Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Woman's Ink

I wouldn't complain, dear readers, about the overcast sky or the drizzle that hangs in the air this evening. These weather conditions never really constitute a cause for complaint for me. Au contraire. I thrive on what others call misery-weather and I despair on very bright and very hot summer days. I am a misfit like that. However, on this particular evening I am seized by a peculiar mood. Is it the drizzle which in combination with the Brazilian oil the hairdresser insisted it'll do my curls good had created a hairdo that 1. smells of a massage parlour (not that I've ever been in one) and 2. resembles a cauliflower? Is it because this evening (to put it poetically) my ink does not flow?

The recently purchased TomBow Object Fountain Pen, red, nib width F, is filled with Private Reserve Ebony Purple but I find the nib scratches the paper rather than glides on it. I have ink-filled my Lamy Safari with J.Herbin Bouquet d'Antan (by means of a converter) but it comes out a pale dirt pink (let me mention that I have cleaned it previously to get rid of previous Perle Noir). My fingers are inked; the desk bears ink blotches. There is even an ink stain on the duvet cover (how that happened?). And now it is time to remember the following from Carol Shield's Unless:

...the matter of women's ink
self-pitying, humourless, demanding, claustrophobic, breathless.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Catholic Conspiracy Deprives Man of Ink

Many believed Titus Oates when he alleged in 1678 that there existed a Catholic conspiracy to assassinate King Charles II. The King laughed at such a fantastical story and ordered the arrest of Oates. But Oates was saved by Parliament and the anti-Catholic hysteria that had gripped the country. William Coventry was among those who bought into the story of the Popish plot and protested against Oates' being deprived of his writing instruments:

Pen, ink and paper to be forbidden a man,is an extraordinary restraint.

William Coventry talking to the House of Commons, Grey's Debates of the House of Commons, vol. 6, 1769.
Image from Gentleman's Magazine 1849.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Collecting Pencils

The Museum of Innocence. A Love Story.

I am intrigued by the new novel of Ohran Pamuk The Museum of Innocence not because I have read it but because of its main character's obsession with collecting objects. In 1970s Istanbul, Kemal becomes infatuated with Füsun and goes about collecting things that she had touched or used. The objects find their way into a museum that Kemal builts, a shrine to his lost love.

As a provider of emotional security an object is the finest of domestic animals, writes Baudrillard. An object is the perfect mirror that sends back not real images but desired ones. All that cannot be invested in human relationships is invested in objects. What gives objects a "soul", what makes them "ours" is their capacity to regulate time, to regulate everyday life, to provide an outlet for tensions and energies that are in mourning. And Kemal is in mourning.

I lack the single-mindedness of collectors. Take pencils for example. The idea that I would start collecting pencils by manufacturer, make, date, etc. is beyond me. To be as systematic with pencils as to know them intimately (type of wood, manufacturing process of lead, design of barrel) and order them into series does not appeal. But I do understand the need for the creation of an environment for private objects. Possessing objects is a controlled, self-addressed discourse - by using objects we recite ourselves.

Baudrillard had said it all: The environment of private objects is an essential, if imaginary, dimension of our life. As essential as dreams. Objects help us cope with the irreversible movement from birth towards death. And so if Kemal's obsession with collecting objects associated with his lost love "bears the stamp of solitude", I can feel the importance of investing objects with meanings. If I don't collect pencils, I collect their meanings and their private environments. They way they are transformed into dreams into people's heads.

Let this crystal inkwell and pen set belonging to my mother that Füsun toyed that afternoon, noticing it on the table while she was smoking a cigarette, be a relic of the refinement and the fragile tenderness we felt for each other. (28)
The way her hair tumbled onto the paper, the way her hand traveled across the table, the way she'd chew and chew a lead pencil, only to slip its eraser between her lips, as if sucking a nipple, the way her bare arm grazed my own from time to time - all this sent my head spinning, but I held myself in check. (64)
I knew from experience that Füsun's lead pencil had the greatest consolatory power of all the things in the apartment, with her teacup, which I had not washed since her disappearance coming in a close second; I took these things into bed with me. After touching them and stroking my skin with them for a short time, I was able at last to relax. (511)

*Michael Gorra, "The Museum of Innocence by Ohran Pamuk", The Guardian, 10 January 2010;
*Orhan Pamuk... is standing among a sea of objects - sewing machines, clocks, soda-bottle tops, buttons, lottery tickets, china dogs, bird cages, cigarette lighters and false teeth... The Art Newspaper, 16 September 2010  Read more...
*Jean Baudrillard, The System of Objects, Verson: London & N. York, 2005.
*Ohran Pamuk, The Museum of Innocence

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Stationery, Pen, Pencil: Etymology Lesson

Stationer's Stall. 
Image from The Book of Days

stationer n. Person who sells paper, pens, pencils, etc. 1311 stacioner book dealer; earlier as a surname Staciner (1293-4); borrowed from Medieval Latin stationarius, originally, stationary seller, as distinct from a roving peddler.

