Today 1st November is not, as we once hoped, Independence Day but it is International Fountain Pen Day. It is the ideal day to confess that, occasionally setting the keyboard aside, I indulge in watching a line of ink smoothly glide across old-fashioned sheets of paper.
I’ll explain here why using a fountain pen is a small act of resistance and a pleasurable one.
It is remarkable that despite the prevalence of ballpoint pens, the onslaught of e-mail and social media as the current main means of written communication, the old-fashioned fountain pen has defied the gales of change. The typewriter and the fax-machine are museum pieces but the fountain pen has survived, in fact it has reinvented itself. It might be low-tech but it is not a relic from the past.
The fountain pen was nearly killed off as a necessary writing instrument, hounded out of schools and even offices, and it has been resurrected as a pleasure, a passion, a way of displaying personal style, also as a status symbol.
A fountain pen was always about much more than putting ink to paper, and this fact has helped its regeneration.
It is a highly individualised thing in a highly standardised world. Once chosen, it will mould itself to your hand, your handwriting. You don’t lend a fountain pen for fear of your nib being damaged by another user’s handwriting.
You don’t just choose a pen, you also choose the type of nib to fit it with, the type and colour of ink you’re going to fill it with. All elements of an alchemy that will be modified in the last resort by the kind of paper you’re writing on and also the way you’ll be writing at that particular moment.
Continuing using a fountain pen, or taking it up, is a reaction to a number of things, not least having to spend so much of our time in front of a computer screen. It is an antidote to the digital life which was supposed to make our life simpler (and paperless) but doesn’t.
It is an instrument, nay, a companion, charged with emotion and empowering your mind, in a world where they’re trying to take your soul and to control your thoughts.
In a world of cheap tat, its noble materials carry double weight. A fountain pen exudes class and elegance, and its craftsmanship is flaunted in reaction to the surrounding uniformization and automation. In our throw-away culture, it is not disposable.
With search engines, browsers, software companies and others hoovering up our data there is no real privacy in the online world. Even encrypted communications reveal who is contacting whom even if the content is protected. Resistance to on-line intrusion is called for!
In particular, in a world in which privacy has become an odd concept, sending ONE (original) message to ONE person is taking back control of the dissemination of your message!
In a world where not having at hand a charger, a socket or a signal causes anxiety, pen and paper mean independence! If one pen runs out of ink, chances are there’ll be another one nearby, or a pencil.
Constrained by predictive text and ready-made emojis, free your creativity with a fountain pen! Draw your own emojis, or, even more unique, say it in words!
In a world you don’t recognise, where the values of old are trampled, holding in your hand a fountain pen is an affirmation of tradition as a force for good, if only for giving perspective.
More prosaically, there are other good sides to writing with a fountain pen.
You don’t have to apply pressure, and so you can write for longer and maintain a nice handwriting with less strain. As the nib shapes itself to your writing, it gets easier and easier to write. Fluid!
Fountain pens naturally want to join letters, much more so than ballpoint pens, so you write faster! Will your thoughts keep up with the pace?!
Paediatricians and orthopaedic therapists have warned that “although youngsters can swipe a screen, they no longer have the hand strength and agility to learn to write correctly when they start school.” Moreover there are now young people unable to read cursive handwriting at all. Let that sink in! As for their handwriting, it has regressed to an illegible scrawl, or a script. It does not augur well of their mental capacities: Studies have shown that the more you write, the more brainpower is devoted to cognitive activity. Each letter of each word requires a different movement as opposed to typing which is about repetition. Let not writing become a dated skill! Thinking would quickly follow suit!
Writing with a fountain pen is a sensual experience, stimulating several senses: sight (a beautiful object, your words forming on the blank page), smell (of paper, of ink), touch (the ebonite, the resin, the lacquer, the metal of the pen) and hearing (the nib whispers, sings, squeaks or is silent!) – Taste is best left out!
The lifespan of a fountain pen is measured in years, in generations even as it can be an inheritance in which a parent lives on through their pen/s.
The challenge these days is to have enough opportunities to use your lovely pens. Maybe you have never stopped sending Christmas cards and birthday cards, but now you add Easter cards, Thank You cards, just-thinking-of-you-today cards! Be mindful of choosing one that says on the back “fountain-pen friendly”, a lot of them aren’t these days! Hand-written notes remain a compliment to the addressees.
Journaling, whether of the “bullet” variety or not, is the latest buzz and is said to improve mental well-being and productivity, a download for the brain. Didn’t it used to be called a Filofax?…
If there are nowadays fewer occasions to write with a fountain pen, why have several?
Each of your fountain pens can be filled with a different ink, so you can write in different colours and textures. Some have a sheen, others are matte. Some are wet, some are dry. Yes, you read right, and to be even more confusing, different inks will respond differently to different nibs!
