Thursday, 30 June 2011

To Boldly Write


For Reginald Piggott there was such thing as national handwriting. The means to achieve it was a fountain pen, a medium nib and black ink. The Scottish calligrapher amassed thousands of handwriting samples from all over the country and provided a glimpse into the British people’s writing styles and preferred writing implements in his book Handwriting: A National Survey, which was published in 1958. More than 50 years on, all his neat classifications are not applicable any more but his findings are still fascinating.

At the time of his research only 15 per cent of his subjects were ballpoint pen users as the Biro had only been recently mass produced and popularised.  Those who took to it readily were farmers, manual workers and entertainers, while students and lawyers stuck with the fountain pen. Biro-wielding manual workers were, however, top of the class as far as legible handwriting was concerned together with typographers and military men who would rather use a fountain pen.

Teachers and secretaries did fine in handwriting neatness but artists, scientists and company directors produced absolutely illegible scribbles. Artists tended to use the italic while lawyers and clerks preferred the round, cursive hand. Peggott called the latter “Civil Service” and found that a staggering 43 per cent of those who answered his questionnaire used it. The most elaborate hand, Copperplate, a style both difficult and time-consuming to produce, was used by railway workers, lorry and bus drivers.


Roland Barthes would be delighted to read Piggott’s investigations on the colour of ink used by the Britons. Black was apparently a bold option and those who chose to boldly write in black ink were university lecturers, architects and artists but also Catholic priests and Grammar school boys. Blue-black was the colour men chose, blue the colour preferred by women. Lady novelists chose green ink while ballet dancers went for violet. Typographers favoured brown and teachers red.


Piggott wanted to instill good, solid, modern handwriting – “something of which we can be justly proud.” What national means today? It has rightly disintegrated. Biros or rollerballs have prevailed. Fountain pens have been marginalised as quills have been before them. I don’t know that lady novelists still go for green. Ink is rarely dispensed into pens manually; pens come pre-inked and clean. It is all fine. I am not for the oppression of handwriting rules and I never understood why schools still insist that letters should be “joined.” And why should we be subjected to the tyranny of the inkwell and the scratchiness of the steel pen. Let the nation revel in unclassified script and Uni-Balls.

But I see that handwriting is becoming a somewhat quaint way of communicating with others. Would a railway worker unionist write a letter of protest to his boss in copperplate hand? Would a student compose her thesis with a fountain pen?  Handwriting is becoming an antiquated art. It is usually directed to oneself (in journaling), is restricted to jotted notes on the family fridge, in schools they still write but for how long.

I am confronted with this excellent quality G. Lalo correspondence cards sent to me kindly by Exaclair. Confronted with this exquisite paper I become reticent. There is pressure. G. Lalo invites me, nay demands of me, to perform not only my best handwriting but also to put down my best thoughts lest I defile with meaningless outpourings the ribbed writing surface, and what then? Erasure is of course impossible.


And thus I reach for the keyboard. Which promises the possibility of clean expurgation, the elimination of unworthy thoughts and typos. And thus, I can boldly write.





Thursday, 23 June 2011

Ink Bottles




There is something about ink bottles: a potential, a possibility, a raw material whose shifting shape speaks to the changing meanings of what it produces. One wrong move and I had to change a square meter of carpet under my desk. The culprit was Private Reserve Ebony Purple. It splattered on the wall, on the radiator, on my skirt and penetrated my skin, it went through the carpet’s underlay and I suspect onto the 1930s floorboards. I was properly inked. One has to be careful with ink bottles.

The dip pen dips its steel beak just enough to drink, retains the fluid for a few sentences, goes in for some more. It depends on the ink bottle or the inkwell and respects its volatility. The nib transforms the liquid within the bottle into marks; they too are volatile. New ink concoctions were invented, new paper produced, new pens manufactured to rid the ink user of the sandbox and the blotter – to actually rid the ink user of the view of ink altogether. Ink was inserted in cartridges and in tubes and its liquidity banished from view.

