Writing with pens seems so old-fashioned! Who does it? Who writes with a pen these days? Um? Nobody, that’s who! A pen is an anachronism, right?
Well, in a recent blog post titled: “How to write with passion” (https://neilmach.me/2020/10/21/how-to-write-with-passion/) I suggested several exercises that might help bring passion back into your creative writing. One of my suggestions was to use a “time machine” to return to a more virtuous and guileless time in your life (nothing expensive or technical, I emphasise, I just wanted you to get some modelling clay or a magic painting book and “play” with those creative elements to free your mind of 20/20 worries.)
So after blogging my post I speculated how I could take my own advice and I think I came up with the pretty cool idea. I decided to get myself a fountain pen. Yes, a fountain pen!
The last time I “bothered” to use an ink pen was in the mid-1980s, when I became half interested in calligraphy (I’ve always had horrible handwriting and I thought, maybe mistakenly, that calligraphy would help me… note: it didn’t). The reason my handwriting is atrocious is because my “hand can’t keep up with my mind.” For many years I have written in a kind of shorthand (part Pitman, part scrawl). This is very useful for taking notes (I am a journalist by semi-profession) but the output is hardly legible and very far from artistic!
When I first went to school (in the early sixties) we used “dip pens.” If you don’t know what they are, you are very lucky. They are like Beelzebub’s bloody bayonets, especially in the tiny hands of a five-year-old. About 6 inches long, and made of wood, with a replaceable nib (can I have a new nib, miss?) the instrument had no ink reservoir, so you had to continually “dip” the scratchy pointed end in the inkwell which was (a hole) on the edge of your desk.
One of the first things you did, as a school kid in those dark days, was to make yourself a blotter. Each of you were given a lovely slice of blotting paper and you had to stick a card on the back and draw a picture on the “un-used” side (mine was a picture of a ginger cat, I remember) and then put your name on it. Blotters were “precious,” so God help you if you misplaced yours. And, good grief, I had to use that darned thing all the time. Over and over. I’m sure I didn’t write a single word without making a mess. An ink stain would spread, like a splatter of blood, from the end of every painful word. Good grief! It was excruciating. It was unbearable. Perhaps more so for me because I longed to write — I hungered to write. I suppose the smartest kids in my class might have been able to write a few words, successfully, without setbacks and blotches, but I was never one of them.
My experience with dip pens was one of embarrassment, frustration, and sometimes tense despair as I tried to pen more than three words without having to stop, re-ink, re-blot, and then have myself a little sob. Imagine writing three words a minute. Then try to imagine writing an essay at that speed. And of course my little cold fingers, then my palms, and soon or later all my clothes would be stained blue with “school ink.” I often wonder how many aspiring authors of my generation were put off by those blasted dip-pens. Even now, I feel myself becoming maddened by the stupid things.
But, at the age of about eight, we were expected to graduate from dip pens to fountain pens. This was a rite of passage, and anyone my age (from Great Britain) will remember it. Usually the schoolkids got their first proper fountain pen on their eighth birthday (or the Christmas nearest that date) and it came nested in a plastic box. It was (purportedly) a thing of immense beauty… you could tell how amazing it was because all the adults in your life would look wide-eyed when you opened your box and they couldn’t hold-back their gasping oohs and aahs as you pulled the pen from its velveteen nest. The adults admired it as if it was a baby dragon.
In the U.K. we only had one brand: Parker. So it would have been a Parker that you lifted from the velveteen. Your first real pen. Actually, that last bit is not true. There were other fountain pens available (which were so out of our reach, for example those made by Montblanc, that they might as well have been available only on Mars, for all it mattered. ) And, conversely, the high street giants WH Smith (and Woolworths) sold their own pale imitations of Parker pens. And that’s what I got on my eighth birthday. I was gifted with a “Winfield Wonder”, also known as Woolie’s own brand.
But before you take your violin out of its case to play me a sad Adagio, let me tell you that my Winfield “Parker” was as good as the real thing. Better. It was stupendous. It was incomparable to the hideous dip pens. You had your own Quink pot (my Quink never ran out, though they could dry away if you left the lid off, it happened to my sister, never a good idea) and you filled the tank in the pen by squeezing some plastic bladdery thing at the end, using the tweezery thing that was a metal calliper thingy. This allowed the little bladder to suck up a quantity of Quink (that was the trade name for the ink they sold in the high street Woolworths, in case you’ve been wondering) and then you could write a page, maybe even a page and a half, without interruption. It was a blessing! Everyone loved their fountain pens. You would carry it in your blazer pocket, and if you were lucky enough to own a real Parker, the arrow on the pen clip (the brand’s emblem) was a badge of honour. The less wealthy kids in my school kept their pens in the inside pocket to hide away the sad Winfield logo.
