…
Here’s Gerry demonstrating his playing style in a masterclass at the Milwaukee IrishFest Summer School:
5. The box player
And if you want another pair of virtuoso musical hands, check out Máirtín O’Connor and his band playing “The Road West”. Like a frenetic speed-typist…
6. The artisan
To cool things down a bit, here’s a trailer from David and Sally Shaw-Smith’s very long-running old documentary series for Irish television called, appropriately enough, Hands. Each gently flowing episode reflects on a particular traditional craft, from Donegal tweed to candles and curraghs, drystone walls and Irish lace.
7. The cook
There is something soothing and satisfying about watching good cooks making lots and lots of fiddly things with their hands, yet doing it so quickly, doing it “in their sleep” as they say.
The things in question may be complex patisserie, or Breton-style crêpes on a sizzling hot plate, or the weaving together of eight-plait Challah bread.
But these experts aren’t necessarily professional chefs. The cooks concerned could be simply (did I just say “simply?”) doing a recipe or technique handed down from generation to generation and soaked up until it becomes second nature.
I’m thinking here of a bunch of Sardinian women in a mountain village as their hands roll out handmade pasta shapes perhaps, or malloreddus – the local gnocci. Or the effortless hand movements as they separate the delicate leaves of twice-baked pane carasau or carta di musica – bread as paper-thin as a music sheet.
Or watch the Dumpling Sisters from New Zealand as they make “potsticker” dumplings. The “thinking hands” moment comes around three minutes in, when one of them rolls the homemade wanton wrappers. She does it slowly here, so you might actually learn how to do it too.
8. The cartoonist
When I first heard the term “the thinking hand”, the first image that sprang to mind was cartoon-like. It was of a disembodied Disneyesque hand with a life of its own. Or Mickey Mouse’s brooms as they sprout pairs of arms in the spectacular “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence of Fantasia. Or the Blue Meanies flying around on giant hands in the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine.
Anyway, here’s something much more simple: a real hand, drawing some cartoon hands.
9. The graphic artist
Not so long ago, magazines, newspapers and other printed publications were produced in a very different way, with very different machines and materials and techniques.
These included Letraset transfers and Mecanorma instant rub-down lettering, Cow Gum and spray mount, sharp blades and green cutting mats, Rotoring pens and blue non-repro pens, hot wax, cardboard layout grids, and Airbrush Artists who physically touched up photos.
And all that just to do a quick A4 flyer for your local takeaway?
Then 1984 came along. No, not George Orwell’s 1984 but the Apple Macintosh 1984, and Comic Sans and Webdings, and soon everybody thought they were a designer.
Let’s not get all rose-tinted about the pre-digital era though. No, hold on, actually, let’s do get.
Check out the British Library’s current exhibition Punk 1976-78, which has among its punktastic artefacts a ton of flyers and cut-and-paste fanzines with titles such as Ripped & Torn, 48 Thrills and London’s Burning. They were all produced by kids in that pre-digital age on a budget of nothing. The exhibition is free, runs until October 2nd.
Or look at this trailer for Graphic Means, a documentary about (the professionals in) that long gone physical and very manual era…
10. The calligrapher
Near the end of this quick tour, let’s return to how it began, with people who use their hands to shape letters. Oona Tully is a Dublin-based designer and calligrapher who has done workshops as far afield as Kilbarrack, Wicklow and Oxford.
Or if you want to get verrrrrrrrrrrry fancy, here’s master pinstriper Glen Weisgerber in action…
11. The writer
Let’s move on from calligraphy, with all its strokes and rhythms and swirls and flourishes. What about more general, routine handwriting? That’s mental not manual, surely? “Just” scribbling away, right?
Yet writing in longhand still has a certain manual pace about it: the pace of hand and pen on paper – so different to the clatter of the typewriter or the PC keyboard and screen.
Somehow these different kinds of pace and tangibility (and soundscape even) seem to influence and shape the thoughts and words. Like Marshall McLuhan used to say, the medium is the message.
The author John Banville writes his novels with a fountain pen, in an impeccable longhand, in handmade notebooks. Only then will he transcribe them via a keyboard. Yet when he is crime fiction writer Benjamin Black (OK, let’s face it, he always makes his Black work sound like he’s slumming it) he works directly on his PC. In one interview he explains:
I have two desks at right angles to each other. On one I write in longhand, on the other I transcribe from the handwritten version to the screen, or, if I am being Black, I simply face the desk with the computer on it and clack away at the keyboard, making that distinctive sound which always reminds me of my old granny shifting her dentures.
“The computer is too fast for my own books and the notebook too slow for Black,” he says elsewhere.
Susan Sontag would write with a felt-tip pen or a pencil. “I like the slowness of writing by hand,” she once explained. “Then I type it up and scrawl all over that. And keep on retyping it, each time making corrections both by hand and directly on the typewriter, until I don’t see how to make it any better.”
Will Self, on the other hand, wrote his early books on a PC. Then “when broadband came along” he switched to a manual typewriter. Now he uses his late mother’s Olivetti Lettera 22:
Writing on a manual makes you slower in a good way, I think. You don’t revise as much, you just think more, because you know you’re going to have to retype the entire fucking thing. Which is a big stop on just slapping anything down and playing with it.
Perhaps like the concept of “slow food” we should begin to talk about “slow writing”.
12. The architect
I didn’t make up the term or concept of the “thinking hand”. The veteran Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa did.
The Thinking Hand is the name of one of his books. It’s both a memoir and a treatise and a call to arms (or should I say hands?) to a society that has in many ways turned its back on those very hands.
Here’s a large slice from the back of the book:
In our current global networked culture that puts so much emphasis on the virtual and the visual, the mind and the body have become detached and ultimately disconnected… It is only through the unity of mind and body that craftsmanship and artistic work can be fully realised. Even those endeavours that are generally regarded as solely intellectual, such as writing and thinking, depend on this union of mental and manual skills.
In The Thinking Hand, Juhani Pallasmaa reveals the miraculous potential of the human hand. He shows how the pencil in the hand of the artist or architect becomes the bridge between the imagining mind and the emerging image.
The book surveys the multiple essences of the hand, its biological evolution and its role in the shaping of culture, highlighting how the hand–tool union and eye–hand–mind fusion are essential for dexterity and how ultimately the body and the senses play a crucial role in memory and creative work.
So there you have it. The thinking hand. And I still haven’t finished reading it yet.