Monday, 30 August 2010

To Write Well, by Friedrich Nietzsche

The scales are falling from my eyes: I lived too long in a state of stylistic innocence. The categorical imperative, "Thou shalt and must write," has aroused me. I tried something that I had never tried except at school: to write well, and suddenly the pen froze in my hand. I could not do it, and was annoyed. And all the while Lessing's and Lichtenberg's and Schopenhauer's stylistic precepts were buzzing in my ears. It was always my solace that these three authorities unanimously agree that it is difficult to write well, that no man has a good style by nature, that one must work at the uphill job of acquiring one.

Friedrich Nietzsche to Carl von Gersdorff, April 6 1867 in
Selected Letters of Friedrich Nietzsche, ed. Christopher Middleton, p. 21.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Gandhi, his Pencil and Mont Blanc

This is not the first time that Mont Blanc honours a famous personage by issuing a writing instrument of choice. It is also not the first time that the instrument of choice does anything but reflect the writing habits of the famous user it is supposed to represent.

Take the Marcel Proust fountain pen for example: a 925 sterling silver affair with a Rhodium-plated 18-karat gold nib to commemorate an author who did not care for exquisite writing implements and preferred to use the cheapest Sergent-Major nibs. Or the equally expensive, engraved, gold plated Mont Blanc pen, named Hemingway. Hemingway had a penchant for pencils.

And then Mont Blanc set its gaze upon Gandhi. Mont Blanc has lavished a multitude of symbols upon the Gandhi Limited Edition pen: the symbol of Indian independence, Gandhi's spindle, has inspired the top of the cap and the cone; the colour white symbolises peace and truth; the Mandarin garnet represents the colour orange of the Indian flag. Issuing a limited number of 3000 pens for the Mahatma Gandhi Limited Edition represents the three thousand people who followed Gandhi. For the buyers of the Limited Edition 241, there comes a surprise: an eight-metre golden thread wound around it.

Mont Blanc ran into legal troubles over the use of Gandhi imagery which Shekhar Hattangadi explains in "A Pen-ny for Gandhi's Thoughts". The disparity between Gandhi's preferred writing instrument and the Mont Blanc pen is again astounding. The man was aware of the meanings endowed even to objects of everyday use and the objects' place in the wider context of ideology. A proponent of the oppressed and downtrodden Gandhi used the humblest of pencils and reed pens, and the cheapest of paper. Hattangadi writes that Gandhi

once asked his grandson Arun - then a toddling school kid - to retrieve a used pencil from the street where the latter had discarded it, because it had not yet been reduced to a tiny stub and so could be used some more.
For Gandhi, every little aspect of the process was as important as the final product... which is why one of the 20th century's greatest politicians routinely wrote letters - some conveying momentous and historic decisions - on scraps of paper, including the backs of used envelopes.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Stationery Store Series: Katsikas in Athens, Greece

The stationery store of Mr Katsikas calls itself a bookshop and toy store too. It is very spacious. The walls are totally concealed by shelving. Stacks upon stacks, rows upon rows of unidentified books, notebooks, folders, paper, printed matter, what else? One cannot browse but only marvel at the quantity and one can only wonder at the identity of all this stock. Does Mr Katsikas know? Is he the wise keeper of all this paper? Does anyone care? It is August. 40 degrees Celcius and rising.

Mr Katsikas - if it really is him behind the counter - is riding the heat wave that has Athens in its grip. A few customers come in looking to play Lotto or pay their water bill (Mr Katsikas shop offers these services too. It also sells plastic footballs, stamps, newspapers, cigarettes and paint brushes). Tucked in a narrow street off a wide road of a central Athens neighbourhood, Mr Katsikas stationery store is tortured by heat, pollution, double-parked cars and the absence of pavement.

I am certain that it still sells the cheap school supplies of my childhood. I grew up ten minutes away from Katsikas' shop. The pink marble floor of the shop fits exactly with the memories of obedient-blue exercise books and BICs. It seems that all writing instruments are covered with a thin film of dust. Once I reveal my penchant for pencils Mr Katsikas brings me two clear plastic boxes full of colourful pencils and confesses that in his spare time he marvels at them "like a child."