But ink bottles still happily exist in the margins of a rollerball-dominated world. The ink within moves darkly, it smells of tannin, it is full of words that are contained in its depths and its pigments. The old bottles stand like remnants of things unsaid. It is too late now. The ink has dried up and rattles within. The inkwell has only one desiccated drop to give. Still: the ink, depleted though it may be, colours the glass and makes the light shine through in aquamarine subtlety.


Ink bottles on Inklinks today: Sheaffer Skrip, Veteran Series, Reeves, Melanyl.



Sunday, 19 June 2011

Out of breath

I must admit myself to have been out of breath this week and so there was no post on Palimpsest. Instead I have been writing (elsewhere – for monies) and: hunting and making for InklinksHunting for interesting junk and vintage – making with paper and scissors and some glue.

I found this cherry red and cream marvel of a writing case from the Sixties and this red hot 
Scottish affair, and an emergency home doctor tin and rulers – lots of them. And then these unsightly bookends were crying to be transformed and it was done – with the aid of a 1963 Royalite typewriter ad and some Clairefontaine paper. And thus my brain was empty of words and full of objects. And I have captured the latter on camera and wrapped them up as required and some were sent off to other places.

And today is Sunday and the junk yards on Brick Lane beckon.


Another exciting find soon to appear on Inklinks: a case full of Eagle "British Made" (Eagle Pencil Co. London) pencils complete with original ruler and Eagle eraser! Can anyone establish date of manufacture?

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Gagarin Giveaway


A while ago I’ve written about the Six Thinking Pencils inspired by Edward De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats. Kristin, Art Director at Gagarin has been kind to send Palimpsest a bunch of pencils for a giveaway. A reader has commented earlier that he reckoned the pencils look plasticky. The answer is Yep, they do and they are. But as part of a brainstorming tool I guess they would work very well.

Each member of the group selects a pencil and adopts a mindset to match it. Then swaps pencils until the topic at hand has been approached from different perspectives. White is for Info; Yellow for Benefits; Green for Creativity; Black for Critic; Blue for Overview; Red for Feelings. The pencils are made from UK recycled CD cases.

Leave a comment below and I shall select a reader randomly on Monday 13 June. Winner has got a week to contact me at blogpalimpsest @ gmail dot com with address. I shall post internationally. 

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Writing at Jane Austen's House


Since I’ve written about Jane Austen’s ink I did not have the opportunity to examine the writings of the famous Georgian author whom I had incorrectly associated with sugary stories of impending or failed match-makings and marriages, handsome Mr Darcy played by Colin Firth and blushing ladies in bonnets. But I have set myself to reading Pride and Prejudice and after the first few pages I admit that I find the writing style – short, humorous, sarcastic, to the point – much to my liking.

I have been spurred into reading-the-classics action after a few days travelling in Hampshire and visiting Jane Austen’s house there. The sparse and labelled interior contrasted with the luscious gardens and the glorious summer day. Her desk much photographed and taking pride of place in the postcards was standing by the window on the ground floor in what was called the dining room. A miniscule glass ink pot with a quill was its only adornment. One does not need much to write after all.


I set out looking for pieces of writing technology or writing implements. In the drawing room a tall secretaire was also used as a writing desk by the author. Another curious desk is the one made for Mary Jane Austen, Austen’s niece (daughter of her brother, Francis): this contraption was used for writing (thus the sloping surface) but also for games like backgammon and for sewing.


More writing implements were to be found in the manly chambers of Francis Austen, Jane’s brother, who had spent most of his life as an officer in the Royal navy and who is likely to have been the model for the character William Price in Austen’s Mansfield Park. In his room upstairs some interesting writing implements are displayed: a letter case and a writing case made of wood, carved by Francis and an ivory round container used to hold pounce powder – a fine substance made of cuttlefish bone or powdered pumice that was sprinkled onto a freshly-written paper to dry ink.
 Letter Case

 Writing Case

 Pounce Box

Found under the floorboards

Lifting the floorboards as part of historic restoration I presume uncovered a host of curious objects but also pen knives and quills that now are displayed under glass. Relics. Historic houses are about relics – confirmation that the past really existed. We read them as we wish. The first edition of Sense and Sensibility (1811) is a striking relic not for what it says but for what it does not: the name of its author. In an era when it was inappropriate for a woman to write Jane Austen published her first novel under the name “A Lady.”