Tuesday, September 25, 2012


My daughter ordered a special pen, white enamel, with a thin silver nib that clicks in and out, and special custom cartridges in a tiny cardboard box. The pen was shipped from Hong Kong.  She tracked its passage across the globe - and when it arrived the unwrapping was almost ceremonial.

"Feel how beautifully it writes," she said.  As I felt the weight of the pen in my hand and wrote my signature across an empty page, I felt the satisfaction of nip pressed to paper,  the delicate  flow of letters inking whiteness. It made the act of writing, the physical act, into a sensual experience, holding me in the moment.  Wonder, not just of creativity but at the physical writing of words.  Wow.  Look what I wrote with this pen!

I'm old enough to remember when all grade school students, at least in England, wrote with fountain pens.  Our wooden desks at Claremont School had inkwells in their corners - small neat holes in the top right corner of the desk, under which there were little bottles of blue or black ink.  When our pens ran out, we would dip into those inkwells and open the narrow metal lever on our pens to draw the ink inside.

That brings me to blotting paper.  This too was an important part of the writing life.  If your pen was too full of ink it made blots - so you had to try the pen out against a piece of blotting paper - and later, since your ink was wet after writing, you laid a piece across your composition paper to dry it.  Ink stains on our school uniforms - on our school ties and clean white blouses were common, especially for the more messy students among us.

Then came pens with cartridges.   I used one of those for years. I remember once writing exams at Wroxton College in Banbury. When I ran out of ink half way through an exam, the proctor noted that most people used disposable pens nowadays.  I was a throwback.

But now a throwback - as in the case of my daughter - feels more like an early adopter.  Rozzie thinks it worthwhile to have a pen that will last. Disposable pens are wasteful, she believes. That's why she purchased this beautiful pen on line - and had it shipped all the way from Hong Kong - along with a special leather case with a zip, in which she will keep the pen, and which will look sweeter the older it gets, nestling in her handbag.

Over the years various people have given me pens.  When I left a job at NBC my colleagues gave me the parting gift of a Waterman pen and pencil set, with a little NBC logo. I kept that set for years, but somewhere between Caracas and Buenos Aires, it was lost.

Then later, my sister in law Kate gave me a blue enamel fountain pen for Christmas. In spite of its beauty, it felt too thick in my hand.  I used it for a while, tried it out for old time's sake, but then I stopped, and then it too was lost.

More recently, my beloved Freddy Bonnart, a retired British colonel who I befriended in Brussels, gave me a silver Waterman pen for my birthday. How did I lose track of it?   Come to think of it, that pen didn't use cartridges but was a ballpoint with refills - and the pressure of its nib on the paper was not particularly special.  It was more the shaft of the pen that lent it pedigree.  It's probably somewhere around the house - in a bedside table drawer perhaps, or in one of the little wooden drawers on this desk. Little drawers behind the computer screen. Drawers I never look inside.

Now I use disposable pens, Sharpies with very thin nibs, in colors that range from purple to rust to emerald green.  Every time I use those pens, or even when I look at them, they remind me of the pleasure that comes from hand writing - the pleasure of drawing instruments too - something I've treasured since  my sister Claudia and I would go down to WH Smiths in Surbiton and purchase boxes of Craypas oil pastels - or colored pencils in long cardboard boxes.  Those writing instruments, especially when they were new, conveyed a special luxury.  It was a sense of expectation - the promise of all the wonderful things we might one day draw with them, or the stories we would write with them, now that we had such beautiful materials in hand.

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