Thursday, 29 July 2010

Pencil Case Contents

School has ended on 23rd July and my nine-year-old son has brought home his pencil case with its contents ravaged from a year of learning. Pencils with no leads, chewed or split in half, or sharpened at both ends; rubbers transformed into hideous faces, broken and poked or having some voodoo ritual performed onto them; stubs with the rubber extracted from the ferrule, and one deconstructed pen witness to some journey of scientific discovery, no doubt, that involved unravelling the mysteries of the pen's insides.

My son fails to understand my penchant for pencil sharpening. The very idea of sitting down to a session of pencil sharpening leaves him cold. Respecting one's eraser is an alien concept. Choosing a "proper" pen for cartoon drawing does not matter to him. Any pen would do. Peeking into the empty classrooms of his school I see the root of the problem: potfuls of Unsharpened Pencils standing unashamedly at the centre of the tables.
Ah, the evils of substandard Writing Implements Education.

And so I shall propose to volunteer to take on a serious matter: pencil sharpening. I shall offer my services to local schools and also to restaurants that pretend to cater for children's pre-meal entertainment by offering pots of unsharpened stubs. I shall be known as the Lady Sharpener. And as my services and influence expands, maybe a dedicated Sharpening Police shall be established issuing unsharpened pencils search warrants and next knocking at your door.

Except Nemo's door that is, because this would have been bricked up.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

The Pen of Akaky by Nikolai Gogol

It would be difficult to find another man who lived so entirely for his duties. It is not enough to say that Akaky laboured with zeal: no, he laboured with love. In his copying, he found a varied and agreeable employment. Enjoyment was written on his face: some letters were even favourites with him; and when he encountered these, he smiled, winked, and worked with his lips, till it seemed as though each letter might be read in his face, as his pen traced it.

Nikolai Gogol, The Overcoat, first published 1842.

On Gogol's Overcoat and Akaky's diligence with the pen (and much more), read Ciphers, Poshlost and Language Fails in Only Words to Play With.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Have Ink Will Travel

Travelling Ink case from the Writing Equipment 
London show, 2009

The time is approaching where I shall have to forsake the comforts of my desk for a campervan trip to some yet undecided destination. The packing of camping and cooking essentials is already under way. Being the more organised of all those residing in the household, it is my task. In fact, I would not trust it to anyone else. I am a veteran. This is also the time to compile the writing instruments' and implements' travelling list.

I know that it will surely contain one Rhodia pad No. 13, my green "" notebook perhaps, pencils for writing and sketching (which ones?), one sharpener, one eraser, possibly two Lamy Safaris, one fine, one medium nib, some ink cartridges, one ink bottle (which?), possibly one Faber-Castell Pitt artist pen, one Staedtler pigment liner 0.4. Laptop. Portable hard disk. And then one comes to the dreaded reading list. Dreaded because I don't know what I'd really want to read until it's time to read it.

Travelling ink and pen case 
from the Victoria & Albert Museum's 
Renaissance and Medieval Galleries

There are of course too many choices of writing instruments and accessories. This is not a good thing. I would like to have a pen case and some parchment. Messy and odoriferous perhaps but simple. Forsake all choices. Shun all possibilities. Have ink, will travel. And instead of trying to produce thoughts I should in my holy-days copy texts like the old medieval scribes. Copy mechanically like they did. And in the absence of holy texts, copy receipts from petrol stations and camping sites, leaflets and flyers - release the mind from the tyranny of thought-made-word.

Copy for the pleasure of seeing the words forming. Like Gogol's doomed Akaky.

PS1 Since writing this post, Nemo of the submerged Noughtilus in Mobilis Ink Mobili has reminded me that Stephens' Ink still awaits to be explored. I suppose that being the one on the surface this task falls on me. I shall do my best, inspired as I have been by Nemo's publication of Stephen's Writing Fluids. 

PS2 Nemo's post strangely coincides with my thoughts about travelling. I can't keep thinking about the inkseller. How simpler and more enjoyable holy-days would have been if (imagine) whilst wild-camping on some remote cliff or wandering in some Godforsaken-town, one saw coming down the path, the inkseller with his barrels of ink. Travelling Ink bringing civilization to your door (or tent).