There’s an insufferable advert on UK telly which is evidently aimed at people from my generation (because they’re selling funeral insurance, thank you) and their fantastic — almost unbelievable offer is that they’ll send you a real Parker Pen “just for applying...” Wow, you may own a great family home, you will have raised and financed two children and got them off your hands and into university, you will have bought yourself a quality car, you’d probably possess everything you ever dreamed of back in the Sixties except that one illusory thing… the most ultra-seductive and almost unattainable item in the world…what is it? A f*****g Parker pen! And this bunch of scammers and scuzzball con-artists will send you your heart’s greatest desire “just for applying.”
At about the age of fourteen, they invented cartridge pens with modern plastic ink cartridges. In reality, cartridge pens had existed for years before that, but their original cartridges were bulky and impossible to dispose of. A cartridge pen is basically a fountain pen, with the same tip and all that, but instead of the bladder and calliper setup I tried to describe earlier, with these pens you had a disposable ink tube that snapped into the end of the whole thing with a bite. You then screwed the pen up and it was ready to write. No more Quink bottles, no more smudges, no more finger spots. Well, that’s the theory, anyway. If I remember correctly, the cartridge had to make a gratifying click when the whole mechanism came together. If you didn’t do this … heaven help you! Because then the cap would secretly fill with ink and the next time you used the pen, bam! the thing became an ink bomb and when it exploded you’d be puddled and splotched. Of course, by then you wouldn’t have a homemade blotter any more (not required, said the adverts) so the ink would go everywhere. Most of my friends flannelled the ink up with the sleeves of their school blazers. That’s because your mother never saw the condition of your jacket sleeves, she only inspected your shirt, underwear, and trousers.
Ballpoint pens had been popular (overseas) since the 1950s, but they weren’t really seen in the UK until BICS and other pens were aggressively marketed in television commercials. Papermates! Click click! When you were around 14 years old, you would probably get what they called a “gift set” for Christmas. This would be (if your parents were rich) a set in a box that included a Parker Cartridge pen, a Parker ballpoint pen and a Parker propelling pencil. The propelling pencil rarely worked, the ballpoint pen only lasted half a school term, and all that was left was the Parker Pen and it wasn’t required because your old one still worked well. (Of course I was given the substandard Winfield version of this gift set, but don’t get me wrong, I was happy with it and very grateful.)
When I finally dropped out of school and started working in the City of London in the early 1970s, we were no longer using ink pens. From then on, everyone used ballpoint pens (fibre tips were popular too). And throughout my entire working life since then, I never touched an ink pen again.
Except. Except, now. Yes, I know that fountain pens no longer seem a very sensible writing tool. And I know they are useless for everyday use, but the humble ink pen has somehow been elevated to the status of “uplifting life accessory” in this very odd year. Yes, ink pens are seen in the same way that starched cotton or artisan bread is seen. They have somehow been transfigured in our collective imagination (from something horrid and unpleasant) to become something wonderfully healthy just because they come from a simplistic time, so they are comforting in a kitschy nostalgic way.
So I looked-up fountain pens on eBay (other multinational e-commerce corporations are available) and was surprised and delighted by what I found. Everyone else has apparently had the same thought as me (probably inspired by the free Parker pens offered by those lowlife scumbag funeral people, I expect) and so the market is full of magnificent & outstanding quality ink pens, impressive looking, too. In all shades and colours. And at incredible prices.
So, I bought myself a solid blue marble gold-tipped Jinhao fountain pen (Jinhao pens are made in China by Shanghai Qiangu Stationery Company) that has been built to look and feel like a classic Montblanc. (The Jinhao motto is something along the lines of: “this is not a fancy pen… it just looks and feels like one.”)
And, my word, when I unpacked it, I was blown away. It has the same balance, weight, radiance and irrefutable elegance of a classic Montblanc. (To be honest, not that I’d actually know, I have never handled a Montblanc pen, but this is from an entirely Parker driven perspective) — my gosh — this is a wonderful pen. It’s the best pen I’ve ever owned. Not strictly a fountain pen (it came with five cartridges), it penned (I hope that’s the verb) so flawlessly and effectively that I went and got myself a pad of writing paper just to write some rubbish. It’s so good, in fact, that I put another three Jinhao pens into my wish list… and here’s the most staggering thing of all: my new pen cost me £6.99 (postage included.) What? Yeah, you heard right, just seven bucks. The one I want next has the map of the universe on its side. It will cost a whopping eight bucks. And there’s one with a compass on the lid (five bucks) and one entirely made from rosewood ( this is really expensive, though, it will cost me a tenner if I put it in my basket.) You can even get a pure chrome one for sick squid and a clear blue transparent one for the price of a Starbuck’s Caramel Grande. What you waiting for?
Right, where is the blotter? Let’s get some more ink writing done…
Comment below or tweet me @neilmach
Words: @neilmach 2020 ©
The English novelist Neil Mach has gained widespread recognition for the creation of strong female characters and for compelling stories that often revolve around the themes of loyalty and duty.
His character MOONDOG is a Romani detective. He is called-in when other investigators hesitate. The detective inquires into things that lay “beyond normal human experience” where things hang in the balance between mundane and miraculous.