The sale of writing materials was originally part of a book dealer’s business. The distinction between a bookseller and a stationer was not established until the 1700s (and very often books are still available from a stationer’s) although the current sense of stationer is recorded in Blount’s Glossographia (1656).

The Bookkeeper by Philip van Dijk, ca. 1725

Pen n. instrument for writing. Probably about 1380 penne, pen; earlier pen quill pen, feather (1373); borrowed from Old French penne, pene, paine and directly from Latin penna feather.
The term pen name (first recorded in 1864) is a translation from nom de plume. The word penknife (appearing in Middle English before 1425) is so called because these small pocketknives were originally used to sharpen quill pens.

Image courtesy of Faber-Castell

Pencil n. About 1325 pincel artist’s paintbrush; pencel (about 1385, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales); borrowed from Old French pincel, peincel paintbrush, alteration of Vulgar Latin penicellus, variant of Latin penicillus paintbrush, pencil, literally, little tail, diminutive of penicilus  brush, itself a diminutive of penis tail.

The meaning of a writing implement made of graphite is first recorded in 1612, though pencil case for carrying graphite pencils is first recorded in 1552.
-v. About 1532, to draw or sketch with a brush; from the noun. The meaning of write or jot down with a pencil is first recorded in 1760-72.

All etymology entries from Chambers Dictionary of Etymology

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Winston Churchill and his Pens. From the Archives.

In the world of pen aficionados, Winston Churchill will forever be one of the most famous users of Conway Stewart pens. Indeed, Conway Stewart have produced a pen to commemorate the British statesman:

The Churchill is made from either black or coloured resin, or ebonite with a traditional carved pattern or rippled effect. Trim rings are 18ct gold as is the extra large nib. All pens are made to order, individually numbered and supplied in a large gift box with cigar and book of Churchill’s quotations.
(Photo and text from The Writing Desk)

When recently the Churchill Archive Trust agreed to allow the public to access more than 700,000 entries of the Churchill Papers catalogue online, I was able to get a glimpse of the man’s history of pen use.

Swan Pens

Mabie Todd, originally established in New York City, opened a London office in 1884 and eventually established a British Mabie Todd firm in 1914. They started producing Swan fountain pens around 1890 and went on to advertise the Swan as “the pen of the British Empire.” At the time when Frank Jarvis and Thomas Garner formed Conway Stewart & Co. Ltd at 13 Paternoster Row, near St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Winston Churchill purchases a Swan pen for 10s 6d. It was in February 1905. The following year, in March 1906, another same purchase is recorded.

Red Dwarf Pens

Churchill had been using Red Dwarf pens (stylos or stylographs) made by J. Kearny & Co. Liverpool for years. From 1931 to 1939, two purchases of Red Dwarf mottled stylos are recorded (he paid £1 10s for six). The price remained stable throughout that time! But in 1939 three pens were sent back for repair “noting that Winston Churchill had been using this type of pen for many years, and had recently noticed a deterioration.”

Conway Stewart Pens

When Churchill made Conway Stewart pens his writing instrument of choice, I do not know. His correspondence during the war reveals his preference for a particular Conway Stewart “self-filling stylo” which his supplier R. Horsley (Grand Arcade Pen Shop, Trafalgar Square) declares himself in 1943 “impossible to obtain.”

But who could refuse the Prime Minister his favourite pen? Although out of production for several years, Conway Stewart managed to provide Winston in March 1945 with three self-filling stylos which “had been put together with parts as we could find available.” An unsigned portrait of the Prime Minister was sent to Conway Stewart as a note of thanks.

On March 1945 Conway Stewart returns to Winston Churchill a repaired Ink Pencil. Maybe similar to that 
shown in the Vintage Conway Stewart website.

Miles-Martin Pens

Having acquired the Biro manufacturing rights outside the U.S., English businessman George Martin and Miles Aircraft owner, Frederick Miles formed the Miles-Martin Co. Ltd and in 1945 produced their first Biro. During the same year, in October 1945, Norman Holden apparently praised the Miles-Martin pens to Winston Churchill and made him a gift of one. Winston liked them and ordered six more writing to Holden that “I will not take them unless you let me pay for them.”