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Medieval Writing

There is something fascinating about the medieval discipline of writing - its rules, its implements. It is perhaps its indisposable nature that I admire. I admire it not because I aspire to the past. The uniqueness of parchments, the concocting processes of inks, the cutting of quills evoke a reverence for the written word. Reverence that flows not from the sacredness of text but from the very materials of writing. 

If an animal had to be slaughtered and its skin arduously treated to provide a writing surface - if a wasp's nest had to be boiled with rainwater and vitriol to make ink - if a goose had to be chased, a feather extracted, dipped in hot sand and cut to make a quill, then I would surely revere the Word: not for what it means but for how it is created. 

Medieval Writing is a wonderful resource on the practice of writing in the medieval ages (Tools and Materials - quills, inks, parchment, material culture of writing; Forms of Manuscripts; Scribes and Libraries; Written Word and much more) created by John and Dianne Tillotson, two Australian academics with a passion for medieval culture. 

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Portable Writing Desk by Thomas Jefferson

Preserved in museums, displayed in glass cabinets of historic homes, the writing instruments of famous personages have none other value intrinsic to them than the value endowed on them by a public hungry for relics. Relics are proof that the past existed. The irretrievable magic of the past is locked in objects. The perceived genius of its past owner is passed onto the quill, the fountain pen, the inkwell, the portable writing desk. Objects stand dead behind glass or on pedestals, untouchable and sacred, carrying portable meanings that await to be unlocked. Objects are brought to life by meanings.

Thomas Jefferson was aware of the power of relics. Jefferson designed a mahogany lap desk which was  built for him by Philadelphia cabinet maker Benjamin Randolph. On it the third President of the United States composed the Declaration of Independence. He later gave it to his granddaughter's husband, writing on November 1825:

Politics, as well as Religion, has its superstitions. These, gaining strength with time, may, one day give imaginary value to this relic, for its association with the birth of the Great Charter of our Independence.
The recipient of the portable writing desk replied that he considered the desk to be
no longer inanimate, and mute, but something to be interrogated and caressed.

Source: Library of Congress online exhibits. The portable writing desk is held in the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Thomas Jefferson: The Pen and the Polygraph

Amy McDonald is Archives Assistant in Duke University Archives and author of Devil’s Tale, the blog of the Rare Book, Manuscript and Special Collections Library at Duke. The blog is a delight to read for the archives enthusiast. Amy kindly informed Palimpsest of another “writing instrument” made famous by its user, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), the third President of the United States (1801-1809): the polygraph.

Devil’s Tale reports on the visit of Francis Calley Gray to Monticello and the welcoming dinner and tour of the library the guests enjoyed under the guidance of Jefferson. Gray concludes his narration to the visit to TJ’s library with: “Mr Jeff took us from his library into his bed chamber where on a table before the fire stood a polygraph with which he said he always wrote.” 

Jefferson writes to Volney on February, 8 1805:

Our countrymen are so much occupied in the busy scenes of life, that they have little time to write or invent. A good invention here, therefore, is such a rarity as it is lawful to offer to the acceptance of a friend. A Mr. Hawkins of Frankford, near Philadelphia, has invented a machine, which he calls a polygraph, and which carries two, three, or four pens. That of two pens, with which I am now writing, is best; and is so perfect that I have laid aside the copying-press, for a twelvemonth past, and write always with the polygraph.

And a year later to Bowdoin (10 July 1806):

I believe that when you left America, the invention of the polygraph had not yet reached Boston. It is for copying with one pen while you write with the other, and without the least additional embarrassment or exertion to the writer. 
I think it the finest invention of the present age, and so much superior to the copying machine, that the latter will never be continued a day by any one who tries the polygraph. 
Knowing that you are in the habit of writing much, I have flattered myself that I could add acceptably to your daily convenience by presenting you with one of these delightful machines. I have accordingly had one made, and to be certain of its perfection I have used it myself some weeks, and have the satisfaction to find it the best one I have ever tried; and in the course of two years' daily use of them, I have had opportunities of trying several. 
As a secretary, which copies for us what we write without the power of revealing it, I find it a most precious possession to a man in public-business.
Thomas Jefferson letter, 28 May 1818

Despite his dedication to his polygraph, Thomas Jefferson had had a pen specially made. It was (the Library of Congress website informs) a small cylindrical silver fountain pen with a gold nib with an elliptical cap that screws into the end of the cylinder and caps the ink reservoir. It was probably made by William Cowan and is engraved TJ. The pen of Thomas Jefferson is held in the Monticello Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation.

