Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Fountain pens, and Philip Hensher's The Missing Ink

A while ago I was asked to write a piece by a newspaper which never made it into print: it was about fountain pens. So when I was recently asked to review Philip Hensher's book about handwriting, The Missing Ink, for The Telegraph, I thought I might dig it out again. Here it is.

I still have my first fountain pen. At my prep school everyone used them: Shaeffers were considered the top of the tree. Mine, given when I was eleven years old, was an elegant grey Parker, with a gold nib and an arrow clip. It marked a move into the exciting adult world. My headmaster at the time carried a beautiful fountain pen which used a striking shade of turquoise ink: it represented sophistication and a little of the eccentric artiness to which I aspired.

Fountain pens are talismanic. They remind you of everything you’ve written with them, taking on deep layers of significance. They are used at moments of international importance – the treaty of Versailles was signed with a gold fountain pen. Though instruments of supreme taste (Waterman fountain pens were a favourite of the Emperor of China) they are also democratic, freely available to everyone the world over.

Writing with a fountain pen when I was child was in itself inspiring. There’s something organic about it. No more the unattractive shapes made by a ballpoint; now my stories were formed with luscious curves.

A fountain pen becomes an extension of your body. It was always impressed on us that you should never lend your fountain pen to someone else, because the nib ‘learns’ your grip, reflecting your idiosyncracies and style. 

This is in stark contrast to writing on a computer. I have the sense of another, distracting presence, that little cursor blinking snarkily. I’d lend my laptop to anyone. A computer never becomes part of you. In my experience they provide more heartache than pleasure. When you’re typing, both sides of your brain are employed. Writing means you’re only using one side, leaving the other to generate those all important ideas. With a blank page and a pen there’s nothing in between you and your story: the words and ideas flow, uninterrupted, the only, natural break coming when the pen runs out of ink. I still draft my novels by pen, typing them up every so often and editing as I go.

Writer Liza Campbell, whose memoir about growing up in Cawdor Castle was recently published, uses a silver italic Lamy. ‘I went to a prep school where fountain pens were compulsory’, leading to ‘an ever-evolving Rorschach Test of splots and the telltale blue tongue from sucking ink into the nib from a recalcitrant cartridge.’ Since she was left-handed, her teachers said there was no hope for her script, but, ‘with the arrival of an italic nib,’ she ‘became determined to conquer calligraphy. It took about a decade, but fountain pens allowed me to do this.’ The fountain pen as symbol of beauty and patience is here writ large; Campbell highlights, too, the necessity of precision and reliability.

We’ve come a long way since we first scratched letters into wax. For centuries, people wrote with quill pens, which required constant dipping, giving rise to a lovely eighteenth century slang term for writers: ‘inkslingers’. Romantic and messy, yes; but not so good on control and precision. Attempts were made at producing fountain pens: as far back as the tenth century, one was apparently constructed for Ma-ad al Mu-izz, the caliph of the Maghreb; however it can’t have been very good, as the technology was soon forgotten. In the nineteenth century, slightly more successful attempts were made, but not very much more so, as Lewis Waterman found out in 1883 in New York, when he tried to sign an important business contract with one and it failed to work; he rushed back to his office to get another contract, but by the time he’d returned, someone else had pipped him to the post.

It was this that inspired him to create what would become Waterman pens. He developed a new feed for the ink that relied on a capillary process, with air entering through the nib to create a consistent pressure on the reservoir. Which means a continuous, satisyfying flow, and cheers from writers all over the world. His company was soon leading the charge, making pens that were objects of art as well as practical. Parker, too, were constructing fabulous pens. Dave Ruderman, who looks after the Parker archive quotes founder George Parker, ‘the good thing about Parker pens is that they write in any language.’

So what’s the future for the noble fountain pen? These instruments are not dying out. Their style and adaptability ensure a following even now. Even Facebook has pages dedicated to fountain pens, with over 5,000 ‘likes’. In this digital age, it's pleasing to note that ink still rules.

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