Sometimes you want a generous flow of ink, so will favour a wet ink with a broad nib; in other circumstances, you’ll prefer a fine nib and will grab a fountain pen which has one.
Each fountain pen makes a different mark on paper, to which you can add other variables like how your hand is writing that day, what is your mood, how much pressure you’re applying.
You will choose a fountain pen, with its particular girth and length depending on what you want to write: just a signature, a few words on a thank-you card, copious notes at a meeting, a letter, an entry in a journal.
Prestigious brands like Parker, Waterman, Conway-Stewart, Onoto etc are not just writing instruments, they are objects of collection and bear witness to the history of craftsmanship. When you hold one you pay homage to the skills of craftsmen. It also evokes an era when the EU did not exist and trade flourished among free nations as these brands were already global.
This very rational approach of having several pens for several occasions all too often turns into a collection, a down-the-rabbit-hole syndrome that strikes the unsuspecting. It often starts with a pen passed on from a parent or a pen that has survived your school-years, and soon they are joined by another one, more modern, but not necessarily so, then maybe just another one, just to complement the selection and, soon, the display. Yes, displaying pens and how best to store inks, can also soon be a secondary effect of this consuming mania.
Why write about pens?
Just as Deplorables made their way to this site to stop feeling they were slowly going mad in their little corner by sharing and ranting, fountain pen lovers feel the need to talk about their pens, show their pens, experiment with each other’s pens and inks. There is an international community of fountain pen lovers, online (pen forums) and face-to-face (pen shows, pen clubs, pen meet-ups).
There are several special days in the calendar for penaholics, less advertised than World Hijab Day or International Pronouns Day, but still, they encourage celebrating fountain pens: Apart from Fountain Pen Day, the first Friday in November, “a time to embrace, promote, and share the use of fountain pens”, there is Inktober, an art challenge to make one ink drawing a day during October, and the ever-growing annual Pelican Hub: a “fan-driven gathering of Pelikan aficionados from across the globe” who meet on the third Friday of September at 6.30pm local time. In fact the Pelican Hub is very inclusive: you don’t have to own a Pelikan fountain pen; anyone who shares a passion about fine writing can attend.
The Future of Fountain Pens
Sales of fountain pens are healthy, possibly still rising. As stated above, they are the antidote to our reliance on technology and it seems a number of millennials see it that way too. A safe and private space! However writing with a fountain pen is not cheap. It is a valuable gift if you can get it!
It has been noted that fewer people buy fountain pens and the paraphernalia that goes with them, but they’re prepared to pay more for their writing instruments. Moreover as I said above, if you thought one box of cartridges in a drawer was going to be enough, you’re mistaken. There are fewer and fewer colours available in cartridges, mainly blue, black and blue-black, so before you know it you start looking at bottled ink and that’s when the fun starts, and you’re doomed!
It is too early to say if stale, if not pale (there is a thriving market in India, China etc), and not only male, customers are propping up demand for fountain pens and whether the younger generation, brought up on everything digital will pick up the baton or not. It seems younger pen fans are more into inks and cheaper pens, not caring so much about noble metals. Gold attributes are now mainly found in second-hand pens.
Ink is not the only ancillary expense. Also taxing your wallet and your power of choice, is paper. It has to be of quality. Quality paper has the biggest impact on one’s writing experience. Office copy paper is out, it causes the ink to feather and bleed. On the other hand, be wary of paper that is too shiny or glossy: it is as if the ink cannot grip and it just glides too much, which is not pleasant either. Basically, allow for trial and error, but beware: Notebook hoarding usually follows quickly after the first onset of fountain pen mania. Loose paper or notebook; lined or unlined, or dot grid, or small squares… Nearly as complex as deciding how you want your coffee!
It is worth it. From the moment you pick your fountain pen up, a special mood settles over you. You’re in control. You’re in touch with your inner self. You can focus. Recent studies have shown that handwriting is part of the creative process.
Graham Greene used a Parker Duofold New Style to write “The Heart of the Matter” and said this in an interview in 1977: “My two fingers on a typewriter have never connected with my brain. My hand on a pen does. A fountain pen, of course. Ball-point pens are only good for filling out forms on a plane.”
A sense of power washes over you when you grab your best pen to write to your MP: it is personal, it is political, you literally give a piece of your mind to your elected representative. The war of attrition over Brexit has caused many of us to write letters and postcards to register protest. Your own pen for your own letter in your own words. More difficult to ignore.
Ink can get political but I suspect it is more a marketing ploy (selling something with a topical name) than an imposition of political views.
About the two inks above: they’re both Limited Editions; they both carry a message.