See a modern production of the polygraph machine here. Quotes from Thomas Jefferson, Memoir, Correspondence and Miscellanies from the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. IV, Gray & Bowen: Boston and New York, 1830 (as published online by Project Gutenberg, 30 Sept. 2005). See also the online Thomas Jefferson exhibits in the Library of Congress.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Post a Stub: Turning Point

Gunter of the excellent Lexikaliker blog sent this spinning-top pencil to Palimpsest's Post a Stub series. This post has been first published on Lexikaliker under the title Drehmoment.

Turning Point

Today let us turn our thoughts to the pencil that turns around itself.
A washer has been used to convert this Staedtler Mars Lumograph 8B stub into a spinning top. It turns and spins on a piece of paper leaving behind its spirals and circles in perpetually new combinations. Proving there is still life in the old stub.

Knowleagable as he is in all pencil matters Gunther informs me that he used the Lumograph 8B because (like the 7B but unlike the 6B) it contains a small amount of shoot which produces a blacker black. A soot-less pencil turns a little longer and with less friction but the marks it leaves behind are not so intense.

Gunther is the author of Lexikaliker.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Stationery Store Series: The Print Gallery

Aladdin's Cave is not a tidy place. It is cavernous (like a cave), it is cluttered with treasures, it is dimly illuminated by oil lamps or by a ray of sunshine that barely manages to reach its mysterious depths. It is neither tidy nor brightly lit and there is no muzak. From the outside it is perhaps obscured by some bush or tree or a carefully placed rock makes it blend in with the landscape. One chances upon Aladdin's Cave and upon entering marvels at its treasures. And thus, I chanced upon The Print Gallery.

Cheap prints and offers and sunglasses for the desperate tourist on the outside but look inside and a whole new world is revealed. Artists' materials ~ Stationery - the magic words and thus sesame opens. It is sunny outside but inside the neon lights are on and the heaps of art supplies, pens, pencils, pads and stationery take the breath away. "I want to live here", I tell the polite manager who forces a smile upon his face thinking me deranged.

There is a vast collection of drawing and calligraphy inks, heaps of canvases, acrylic colours from all the major brands like Daler-Rowney, Caran d' Ache, Winsor and Newton; tins and tins of pencils for sketching and drawing and I found (lo!) my favourite Conté Pastel Pencils which even the big London Graphic Arts shop in Covent Garden did not stock.

Here also are the Staedtler Mars Dynagraph which were so wonderfully reviewed by Pencil Talk; Berol Turquoise Filmograph pencils, inscribed with capital letters "The Professional Line for Draughting Film"; Automatic Pens (reviewed by Leigh Reyes); Faber, Caran d' Ach, Derwent; Lamy fountain pens; mechanical pencils, Sharpies, sharpeners, erasers and many drawing and sketching pads and notebooks, including Sennelier.

What is the attraction of such a stationery store? It is the potential, the promise of endless possibilities of marks, signs, inscriptions;  the hope of discovery; the marvel of instruments and implements whose properties and uses are equally mysterious to an alchemist's ingredients. Entering the stationery store's  almost cavernous interior cluttered with heaps of pens, pencils, tubes, paper and canvases calls for some ritual of initiation. It is an almost sacred place.

The Print Gallery is at 22 Pembridge Road, Notting Hill, London W11. They also trade online on

Purchases: The pencils:
Bruynzeel design PENCIL 8615 Holland;
JOVI Trigraph HB
Conté Pastel 1355 No 21 France
Conté Pastel 1355 No 40 France
Dr. Pen HB

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Anyone for Tennis?