In Katsikas' shop stacks of stationery are offering themselves to a study in the archaeology of disorder by their sheer volume and disregard for contemporary display. Display, the commercial flamboyancy of display, is not in Mr Katsikas agenda or immediate plans. People are perhaps not expected to browse in his shop - not expected to make their minds up, to be lured and buy something extra enticed by the appetizing placement of objects. It is most likely that customers ask for the object of their desire trusting in Mr Katsikas authority and in his capacity to procure it.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

On Bics (again)

It is perplexing to me as to why I return occasionally to the ubiquitous Bic. I admire and despise it in equal degrees. I never carry one but it seems that I am inexorably drawn into commenting on its place in memory and usage - personal and collective. I do not want to be remembered as a Bic person (on the other hand it is best to be remembered as a Bic person, than as no person at all). I cannot ignore Roland Barthes' aversion to Bic but the Bics global appeal equally fascinates me.

Confessing his obsession with writing instruments, Barthes admitted that he had tried everything
except Bics, with which I feel absolutely no affinity. I would even say, a bit nastily, that there is a "Bic style", which is really just for churning out cheap copy, writing that merely transcribes thoughts. 
My dear fellow blogger, Bill Landay, had sent me a link to a Guardian article of 2007 on the subject of... Bics. He said it has my name on it:

Classics of Everyday Design by Jonathan Glancey

Chewed, discarded and often overlooked, the Biro is, in fact, the world's favourite writing instrument.

The Biro, or Bic Crystal ballpoint pen, is, to the say the least, a successful everyday design. Everyday, some 14m are sold worldwide. In 2005, the total sales figure reached, and passed, one hundred billion. It really is hard to imagine life without these small transparent pens.
Read more

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Pencil Souvenirs

Pencil souvenirs are really promotional pencils. They promote the venue that is inscribed on them and they promote the self-importance of one for having visited it. The venue says, "You've been here, well done, here's a pencil (you have to pay for it of course)". The purchaser says, "I've been there and here's a pencil that proves it."

My neighbour has recently returned from the Holy Lands bearing with her a cross which encapsulated, she said, an actual real particle of the original holy cross of the lord. She also displayed to me a tiny plastic bottle, similar to the soy sauce bottles included in take-away Sushi boxes, which contained blessed water. When confronted about the authenticity of such items she was nonchalant. "Well, my son wants to buy a pencil wherever he goes", she said. "Am I not allowed to bring a piece of the holy cross from the Holy Lands?". "But you don't even believe in God," I retorted. "Never mind God," she snapped. "I've been there, haven't I".

Monday, 16 August 2010

Summer Break

If I am really on a "summer break" what is the Rhodia notebook doing near the glass of wine? Perhaps expecting to be written on during a drunken holiday stupor? It has been some 20 odd years since I've had one of those. 

I do not expect to be having a serious holiday this year. I may appear to be holidaying but like this bee there is business to attend to.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Play at Work. Learn Drum.

It's August. If, readers, you happen to be at work during this month of traditional holiday leave, then these drumstick pencils are for you. They may be used for your personal enjoyment while at work or to induce annoyment and exasperation to your boss and colleagues. They are made by Suck UK. Two instruments part writing part musical. Drumsticks on one end, HB pencils on the other. Write and Learn Drum. Total length approximately 9 inches or 23 cm.

Play at Work!

Watch for the mutant hand handling both instruments at once. I bought those from the Southbank Centre Shop on Festival Terrace for £5. More weird and wonderful products at Suck UK.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

The Proud Pen by Hans Christian Andersen

Behind, in the window, sat an old Pen that the maid used to write with. There was nothing remarkable about it, except that it was too deeply immersed in ink; but that was just what it was proud of, and made a fuss about.

