Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Obama's Pens

A single pen would obviously not do. Seventy five pens were reportedly used by U.S. President Lyndon Johnson to sign the Civil Rights Act in 1964, while Barack Obama imprinted 22 signatures on the 2010 health care bill using a different pen each time. Apparently the peculiar custom of using multiple pens to sign important documents goes back to Franklin Roosevelt. In the signing ceremony which followed the inauguration of 21 January 2013 the President used no less than 6 pens to sign the cabinet nomination documents. Senator of Nevada, Harry Reid couldn't wait to lay his hands on one of the ceremonial writing instruments. After all weren't these instant historical artefacts supposed to be given out to the witnesses of this memorable occasion?

In the hands of the famous and in the moments we like to call historical moments, pens become artefacts, almost religious relics - to be kept, displayed and revered as witnesses to greatness. Mediators between the human agent and the historical occasion, pens become magical receptacles, conductors of human energy, mementos of time, markers of the pinnacle of human endeavour. Pens are ceremonial. Akin to God’s powerful finger giving life to Adam, to the Shaman’s stick, to the Wizard’s wand - pens gesture full of pomp and circumstance. In contrast to the infantilism of the touch screen where the complexity of the hand is reduced to the simple actions of point-press-slide performed by the index digit, the use of a pen requires a ritual, a ceremony of gestures. Silence falls when it touches the paper as if a moment of transubstantiation is witnessed: what was previously just ink has now materialised into act.

The use of multiple pens is surely an acknowledgment to the democratic process where not one person but many have worked towards the passing of a bill or the successful conclusion of an electoral campaign. The pens are given out as tokens of appreciation; they are symbolic of a responsibility shared. One imagines they must be made of fine materials and endowed with exquisite nibs. But are they? Looking at Nevada Senator Harry Reid the writing instruments used by Obama were anything but objects of desire.

The pens must have been in Harry Reid’s mind all the while for with the signing ceremony over he reached for the pen case on the table. As the pens were not given out by the President himself and lay there uncapped consternation ensued. Was Senator Reid “supposed to take one?” Yes, came his confident answer and he seemed undaunted by the entreaties to “put the pen back.” However, a brief handling of the writing instrument was enough to convince him that historical artefact or not he didn’t want to take possession of said pen. The President came to the rescue and after jokingly asking whether Reid was stealing the pens ("I don't want one of these" the Senator replied) he reached inside his pocket (“I can get you one”) and gave Reid his very  own writing instrument. “This is a nice one,” Obama said. “That’s yours.”

And that pen must surely be a second-class relic.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Pick a Pen Series: Montblanc happy endings

Kenneth Moyle shares his photo and experience of Montblanc:

I've been bad-mouthing Montblanc for what I've considered their over-rated pens for years. Starting when this Meisterst├╝ck 144 started giving me problems only a few years after I received it as a gift. I'd moved on to other pens - some vintage, some new; all less expensive - and left this in my drawer with a corroded ring and loose cap. 

I finally decided to take it to the Canadian Montblanc service centre in Mississauga, having discovered that they take walk-in traffic. Well, lo and behold, I walked in with a useless pen and walked out with essentially a new pen: new and improved nib, new and improved converter, new ring, new cap lock. All for the cost of repairing the cap, which was all I requested. And they gave me this swell little nib-wiping cloth*. 

I love my little Montblanc again. And I take back most of what I said about them, since the corrosion was partly my fault (leaving the pen full and horizontal). 

* I am pretty easily impressed, sometimes. 

And I might add that it is, of course, a perfectly lovely pen to write with - and always was, really. My bad feelings had to do with the problems I had combined with the aspirational lifestyle marketing. And the cologne.

Monday, 14 January 2013

TomBow Oceanic Mechanical Pencil review

Designed no doubt with an aquatic animal in mind the TomBow Oceanic is a member of the mechanical pencil group of graphite organisms. However, it has fallen a victim to consumer climate change in the pencil world and has sadly become extinct, or so I thought until I received it in a sleek box that came all the way from Germany.

Not everyone would fall in love with the Oceanic’s fat circumference but the pencil won the Design Plus award in 1993 because of its unique appearance. It does look like a fish. Its 13cm body is made from some hard material that feels rough and yet it is fine, smooth, and reminding of rough velvet. Tombow Japan is discreetly written on the body - turning grey and almost vanishing as you rotate the pen or catching the light and glittering. In between these two words floats a simply drawn shape of a fish leaving behind it a single wave - logo perfection!