Nibs and pens were and still are made to commemorate or honour events, buildings, regimes, royals. There are nibs inscribed “Penna Gloria”, “Augusta” and “Vittoria”(from Italy's Fascist era), and nibs with royal or famous persons’ portraits carved on them, such as “Olga”, “Carl I”, “Schiller”, “Regina Margerita” and Princess Sofia (in Greek lettering). A delectable collection of exquisite nibs is exhibited in the Birmingham Pen Museum and at the 2009 London Writing Equipment show.

Among them an interesting novelty: a nib made to commemorate the invention of lawn tennis. Lawn tennis was invented by T.H. Gemm and J.B.A. Perera in Birmingham in 1865. Players used air filled rubber balls, which were imported from Germany and which bounced much better than cloth balls. The first lawn tennis club was formed in Leamington Spa, England in 1872 and the first tennis championships took place in Wimbledon in 1877.

The Lawn Tennis pen was made around 1868 probably by G.W. Hughes and features a tennis racket which fits beautifully in the nib’s shape.

Source: London Writing Equipment Show, 4 Oct. 2009; Roberto Morassi, “Her Nibs”, Journal of the Writing Equipment Society, no. 74, Winter 2005.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Stationery Store Series: Pen to Paper

When the Lanes were being built in the late 18th century, Brighthelmston had already put its fishing village past behind it and had achieved a reputation as a health resort. The medicinal use of seawater was recommended and sea-bathing was just what the doctor ordered. Brighthelmston which had been previously devastated by storms and by the decline of the fishing industry began to prosper attracting the rich and famous and by the end of the 18th century it even enjoyed royal patronage. It is known today as Brighton and can be reached from London within 52 minutes.

Brighton has piers, seaside promenades, ice cream vans, campervans, alternative fashion statements, bicycles, a gay scene, surfers, and boasts to have elected the first Green Party MP ever. All these delights and attractions aside, I had no intention of bathing (fully-clothed or otherwise) or sunbathing and drinking seawater was out of the question. Reclining on a beach is not in the list of my favourite past times. But a stroll in the Lanes, the collection of narrow alleys with their numerous little speciality shops, was just what the doctor ordered. And there it was: The Pen to Paper stationery shop.

From the outside Pen to Paper looks like one of those stationery shops that stock no-name colourful journals and notebooks and birthday cards. Nothing prepared me for what I saw. First on the right a wonderful collection of Rhodia and Clairefontaine (not exhaustive but sufficient) and of Moleskine notebooks in various sizes. Also Zap. Next, a shelf full of Herbin ink in 30ml bottles and in cartridges. The whole range is here: reds, yellows, greens, blues, purples; Larmes de Cassis, Vert Empire, Bleu Myosotis, Bouquet d’Antan, you name it.

A range of writing instruments includes Lamy Safari, Pickup and Studio; Pelikan, Cross, Waterman and Rotring. In stock also is Vergé de France paper; G. Lalo pearlescent paper and card and Fabriano blank cards and envelopes; Origami and handmade paper.

Pen to Paper has two shops one on 4 Sydney Street, Brighton BN1 4EN and on 170A High Street, Lewes, East Sussex BN7 1YE. There is also a wonderful online catalogue on which offers a nice selection of all the above writing instruments, paper, inks and more.

Purchases of the day:  J.Herbin ink Larmes de Cassis; Bouquet d’Antan; Vert Empire. Also a pack of Khadi papers, handmade paper from the Khadi mill in South India, made from recycled cotton rag.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Stationery Store Series

It is at the stationery store, site and catalogue of things necessary to writing, that we are introduced into the space of signs; it is in the stationery store that the hand encounters the instrument and the substance of the stroke, the trace, the line, the graphism; it is in the stationery store that the commerce of the sign begins, even before it is written.
It is with the words of Roland Barthes from his Empire of the Signs that Palimpsest introduces a new series of posts: The Stationery Store Series. Palimpsest shall track down stationery stores wherever they are and shall record them: their offerings - pens, pencils and inks - and their interiors. Palimpsest is especially interested in independent stores, those tucked away in alleyways and back streets. However, the big stationery players will also feature and of course those online stationery fiends.

Palimpsest appreciates the readers' help at this point and shall gracefully receive and publicise any gracefully written words and images pertaining to stationery stores of choice. Post as usual to blogpalimpsest at gmail dot com.