Photo: Science and Society

Frederick Miles seized the opportunity to have the British Prime Minister on the list of the company’s fans. On 26 November 1945, he sent Churchill 6 ball point pens “as ordered” regretting that “the pens had to be put into clumsy utility cases, a hang-over from the strength-through-misery movement.” A nicer case, he writes, would have carried 100% tax. However, Miles put in the parcel a presentation case as gift and charged the PM only for 5 pens “hoping that restrictions and red tape could be overcome and that the pens would have a large export value.”

But reviewing the pens’ performance on December 1945 it was reported that “the pens were inclined to stop writing when they became extremely cold, and would then require warming.” Not a good present for Christmas then...


Churchill Papers at the Churchill College Cambridge, Archive Centre

Monday, 13 September 2010

D.H. Lawrence, Pen and Intercourse

Lawrence called one morning on an Eastwood lady with whom he was on friendly terms. Lawrence was in a restless mood... "There's a poem I want to write." "Well," says the lady, "there's pen and ink and paper in the next room. Go and write your poem, and then, perhaps, you'll be a bit more sociable." Lawrence went on walking as he said "That's just the trouble. I can never work until after I've had sexual intercourse." "Too bad," says the lady, disappearing from the room. Ten minutes later she reappeared in a dressing gown, saying "All right, Bert. You can use me."

John Worthen, D.H. Lawrence: the early years, 1885-1912, Cambridge University Press 1992. Google Books.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Stationery Store Series: P.W. Akkerman, Amsterdam

The pen and stationery shop of P.W.Akkerman (since 1927) in the centre of Amsterdam is the apex of European refinement. Its pen-ware reclines gracefully behind tall, illuminated glass cabinets: Mont Blanc, Sheaffer, Parker, Parker Duofold, Cross, Waterman, Visconti, Sailor fountain pens are displayed to ultimate effect under soft, white spotlights. Minuscule price tags are attached to each by means of a soft string.

This gloriously lit pen magnificence is presided by two ladies in precise hairdos and perfect manicures. Under their supervision is also a vast collection of luxury leather goods, writing folders and organizers, notebooks (incl. Rhodia and Moleskine) and inks (Private Reserve, Waterman, Lamy, Mont Blanc, Sailor, Pelikan, Parker, Visconti).

Dare one disturb the graceful display of objects - is one's hands clean enough to handle them? I am certain that the well-manicured ladies would obligingly unlock the heavenly-lit cabinets and hand me the object of my desire for my perusal. Should I bring to them a wounded pen needing repair I am certain that they would lovingly nurse it back to health (without a drop of ink ever staining their immaculate fingers).

In P.W.Akkerman's stationery store the pens strike me as lying in state isolated in their illuminated magnificence and I feel a Jean Baudrillard coming on: "For all their multiplicity, objects are generally isolated as to their function, and it is the user who is responsible as his needs dictate, for their coexistence in a functional context." I leave the magnificent pens isolated under the white light and I head for Anne Frank's House - the site of the cremated pen.

P.W. Akkerman is at

Kalverstraat 148
1012 XB Amsterdam

P.W. Akkerman can be found online.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Ticonderoga Ticonderoga by Vladimir Nabokov

I've noted elsewhere Nabokov's affinity with pencils. I am reading Pnin at the moment and here's the magnificent passage on sharpening (and more):

With the help of the janitor [Pnin] screwed on to the side of the desk a pencil sharpener - that highly satisfying, highly philosophical implement that goes ticonderoga-ticonderoga, feeding on the yellow finish and sweet wood, and ends up in a kind of soundlessly spinning ethereal void as we all must.

Photo by causalloop

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Anne Frank and her Fountain Pen

One can only imagine what life was like in the Annexe for Anne Frank. The Anne Frank Huis is now an empty shell that echoes with the footsteps of pilgrims. One tries to breathe in the past, to reconstitute it in one's mind but the past has been cremated like Anne's fountain pen - like Anne's many many compatriots.
She writes on Thursday, 11 November 1943:

Ode to My Fountain Pen In Memoriam

My fountain pen was always one of my most prized possessions; I valued it highly, especially because it had a thick nib, and I can only write neatly with thick nibs. It has led a long and interesting fountain-pen life, which I will summarize below.

