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21 March: That Special Pen

Published onJul 09, 2019
21 March: That Special Pen

I have always had a weakness for a nice pen. They don’t have to be expensive ones to qualify: a fibre tip Pentel or a smooth writing gell roller nib will do just fine. It is something about the smoothness of how they write and the flow of the ink as it moves over the paper. Whenever I visit a university overseas I always make sure to go hunting in the college shop for an exotic pen. It is only recently that I have come to appreciate quite how widespread this kind of stationery fetishism is among writers and academics. Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that as writers we fetishize the main tool of our trade. After all pens are the tongue of the mind as Cervantes once put it.

There is a beautiful picture of Simone De Beauvoir sitting in Café de Flore, Paris holding her Esterbrook fountain pen over a blank sheet of paper. It is a wonderful portrait of an intellectual at work. A stylish pen is not compulsory and many great thinkers used more humble writing implements. For example, Stuart Hall wrote with green Pentel R50 ball pens producing thick lines that made his scratchy handwriting barely legible. When George Orwell was too sick with tuberculosis to use a typewriter David Astor supplied him with biros – which were recent invention in the late forties – so that he could continue to work, although tellingly, Orwell’s protagonist in Nineteen Eight-four, Winston Smith, chooses a nib ink-pen instead of an ‘ink-pencil’ to write his seditious secret diary. This ‘archaic instrument’ provides a weapon to strike back at doublethink. With this pen he printed the fateful words ‘DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER’.

The love of pens is often linked with the aesthetic virtues of handwriting. For Mary Gordon it is the very physicality of writing that is valuable because ‘it involves flesh, blood and the thingness of pen and paper’. The physical act of writing this way for Gordon is a way of grounding her imagination in the world of objects and flesh. Anthropologist Tim Ingold is an avid exponent of writing by hand. For him writing on a computer is ‘joyless and soul-destroying’ and ‘rips the heart out of writing’. For Ingold handwriting with a fountain pen is similar to making true notes on a musical instrument. He writes: ‘I compare it to practising my cello. When I practise – which I do as often as I can – the sound pours out from the contact between bow and strings. In just the same way, handwriting flows from the moving point of contact between pen and paper.’ He argues that writing on a keyboard by contrast ruptures the connection between lines, movement and words.

Roland Barthes was another enthusiast for writing by hand. In an interview first published in 1973, he confessed that he had an ‘almost obsessive relation to writing instruments’. Like Ingold, he favoured a fountain pen for its capacity to produce ‘soft, smooth writing’. However, Barthes makes a distinction between two different kinds of graphic impulses. The first he calls the production of a ‘calligraphic object’. This is the initial stage of drafting longhand with a pen. The second stage he called the creation of a ‘typographical object’, which is typed and a text created for ‘anonymous and collective consumption’. Barthes’ writing process consisted of a first draft written by hand and which would then in turn be typed and re-drafted.

Without being conscious of it I realize now I have followed Barthes’ methods too. I write first by hand often in notebooks and then re-type later once the ideas have some initial form. Longhand allows for the freedom to sketch thoughts in the way that Ingold suggests. Also, the slowness of writing this way gives the pen in my hand enough time to catch up with the thoughts in my head. There is something about the tension between the two that helps to consolidate and give shape to the ideas scribbled on the pages of my notebook.

For many years the loss of a ‘special pen’ caused little concern because they were replaceable. As time has passed those cheap disposable pens have been replaced. Stephen Dobson, an old friend who I met while a student at Goldsmiths, gave me an expensive Mont Blanc fountain pen – like the one Georges Perec used – for my 40th birthday. Then a decade later I received a beautiful silver Cross fountain pen from another friend and colleague, Michael Keith. These truly special pens have none of the disposable qualities of their plastic predecessors.

Now, misplacing either of them causes a deep sense of panic. I can’t think about anything else and in the midst of a frantic search I can feel myself breaking out into a cold sweat. I don’t take the Mont Blanc pen out of the house now for fear of losing it. This problem has reached such a pitch that I can feel the collective shudder of dread in my family when I shout down the stairs, ‘has anyone seen my silver pen?!’

Earlier in the year I was preparing a lecture for a conference in Tokyo. The event also coincided with the publication of a Japanese translation of one of my books: it was a big deal. I needed to send the manuscript of the lecture ahead of the trip. As usual I had sketched out my talk in a notebook in longhand with my special silver Cross pen. All was in hand.

The next morning I went to my bag to look for the silver pen to scribble another note but it was not there. I asked everyone in the family and they had not seen it. I searched the house frantically to no avail. The pen was nowhere to be found. I retraced my steps. Could I have left it in my office? Did I leave it on the train? I was getting myself into such a fog of panic that I couldn’t think about anything else.

This went on for several days and now time was running out. I needed to turn the handwritten draft of the lecture into what Barthes would call a ‘typographical object’ but all I could think about was the whereabouts of my lost pen. Then I started to get angry with myself. ‘What is the matter with me?!’ Here I was facing a serious deadline for an international event that I couldn’t afford to screw up but all I could think about was this infernal pen. My family were sick of hearing me go on about it. I had lost almost an entire week. I wasn’t going to write my talk with the bloody pen anyway! Pull yourself together.

I gave myself a mental pep talk as I cycled to work the following day with a laptop safely installed my backpack. ‘Just concentrate on re-drafting the lecture’, I kept thinking. If the silver pen is lost then there is nothing I can do about it. I felt a sense of calm resignation at last taking hold as I peddled through Hilly Fields Park, close to Goldsmiths. There is a café there called Pistachios and I often use it as a writing refuge. ‘Maybe I’ll stop off and have a coffee and get started with re-drafting the lecture? Good plan’, I thought.

I peeled off my cycling gear and I put my laptop down staking a claim to a table. The café is always a calming place. I love working there, a place to be undisturbed and think, even when it is crowded. I chat to Sheryl who is originally from Australia as she makes my coffee. Unable to free myself from my pen anxiety, I ask half-heartedly: ‘You haven’t had a silver pen handed in by any chance, have you?’ Sheryl holds up her finger: ‘Hold on a minute.’ She goes to the box of abandoned things under the counter and emerges with a shiny writing implement. ‘Do you mean this one?’, she says. There it was. Fred, the owner, came over and said ‘Oh that’s a shame I had my eye on that nice pen myself!’

The euphoria on being reunited with my beloved Cross pen is a combination of utter relief and the sigh of deep inner calm. Later, I realize the pen is no longer just a special writing tool but rather it has become a kind of existential compass. I don’t quite understand its mysterious secret powers and I am no longer sure whether I control it or it controls me.

Perhaps the silver Cross pen has become a symbol of the curse of writing itself. Mary Gordon commented: ‘There are maybe some writers who contemplate a day’s work without dread, but I don’t know them . . . It’s a bad business, this writing . . . We accomplish what we do, creating a series of stratagems to explore the horror.’ I have become a hostage to the routines and tricks that keep me to the task and this includes handwriting with a particular pen. The anxiety felt when that special pen goes missing is the price I pay for those otherwise comforting writing rituals.

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