Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Death of a Wyvern

 Wyvern killed by wolf , Trento Italy

 “Out of a blue sky, trouble struck. Initially it seemed little more than a cough and a splutter, so to speak, but things deteriorated rapidly, and in a rather public and embarrassing way,” writes Howard Davies in Management Today. “I also lost my job.” 
Sir Davies was allowed to keep his column in Management Today but he had already asked for his P45: on March 4 the director of the London School of Economics resigned over the school’s dealings with the Gaddafi regime.

“An important chapter in my life came to an end.” 

Davies who has been director of the LSE since 2003 has been enmeshed in a sordid affair. He has been academic advisor to Saif al-Islam Gaddafi while the latter studied in LSE (yes, the same Saif who warned that Libya would see “rivers of blood” if protesters insisted on attacking his father’s regime). He gave advice to Libya’s sovereign wealth fund in 2007; accepted (on behalf of the LSE) a £1.5m from a charitable foundation run by Saif to set up a north Africa research programme and visited Tripoli on behalf of this programme in December 2009. 

Sordid affair today. At the time, no one raised an eyebrow to Gaddafi, his son or his regime and many (including Soros) indeed advised LSE to accept the donation. Although Davies admitted “there were risks involved in taking funding from sources associated with Libya,” these were debated at the time and “we took a risk... and it’s right to say that that risk backfired on us.” One of those who commented on The Guardian article pointed out that had the Gaddafi regime embarked on a reform programme that eventually led to liberalisation, the LSE would have been hailed as a key player in that process. But it was not to be.

“Even at the end of February there seemed little sign of trouble ahead. We were purring along nicely.” 
The uprising in Libya has torn apart the cosy blanket under which politicians, consultants, businessmen and academics were dealing with Gaddafi’s regime. Is Howard Davies a scapegoat? Surely, he is not the only one to have dealt with the miasma. And surely academic institutions are not the bastions of morality any more than banks are. 

“In just a few days, I realised that it was all over, and I needed to get used to the pain of separation. I was very unhappy about it, I can tell you, and blamed myself.” 
Indeed within a few days there was blood on Libya’s streets, “Brother Leader” (as an LSE research fellow had addressed him)was attacked and the good Saif (who was awarded a Ph.D. from LSE) was accused on plagiarism. What was sanctioned yesterday came under scrutiny today.

“And that’s not all. The nib of my antique Wyvern fountain pen has gone skewwhiff; and can’t be twisted back to shape. The Davies family’s anachronistic reliance on the proud traditions of British engineering has proven misplaced.

I also lost my job.”

Quotes from: Howard Davies, “Howard Davies: The MT Diary”, Management Today, 29 March 2011;
“LSE head quits over Gaddafi scandal”, The Guardian 4 March 2011. 
On Wyvern pens see Dave's Mechanical Pencils

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Rhodia Inroads in Ryman

Palimpsest could not believe her eyes, dear readers, when in her local Ryman her eyes fell upon Rhodia notebooks. Ryman is the UK's largest stationery retailer, founded in 1893 by Henry J Ryman who opened his first stationery shop in London's Great Portland Street. Since then Ryman has been supplying the nation with pens and paper and all kinds of office supplies from hole punchers to paper clips and from folders to filing cabinets. There is a Ryman in every high street. It is not cozy at Ryman's and it is not meant to be.

Ryman's stationery shop says no nonsense. No specialist, obscure pencils here, no bottled inks (apart from Quink blue-black, that is), no fancy and exclusive notebooks or silly-priced Montblancs. But Ryman is dependable in that there are folders and ink cartridges and Uni-Ball gel rollerballs and cheap packs of Staedtler Noris and Tradition for the kids and BICs and felt tip pens and correction fluid and sellotape and glue and rulers and compasses and presentation folders for those projects and printing paper. I do do browsing at Ryman's. And there is some monetary drainage of my wallet because of Ryman.