When I was nine, my fountain pen (packed in cotton wool) arrived as a 'sample of no commercial value' all the way from Aachen, where my grandmother (the kindly donor) used to live. I lay in bed with flu, while the February winds howled around our flat. This splendid fountain pen came in a red leather case, and I showed it to my girlfriends the first chance I got. Me, Anne Frank, the proud owner of a fountain pen.

When I was ten, I was allowed to take the pen to school, and to my surprise, the teacher even let me write with it. When I was eleven, however, my treasure had to be tucked away again, because my sixth-form teacher allowed us to use only school pens and ink-pots. When I was twelve, I started at the Jewish Lyceum and my fountain pen was given a new case in honour of the occasion. Not only did it have room for a pencil, it also had a zip, which was much more impressive. When I was thirteen, the fountain pen went with me to the Annexe, and together we've raced through countless diaries and compositions. I'd turned fourteen and my fountain pen was enjoying the last year of its life with me when . . .

It was just after five on Friday afternoon. I came out of my room and was about to sit down at the table to write when I was roughly pushed to one side to make room for Margot and Father, who wanted to practise their Latin. The fountain pen remained unused on the table, while its owner, sighing, was forced to make do with a very tiny corner of the table, where she began rubbing beans. That's how we remove mould from the beans and restore them to their original state. At a quarter to six I swept the floor, dumped the dirt into a newspaper, along with the rotten beans, and tossed it into the stove. A giant flame shot up, and I thought it was wonderful that the stove, which had been gasping its last breath, had made such a miraculous recovery.

All was quiet again. The Latin students had left, and I sat down at the table to pick up where I'd left off. But no matter where I looked, my fountain pen was nowhere in sight. I took another look. Margot looked, Mother looked, Father looked, Dussel looked. But it had vanished.

'Maybe it fell in the stove, along with the beans!' Margot suggested.

'No, it couldn't have!' I replied.

But that evening, when my fountain pen still hadn't turned up, we all assumed it had been burned, especially because celluloid is highly inflammable. Our darkest fears were con firmed the next day when Father went to empty the stove and discovered the clip, used to fasten it to a pocket, among the ashes. Not a trace of the gold nib was left. 'It must have melted into stone,' Father conjectured.

I'm left with one consolation, small though it may be: my fountain pen was cremated, just as I would like to be some day.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

From France to China

The glass cabinet of the stationery shop is the world in a teacup. The glass cabinet resides in a small local shop in central Athens which seems to have survived the financial troubles that have caused many of its neighbours to shut down. An anemic tree enlivens the shop's drab entrance which is partially blocked by a parked vehicle. The glass cabinet is in a state of disarray. It holds pencils, loose pencils and pencils in boxes of 12, and some erasers. They are all covered by a thin layer of dust. 

  • "Liberty" pencils made in Taiwan by the Pai-Tai Co.; 
  • a Chinese "Finest Pencil"; 
  • an American Ebehard Faber ECOwriter (I'm informed by Pencil Pages that Eberhard Faber USA was bought by Sanford in the 1990s and the EF range is not made any more).
  • a fun pencil with faded Mad characters; 
  • a German EFA Eberhard Faber (Extra Extra Graphite); 
  • Faber-Castell Dessin 2001 , Made in Indonesia, (which seems to be the staple school pencil in Greece, like the Staedtler Noris in the UK perhaps); 
  • Conté eVOLUTION  pencil, Made in France (see review in penciltalk); 
  • Hardmuth's Austrian Koh-I-Noor; 
  • a pencil named FILA, Made in Italy and another one named Scorpione. 

How these pencils found their way into Mr Katsikas stationery shop, I do not know. Seeing me rummaging in the glass cabinet, Mr Katsikas brings me two clear plastic boxes full of pencils. He admits that in his spare time he marvels at them "like a child."

He then presents me with a gift: a thick "NEW GUITAR Marking Pen" bearing a seal with endearing Greek typography, possibly from the 70s if not earlier. The typography makes the GUITAR a nostalgic relic. 
The Same Olde Guitar But Improved
A Sealed Pen: A Guarantee that it is fresh and has not been used
A Longer Pen: Can be Handled Better - Has More Ink - Lasts More
The Ink is of Oil, not of Water Color
Sticks on all surfaces and cannot be rubbed off
Comes in 15 Colors, Three Shades of Grey
It is impossible to translate vintage Greek. Written in perfect seriousness, the message on the seal can only be perceived as a droll statement now: antiquated, nostalgic, even ironic. "They don't make them as they used to", Mr Katsikas remembers the Marking Pens of Old. I have no intention of breaking the seal. Facing the truth about the past may be disappointing.