The one on the left was created by American Nathan Tardif of Noodlers’ Inks. It is, or was at this point, only available from Niche Pens in the UK. On the box Tardif has stamped “UK 4th July” i.e. the British Independence Day! The label suggests “the UK have come around to the idea of independence from a sovereign ruler in another country, much like their own former colony did a couple of hundred years before.” It is a purplish blue ink, a bit faded, which might make it hard to read on certain papers.
The ink on the right was created by Diamine, a British brand, exclusively for Seitz-Kreuznach so it has to be ordered from Germany! I am not sure if it can be interpreted neutrally, as I have never heard Leavers exclaim “Bloody Brexit!” They tend to curse Remainers rather, but it’s true they want the process to be over and (properly) done with (“Just get on with it!”)! In any case, it is a nice dark navy blue with a warm red sheen. Blue, red, on white paper – this evokes the union flag, hopefully enough to forget the pro-EU undertone, leaving just the rude alliteration.
Incidentally Noodler’s Ink launched the Charlie fountain pen in July 2015 in response to the Charlie-Hebdo massacre that January. I didn’t hear of it at the time. All I got was a pencil:
Blotting paper can be political too – or used to be. Blotting paper is not used as an advertising medium anymore and it has even become difficult to find. Basildon Bond writing paper recently stopped including a blotting sheet. Ink aficionados don’t like blotting paper: Ink tends to sheen when it is slowly absorbed into paper and some of it dries on the surface. Using a blotter removes any excess ink from the surface of the paper and thus reduces sheen, and slightly modifies the colour. If you’re a fan of high-sheen inks, skipping the blotting paper and waiting for ink to dry on its own is preferable. Otherwise blotting is wise as it avoids ink smudges.
I don’t know if the pen is mightier than the sword. We now know that a ballot paper is not worth the paper it’s printed on, so I am not sure what is left to express ourselves. Voltaire in his time wrote “Qui plume a, guerre a.” – To hold a pen is to be at war. We have not written our last word.
Fountain pens punctuate historical moments.
The Treaty of Versailles was signed by PM Lloyd George with a Waterman Ideal. In May 1945 General Eisenhower used a Parker 51 to sign the peace treaty, and he posed with two “51”s held to form the V of Victory.
HM Queen Elisabeth II’s favourite fountain pen is the Parker 51 (in burgundy). The name comes from the fact that it was first manufactured in the 51st year of the Parker company’s existence (1941). It went out of production in the early 1970s, but it was so popular and demand so strong that apparently the company continued to make it unofficially until the 1980s. It is an icon. And a workhorse. Its special features are its aero-dynamic line, the hooded nib and the cap, which for the first time could be pulled off, rather than unscrewed. And it writes so smoothly.
On 29th March 2017, PM Theresa May signed the letter triggering Article 50 with a black Parker Duofold. A “wet signature” at the bottom of the page, by a PM said to be unable to negotiate her way out of a wet paper bag! The ink has certainly had time to dry on that page and Brexit still has not happened.
The photo above suggests that Mrs May used in fact a Duofold International rather than a Centennial as reported: she used her pen posted (i.e. capped) and it looks different from the green one capped.
Hers is also a majestic fountain pen, but naysayers objected to its price and observers wondered whether her civil servants should not have selected a British pen made in Britain, like a Conway-Stewart (used by Churchill during the war). Indeed, Parker bought the Valentine pen factory in Newhaven in 1945 and pens were produced there until operations were moved to France in 2009. The story of how Parker and Waterman, American brands, became so entwined with the fountain pen industry at its heyday in Britain and France is fascinating in itself. The Duofold is still made in France. Let’s not see any symbolism in the fact that it was chosen to sign a document starting what Remainers call divorce proceedings.
I do not know what the current PM writes with and what fountain pen he intends to use to sign the WA, the surrender treaty … It is said by pen people that to test a fountain pen, you should write “Johnson” several times. Apparently, the variety of strokes in that word is a good test of the nib! Johnson Johnson Johnson …
In case you have not noticed, pen mania can lead to another P hobby: photography. These objects are so beautiful and elegant that you want to capture them on camera. You soon realise that they’re very elusive, – the reflection of the light on the resin of their body, the gleaming of the gold of their nibs and attributes… So now, you’ve not only learnt about pistons, fillers, threads, flex, the gsm factor of paper, sheen, shading and bleeding through, you now have to understand the virtues of macro photo, white balance and a light box. Pen photography is part and parcel of the pen syndrome, whether you’re a collector or a user, if only to share your latest acquisitions among the pen community.
I’ll hazard a guess that I am not the only oddball on GP still enamoured with pen and paper. Looking forward to your pen stories and photos! Meanwhile, I fear that if the politics of Brexit don’t deliver a clean break, the pen hobby might have to step up a gear to keep me sane and zen.
More reading on writing:
© Text and photos Sunshine & Showers 2019
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file