Like every self-respecting fish Tombow Oceanic has of course a tail. Its tip is made from the same hard black material but the rest of it is made of soft foldable rubber. Press the tip of the tail down and the rubber creases while the pencil lead is renewed. Open the tip of the tail and the tinniest of erasers is revealed. There is no clip. The Oceanic rolls on its fat belly so it shouldn’t be left unsupervised.

With the wide grip (some 12mm or more in diameter) the Tombow Oceanic sits comfortably in the hand and its fine lead produces smooth writing. Palimpsest is pleasantly impressed with this fish of a pen. It is a great writing instrument to carry around not only to write with but to be used as a conversation piece (should a conversation piece is needed). Its sleek case doubles as a pencil case, too. Off to swimming writing with the fishes.

See also Dave's Mechanical Pencils review here

Friday, 4 January 2013

The Flying Scotsman Pen

Looking at Macniven & Cameron’s Flying Scotchman pen nib Palimpsest tends to think that the producers of the Mont Blanc luxury writing instruments may have something in common with the Victorian steel pen manufacturers after all. Nevermind that the Birmingham pen magnates turned out thousands of nibs for the masses while Mont Blanc's clientele is rather more select. Both subscribed to the same marketing technique: give your products such names as to appeal to certain sections of the market. What’s in a name?

The few that can afford Mont Blanc’s limited edition fountain pens with their precious resin bodies, bejewelled caps and 18-karat gold nibs are given an additional incentive to part with their money: the literary types can own a Charles Dickens or a William Faulkner; classical music lovers can write with a Herbert von Karajan or Leonard Bernstein; Beatles fans can copy down the lyrics of Imagine with an exclusive John Lennon pen; those nostalgic of the great divas of the past can console themselves with a Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo, while seriously rich history buffs can put down their musings with a Lorenzo de Medici or Elizabeth I fountain pen of choice. What’s in a name?

In the saturated steel pen market of the 19th century, pen manufacturers too applied the same marketing method to produce that special pen appeal. As Nigel Hall writes in his Letter Writing as a Social Practice, the names given to steel pens was a means of marketing: Victorian pen manufacturers relied on the pens’ appeal to particular social interests. For instance, steel pen magnate C. Brandauer produced a nib called the Lancet pen, after the famous medical journal founded in 1823. The Lancet journal was named after the surgical instrument (precision) as well as after a window’s lancet arch with its “light of wisdom” connotations. A well-formed (arched) pen which promised to produce precise writing and spread the word of wisdom fitted well with Brandauer’s marketing idea and his target market: the medical profession. Equally the Legal pen and the Law pen sought to attract the practitioners of the legal professions.  

Macniven & Cameron Waverley pen

On their part MacNiven & Cameron boasted of their pens in the well-known marketing ditty: “They come as a boon and a blessing to men the Pickwick the Owl and the Waverley pen”. The nibs were named after the literary bestsellers of the time: Sir Walter Scot’s Waverley (1814) and Charles Dickens’ The Picwick Papers (1837). The appeal was evident. The Waverley pen was to become Rudyard Kipling’s favourite.

The Pickwick, the Owl, and the Waverley Pen: Macniven & Cameron's advertising  

Macniven and Cameron’s Flying Scotchman pen, was a tribute to the famous Flying Scotsman passenger train, which was made in 1862. The nib was probably intended to appeal to the Age of Steam railway enthusiasts as well as to those with a flair for travelling. Its name indicated progress and efficiency as well as promising ease of writing. It was advertised as a firm, fluent pen - with a reservoir attachment which promised to retain sufficient ink to write 300 words. The advert appeared in the 1889 Illustrated London News and the Post Office Edinburgh and Leigh Directory in 1909. And if steel pen punters still had their doubts as to the efficacy of the steel pen (“steel pen is the root of all evil”), the advert of 1907-8 reassured them that the broad point nib which was “flanged to retain the ink” was in fact “the steel brother of the Quill.”

Macniven & Cameron Flying Scotsman pen

Salvaged from an old writing case this Flying Scotchman specimen was fitted to a black wooden nib holder with a golden tip marked “Eagle Pencil Co. New York.” The nib is quite curved and does indeed run pleasantly on paper. It retains the ink well though I am yet to achieve 300 words. I’m certain however that in the time it would take from London to Edinburgh Waverley (and it hasn't improved much since the 1900s) I would be able to write a short treatise on the importance of reducing train fares.