But, well, the least I expected was Rhodia. Is it because Rhodia has been associated with some niche, pen and paper aficionado market - knowledgeable punters that seek hard-to-get notebooks in far away places - and then go on to test them for feathering and bleed-through-ess and proclaim them fit or unfit for use for expensive fountain pens? Perhaps. But now Rhodia, it seems, goes to the masses. From the metal shelves of Ryman to the hands of a fountain-pen-less nation. Will there be orange pads peeking out of every other builder's bum pocket in the country? Like foreign holidays Rhodias may lose their lustre as their availability to a BIC-wielding public will rise. But I think that giving the world 80gsm high-grade vellum paper is a good thing. I do applaud the inroads of Rhodia into Rymans. And, you know, there was Clairefontaine too.

There were: Rhodia No. 12 and No. 13 Head Stapled Pads in black and orange; Rhodia Head Stapled Notebooks No. 16 and 18 in orange and black; Rhodia Side Stapled Notebook A4 and A5; Clairefontaine wirebound and staplebound A4 and A5 and Clairefontaine Forever envelopes, yellow, bright pink and blue. And yes, they can be bought at Ryman online.

Friday, 18 March 2011


The box containing arguably the best gingerbread in the world came with a pencil. I have ordered the pencil as something to look at when the gingerbread has been all eaten and digested. The gingerbread came from as far away as the Lake District, home of Derwent pencils, the Cumberland pencil museum and William Wordsworth. The fragrant delicacy from Grasmere is made to a secret recipe first invented by Sarah Nelson. She knew that what the pencil couldn't teach a confection would. Even after Sarah lost her two daughters to tuberculosis in 1869 and 1870 and few years later her husband she continued making gingerbread alphabets which she used to teach the village children. 

Friday, 11 March 2011

The Elusive Elias Wolff

The name Elias Wolff was not always elusive. When I came upon a tin of E.Wolff Royal Sovereign pencils I investigated. The National Portrait Gallery in its British artists' suppliers resource lists Elias Wolff (c. 1780-1854)  - consequently Elias Wolff & Son (1840-1915) and E. Wolff & Son Ltd. (1916-1920) - as a pencil maker who set up business first in Spitalfields in East London and later in Falcon Pencil Works in Battersea, south London.

During the 1840s Wolff produced the "Creta Laevis" pencils which Dave's Mechanical Pencils came upon in 2008 in an old pencil box. In 1842 Creta Laevis are listed in H. Wilson's The Use of a Box of Colours... under C. Smith's Materials for sketching in watercolours as these crayons worked dry or with water. Creta Laevis pastel pencils were reported to have gone "out of fashion" by 1880s. 

The Survey of London, vol. 27 (1957), mentions No. 23 Fournier Street, Spitalfields as occupied from 1818 to 1866 by Elias and Zive Wolff, pencil makers. Further evidence of Elias Wolff appears in 1884 in the National Archives. It is in the records of the Board of Trade and concerns a patent registered by E. Wolff and Son Pencil Manufacturers of 55 Great Queen Street, London WC: "a pen rack the upper edges of which are notched or serrated so as to hold penholders, pencils, etc."

 I could not find any information about the Falcon Pencil Works, which is listed as a Battersea industry in Randomwalk (where also a photo of the factory from the Wandsworth Local History Centre.) In 1921 E.Wolff & Son is incorporated in the Royal Sovereign Co. together with Arthur Johnson (later B.S. Cohen), pencil manufacturer of Neasden.

Royal Sovereign prospered during the war but it was "a prosperity of an extremely undesirable and unhealthy kind, in that Government demands for pencils received priority over those through the ordinary trade channels, from which an international connection had been built up over a hundred years," Grace's Guide quotes an extract from British Trade and Industry 1934

"So undesirable and unhealthy, in fact, that to see British-made pencils in the retailers' shops in England itself was a rare sight. Indeed, nearly all pencils on sale in the country were of foreign origin.

England during the war became almost the sole manufacturer of pencils for all the Allied Governments. Without pencils it would have been impossible for clerical staffs and draughtsmen to perform that essential work which is the preliminary to the manufacture of commodities and war munitions. Without pencils it would have been difficult to manufacture rifles, shells and guns, to build submarines, destroyers and battle-cruisers, and to move armies in the field."

