Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Stationery Store Series: Smythson of Bond Street, London

Dare you enter? It feels like overstepping some invisible but ever-present class barrier of the old Empire – like soiling the rarefied air of an elite residence, depositing an undignified fingerprint on gilt-edged paper or on a handmade sterling silver fountain pen. Smythson, “the world’s foremost purveyor of luxury stationery,” at the heart of London’s Bond Street, sells excessive luxury and the allure of heritage to those who do not need courage to spend £165 on a “Brunches, Lunches, Suppers and Dinners Hardbound Book”  or £275 on a “Game Book”.

Far from me of course to prevent these moneyed persons from recording “formal or informal parties”, table plans, guests, menu and wines in hardbound books made of pigskin. I am ignorant of such matters and the categories “Place”, “Guns” and “Bag” in the brown Mara leather Game Book mystifies me. Fox hunting springs to mind, for instance, but perhaps I am wrong. There is of course the “Dreams and Thoughts” notebook for an astounding £240, for those with time to dream and think in the precious moments left over after brunches and hunts.

If Smythson brand was not enough distinction, there is the personalised service for an additional fee. Hallmarked sterling silver, handmade in England, pencil, Sir? £285 not rising to the occasion? What about our sterling silver fountain pen for £510 plus £50 to engrave it? Smythson ink retails at £16 a bottle. Apparently the likes of Queen Victoria, Grace Kelly, Katharine Hepburn, Edward and Mrs Simpson and Madonna have all bought diaries and address books from the venerable stationery shop. Samantha Cameron, wife of current PM, is the creative director. Enough said.

When I was in Bond Street last with the intention to step over the invisible barrier and review this “old English institution that a politician’s wife had revitalised,” Smythson had just closed for the day. Mahogany-dark bookcases half empty (for fear of book thieves?) glimmered darkly contrasting with the vanilla white Corinthian columns and imposing arches. A security guard emerged to monitor my photo taking of the exterior and once satisfied of my innocent intentions withdrew to Smythsons’ illuminated depths.  

Institutions such as these are useful to the historian who subscribes to the concept of historical empathy. Their existence can explain the causes of history’s great revolutions.

See also “An unauthorised history of Smythson’s” by The Guardian’s Ian Jack, 27 March 2010. Smythson trades also online.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Palomino Blackwing, Smooth Operator and Smear King

Standing tall at an amazing 20cm (or 8 inches) the Palomino Blackwing is a colossus of a pencil: matt black (peppered on close inspection with specks of gold), with golden lettering, a band of gold at the top, a golden ferrule and white tablet of an eraser at the crown. The box of 12 and its contents from Pencils.com is a dazzling black and gold affair, the sleek barrels like dark, hexagonal wands, the ferrules glimmering in the light, the erasers emerging like rubber pearls.

But at $19.95 I won the right to moan.  And I start with the presentation. Well, call me Mrs Whinge, if you will, but the pencils do not line up in the box as they should.  They simply do not fit neatly with the lettering all showing on one side and the ferrules lined up at the same angle. The box is too small for these colossal pencil specimens. And then they are the specks of gold that randomly adorn the matt surface of the barrels. Like the pencils were produced in a factory that handles also glitter.

The Palomino Blackwing gives an exceptionally dark line. Making a line on paper feels like gliding. Writing is a pleasure if you like your pencils soft.The Blackwing is much darker and much smoother than the California Republic Palomino HB. Maybe too smooth. A smooth operator but also a smear king. It is inevitable of course. You can’t have this amount of smoothness with no smear.

I like an acute point in a pencil and to achieve this with the Palomino Blackwing you have to sharpen it constantly. It wears quickly.  But for one appreciating the pleasures of sharpening, this is not a bad thing. Because this new Blackwing sharpens like a dream. It produces such fragrant and visually pleasing shavings that I can see Palomino-Blackwing-sharpening used as a form of therapy.

Would I use for everyday writing? I have not decided yet. I fear it is too long and too soft. Too heavy and it wears easily. But oh the buttery feel. And the sharpening. And the pressing down of the point on paper and the feeling of wearing down the graphite on every move. 

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

And the winner is...

Thank you, dear Readers, for your kind wishes and your quotes.
I have a very scientific system of choosing the winner. I write the commenter's name on a tiny piece of paper, fashion it into a tiny ball and call upon one of my son's to pick one.
And the winner is...


who wrote:
"Writing became such a process of discovery that I couldn't wait to get to work in the morning: I wanted to know what I was going to say." ~Sharon O'Brien

Congratulations, Blandine. Please send your contact details to blogpalimpsest@gmail.com to receive your parcel.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

First Anniversary

Dear Readers,

Palimpsest is today one year old. Since its conception on November 20, 2009, its pages have been visited 45,564 times on purpose or by chance. Palimpsest says thank you. Feedburner informs me that the Top Ten most popular pieces throughout all this time have been as follows:

  1. Rebirth by Sharpening on the pleasures of pencil sharpening
  2. Bic, Edding 55, Ball Pentel, Papermate: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly on the old classics.
  3. From France to China on pencil finds.
  4. Stationery Store Series: P.W. Akkerman in Amsterdam and Anne Frank and her Fountain Pen
  5. On Bics (Again) on the adored and despised Bic.
  6. Ticonderoga, Ticonderoga, an extract from Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin
  7. Gandhi, his Pencil and Mont Blanc on Mont Blanc’s Limited Edition fountain pen.
  8. To Write Well by Nietzsche: the philosopher on writing and Stationery, Pen, Pencil: Etymology Lesson.
  9. Winston Churchill and his Pens; new/old evidence on the pens that Churchill used from the archives. The eighth place is shared also by The Proud Pen by Hans Christian Andersen and  from the Pick-a-Pen series of readers’ contributions, fellow blogger’s Woodclinched: Uni-Ball Vision Green and Evergreen.
  10. Catholic Conspiracy Deprives Man of Ink on the 17thC Popish plot; D.H. Lawrence Pen and Intercourse; Woman’s Ink, on my personal ink problems

It is traditional to organise a giveaway as a means of celebration for one’s blog first anniversary. So here it goes. A surprise parcel shall arrive at the doorstep of a reader who will be chosen at random and who will be kind enough to leave a quote about writing instruments or inks in place of a comment.

The parcel will contain a selection of writing instruments, including two vintage Sergent-Major nibs No.500.  Kindly leave a quote until Wednesday 24 November. I shall post internationally.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Conway Stewart Fountain Pen that Leaks

It is perhaps appropriate that this Conway Stewart 106 leaks. Appropriate for my situation that is. Let me elaborate.

I bought said Conway Stewart in the London Writing Equipment Show in October and pleased I was to go away with a pen bearing a name of note at the modest price of £20. It is a slim pen - slimmer than I would have preferred, for I think I would have normally gone for a heftier writing instrument, had I possess the necessary funds to finance my preference. The colour is a pleasant green, the nib is a fine, 14K gold one, the clip and trim are gold plated and it has got an aerometric filler. It writes smoothly. And it leaks.

The Conway Stewart adds to the adversity of the time. When I wish for life to stop throwing me any more nasty surprises, there is a flood. When I hope for a respite, there is drought. And so with the pen: it alternates between bouts of inkfulness (a profusion and effusion of Pelikan 4001 Turquoise Ink as demonstrated on my finger and right palm) and paucity of writing fluid with nib refusing to deliver even on to the finest paper.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Writing Instruments and the Rage of Silence

“Why don’t I just choose silence?” asks the good Nemo. I am drawn to silence. But I (too) need inscription. Inscription is an antidote to silence. It requires a writing instrument and a hand and a piece of paper or a keyboard; there is, in other words, a materiality about inscription that saves the mind – my mind – from the inchoate rage that lives within my silence.

I see the words slip through my fingers and when I lose them I know there is nothing else beyond them. No other redemption, no parallel universe, no afterlife for the lost words. If I lose my words (and recently I do), I lose my ability to invent reality. The reality of my silence is intangible. The pen reminds me of the material world.

Not that said material world appeals to or appeases my ingrained misanthropy. Not that I can see meaning. But the world gives me material to invent. And there is nowhere else to go. In inventing I retreat and in inventing I contain the rage in my silence for a while.

I am on the brink. Pens, nibs, pencils, inks hold the promise of escape.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Shaeffer Pen of Sylvia Plath

Your writing was also your fear.
It made a noise like your typewriter.
It hid in your Shaeffer pen –
That was its favourite place. Whenever you wrote
You would stop, mid-word,
To look at it more closely, black, fat,
Between your fingers –
The swelling terror that would any moment
Suddenly burst out and take from you
Your husband, your children, your body, your life.
You could see it, there, in your pen.

Somebody took that too.

Ted Hughes, Birthday Letters  - Apprehensions.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Sergent-Major Nibs

The past is invoked in the presence of a slow and harrowing death. I shun it; it lays claim on me, nevertheless. The dying person insists in telling me stories - it records them for me to hear, it narrates them embellished, it mumbles them in states of delirium. Is it in search of lost time that this narration takes place? Is there enough time to tell the stories and make our peace? Is there peace?

 As I am unable to contemplate the search for the lost time, I remain content with the possession of Sergent-Major nibs - the nibs that Proust used to retrace his. They are made by Gilbert and Blanzy-Poure and come in a small box colourfully illustrated with the Battle of the Wattignies which was fought 1793 during the French Revolutionary Wars. They are very fine and make delicate lines. Sometimes there’s too much ink in the nib and so dipping it in the ink bottle needs some skill. The paper can take it. It is a French exercise book I’m using -  it’s called simply “Cahier Grands Carreaux”.

With these fine Sergent-Major nibs I copy extracts from Swann's Way. “For a long time I would go to bed early.” Or: “Our social personality is a creation of other people.” It is soothing, there is no intellectual strain involved - only the numbing pleasure of watching the nib gliding onto paper with other people's words. Death is the end. Searches are irrelevant today. Only the small pleasures in objects - in the small sound of nib marking the paper - remain. What is lost, is lost. 

Sergent-Major nibs by Gilbert & Blanzy-Poure; 
purchased from Vintage Fountain Pens