20 November 2011

My first fountain pen

Writers are obsessed with stationery. The lure of a stationer’s – or even the stationery shelves at some soulless hypermarket – is hard for the scribbler to resist. And for the real addicts among us, the ultimate fix is the fountain pen.

Such pens have gone the way of vinyl records (a bit cultish, or favoured by fogeys who can’t get on with technology) and more’s the pity, because when I were a nipper the range on offer was wide and wondrous.

My very first, a pearlescent Osmiroid, was given to me on my seventh birthday. By then I was practising joined-up letters, making the prescribed loops and curlicues and keeping within the dotted lines: for at that stage I knew no better, more or less, than to comply. My classmates and I were issued with wooden pen-holders into which fitted steel nibs, which in turn were dipped in small, white, porcelain inkwells set in the top right-hand corners of our bijou folding-top desks. The caretaker filled these with blue-black ink. In his store-room (which doubled as a dungeon where criminals were sometimes banished for half an hour), he kept a carboy of the stuff, provided no doubt by the County Council, and my memory of his ink is entwined with that of his grey, smelly mop in its galvanized, perforated squeeze-bucket nearby.

Thus we began our writing adventure with official nibs and official ink. The inkwells, besides being decidedly handist, or whatever the term is for something that discriminates against the sinistral, were prone to collect detritus – paper fibres mostly, and dust, I should think, but also other matter exuded by small, ingenious and malevolent boys (the girls in my class were all angels, especially Her Serene Highness Catherine Williams, are you reading this, my agony, my woe, and my heart’s delight?) In dipping one’s pen it was essential to stop short of the squidgy mess at the bottom. A sixteenth of an inch too far, a moment’s inattention, and the copybook was ruined.

The primary school was populated by middle-class children. Many of us were able, typically at Christmas or birthdays, to graduate from the statist to the free-market solution and embrace the fruits of capitalism. I remember that my Osmiroid cost 7/6d (37.5p), which I considered a huge sum, since my weekly pocket-money had that day been raised to 7d (2.9p), one penny for every year of my age. I also remember my pen’s first proper outing.

I had admired the Osmiroid minutely at home, of course. Its plastic barrel was lined by a black rubber reservoir. A lever operated a metal bar to compress the rubber. When the nib was dipped in ink, this compression and decompression effected a filling. The received wisdom was to operate the lever seven times. After that one held the top surface of the nib for a moment against the edge of a sheet of blotting paper, made a few test squiggles and, if all was in order, screwed the lid back on the bottle of Quink (Royal Blue, Washable, Suitable for School and Home Use, Available in 1, 2 or 20 oz Sizes, Made in England by Parker & Co., Ltd).

Our classroom that year overlooked lawns and trees, though its picture-windows had no view to the west, where, far beyond the playing field and the watercress beds, a wooded rise was surmounted by a distance-hazed avenue of colossal limes. Dew still sparkled on the grass and as, pausing between words, I looked out into the April sunshine, I spied a solitary jackdaw standing there, also in a moment of pause: at this remove I surmise that it was listening for invertebrates in the turf. It had its left side towards me. I see even now the small, whitish eye, the smaller dark iris, and the hoariness of the jackdaw’s nape. The world then was completely fresh and new, and my eyesight was perfect.

The bird was about fifty feet away. More than that I cannot honestly recall, whether it then flew off, or was joined by others (they are very gregarious). All that remains is the association between my birthday pen and this pristine vision of a creature I may never have seen before. At any rate, that is the first jackdaw I can remember.

My earliest books were composed on a typewriter, but some of the drafting I did with a fountain pen. The keyboarding has merged into one big blur. Long-carriage Imperial, Olivetti portable, Adler Gabriele, computers from 1984 onwards, yet I can still remember the circumstances of – what infused and lay around – the paragraphs I wrote with a nib. Indeed, some recollections are vivid enough to include what I had been doing during the preceding hours.

For all the benefits of word-processing, we have lost something by leaving the pen behind. The ability to polish as one goes has dampened spontaneity. Discipline and concentration are needed to commit our words to paper straightway, and with less of these a piece of writing is poorer. And we have also lost the intimacy between mind and hand and nib and flowing ink, between the imagination and the point of metal moving on the page, which for the author creates a special web of private associations that colour his work. Such is the price of automation. I’m just glad that I was born early enough to receive, not an iPod or a mobile phone, but a pearlescent Osmiroid in the year of my passage from the infants’ to the junior school.

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