In an effort to regain the markets lost during the war, Royal Sovereign expanded its premises in Neasden and decided to go under the name Britannia Pencil Works. The company produced "Royal Sovereign" pencils, "Spanish Graphite" and the famous Woff "J" pencil which was supplied to the Law Courts and Houses of Lords.

In the 1922 British Industries Fair, Royal Sovereign is listed as manufacturers of the "Royal Sovereign," "Bank of England," "Spanish Graphite," "Imperial," "Alexandra," and all kinds of Blacklead, Carbon and Coloured Pencils, Crayons and Chalks. In 1934 Royal Sovereign was appointed pencil manufacturers to King George V and thus allowed to bear the royal coat of arms on their packaging.

The brand still exists today. Wolff Carbon Pencils and graphite pencils are popular with artists and there are also Royal Sovereign Chinagraph pencils for writing in smooth and shiny surfaces. I think that the company was taken over by Staedtler but maybe fellow pencil experts know more.

A tin of 11 unsharpened pencil by E. Wolff is available to buy at Inklinks at Etsy. And for those who are into vintage packaging there is an empty case of Royal Sovereign, too.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

World War Two Pencils and Compasses for POWs

Palimpsest was fascinated last year to discover in the Cumberland Pencil Museum the ingenious pencils which have been manufactured during the Second World War with the aim to aid prisoners of war in their Great Escape. These writing instruments concealed inside their barrel a tightly-rolled map while a tiny compass was fitted on top in the metal ferrule. The pencils were issued to aircrew or sent to POW camps.

This Sunday during a visit to the famous Bletchley Park, home of World War II code-breaking and famous for breaking Enigma, Palimpsest was scanning the lovingly collected and exhibited relics of the 1940s – for evidence of pencils. And lo! Two tiny compasses – escape compasses – of which the smallest one was concealed in a pencil. I am guessing that it was concealed in a Cumberland 

The delight was not over: Under another glass cabinet a bunch of war pencils.

Friday, 4 March 2011

The world of ink and paper of Alexei Karenin

Palimpsest cannot help but feel some affinity with the husband of Anna Karenina, the disagreeable Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin to whom Tolstoy assigns a love of writing accessories. A formidable bureaucrat of cold and sharp intellect Karenin is averse in expressing his emotions but he is comfortable amongst his writing appurtenances. On his immense writing desk on which six candles are burning Alexei Karenin puts his elbows on, bends his head on one side, thinks for a minute and begins to write without pausing for one second. What Karenin cannot voice, he writes.

Karenin’s desk is as immense as his formidable facade. There he feels at ease and from there he issues his affidavits. With a massive ivory knife he smoothes the letter he is about to send to his unfaithful wife containing his instructions. He is disagreeable like that. But Palimpsest’s heart softens when reading Tolstoy’s remark: “[Karenin] rang the bell with the gratification it always afforded him to use the well arranged appointments of his writing-table.” The gratification of objects – the need for objects to palliate loss. And Karenin has lost.

The writing table and its contents is a mirror to the emotions, to a secret life of another. Gratified to look at his writing desk Karenin is terrified to glance at the table of his wife.
...looking at her table, with the malachite blotting case lying at the top and an unfinished letter, his thoughts suddenly changed. He began to think of her, of what she was thinking and feeling. For the first time he pictured vividly to himself her personal life, her ideas, her desires and the idea that she could and should have a separate life of her own seemed to him so alarming that he made haste to dispel it. It was the chasm which he was afraid to peep into. To put himself in thought and feeling in another’s person’s place was a spiritual exercise not natural to Alexy Alexandrovitch. He looked on this spiritual exercise as a harmful and dangerous abuse of the fancy.

And so Karenin returns to ink. About to meet with the lawyer to discuss his divorce, he takes comfort from the exceptionally good appurtenances of the clerks’ writing tables. Avoid conflict with emotion. Grasp the pen. Arrange the inchoate world in words.
He had translated the matter from the world of real life to the world of ink and paper, he had grown more and more used to his own intention, and by now distinctly perceived the feasibility of its execution.