Hans Christian Andersen, The Flying Trunk (The Bundle of Matches) in Fairy Tales, published in 1869 by Allen Bros. New York, digitised by Google.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Metal Pen

Palimpsest wrote before about the metalpoint as used in the hands of artists and scribes. Here is a modern metalpoint that calls itself a "metal pen". The "point" of pen, or its metal "nib" is made of a metal alloy and obviously there is no need for ink. It is 8cm long and leaves pencil-like marks on paper. The marks will not smudge and cannot be erased.

I did not have the chance to test such a writing instrument but it sure looks intriguing. It is offered by Grand Illusions and costs £13.99 or $20.23 excl. VAT and it promises to last for years and years and years.

See also another "metalpoint" pen, the Beta Pen, in Leigh Reyes blog, My Life as Verb.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Stationery Store Series: Paperchase

Paperchase is a big stationery store chain with its own range of notebooks, journals, address books, diaries, pens, pencils, folders and much more. Its three-floor flagship store in Tottenham Court Road, central London, is not only a stationery shop: it's a lifestyle. It is a lifestyle that my younger self would have adored, but one that my older self is dubious about.

At the ground floor there are stacks upon stacks of florid, colourful notebooks that appeal more for their attractive covers than for the quality of their paper. The variety is dizzying. There are notebooks and diaries for children accompanied by matching pencil cases, pens, water bottles, food containers, folders and lunch boxes; expensive looking photo albums in all shades; journals and address books, plastic-bound, cloth-bound, velvet-bound, leather-bound, paper-bound with magnetic clasps, rings, elastic straps vertical and horizontal - in all imaginable graphic designs and colour/pattern combinations. Wrapping paper, gift tags, gift boxes, Paperchase pens and pencils, pencil cases and in a corner a Moleskine and Rhodia display stand with a few specimens of the renowned brands.

In Paperchase, stationery functions more as display. First impressions are important. The insides of notebooks are secondary. The second floor pretends to cater to the stationery gourmet. Glass cabinets with what appear to be "serious" paper products and designer decorative objects; a long glass display holds the more expensive writing instruments: Cross, Waterman, Lamy, Faber-Castell, Parker. One has to ask to handle the preciousness. Photos (I am promptly informed) are not allowed.

The third floor is dedicated to the artist. Not an exhaustive collection of artist supplies but everything is neat and well-placed. It is flooded by natural light coming from the large windows. No messiness here - rather, there is order and a clean design. As if the stationery or the ink or the brushes or the pens are not meant to be used but admired. Put on a pedestal and suffer the worshiping gazes of their adoring users. One carries them carefully to the cashier's point and half-expects them to be wrapped in muslin.

The paper collection is vast. Indeed the best feature of the whole shop is its vast stock of paper. Paper to die for. It has to be seen to be believed. Card, cartridge, plain, patterned, handmade, weaved, recycled - glorious paper. It, too, appears exclusive. One is tempted to define oneself by means of paper alone. Paper for every mood and occasion, for every purpose and intention. I can see it plastered around my walls or hang from the ceiling and fluttering in a breeze coming from an open window. Or I can see myself spending my evenings touching it. I know it verges on the perverse.

However, I do not buy any paper. The Paperchase notebooks would appeal if I was buying for a teenage girl's birthday. The pencils are all novelty and colour and not much substance. I venture to the artist's corner and pick up a Daler Rowney Artists Graphic HB and an Artists Sketching Watersoluble HB. There is Conté pastel pencils to be had as well.

Paperchase is all about affordable, innovative design for the masses. It is flamboyant with a hint of practicality, commercial with a hint of exclusivity, luxurious with a hint of affordability, childish with a hint of adulthood, adult with a hint of playfulness. I do not know if I must shun it or embrace it. Maybe a bit of both.

Paperchase has an online store for the UK only.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

The Ruler of the Universe and his pencil.

Photo by NASA

The ruler of the universe
picked up from the table a piece of paper and a stub of a pencil. He held one in one hand and the other in the other, and experimented with the different ways of bringing them together. He tried holding the pencil under the paper, then over the paper, then next to the paper. He tried wrapping the paper round the pencil, he tried rubbing the stubby end of the pencil against the paper. It made a mark and he was delighted with the discovery, as he was every day.

Douglas Adams, The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Pan Books 1980.