Thursday, 31 July 2014

No-lead pencil

Back in the old place I am where I grew up and where there are enough deaths and ancient bitter words and half forgotten but still palpable stories to fit in a novel. Every time, every single time the reasons I left are still there peering at me from the corners of the parquet floor and the creaky hinges of the shutters. They are always there. But what once was an abhorrent carcass has mellowed over the years, has become one with the scorched earth, it is smooth in its decay, resigned under the relentless sun. Nothing new grows. Sometimes a timid cyclamen would raise its fragile head from the hard clay soil and thrive briefly in an October shower. It dies quickly after that. Nothing new grows. Ghosts slap you in the face sometimes. Anger rises like the tide and then subsides, even it cannot grow for too long. In my father's old chestnut desk the pencil that I find has no lead. The pencil sharpener is corroded and the replacement razors are missing. The stories cannot be written.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Writers' Tools: My Olivetti in 1960s Anafi by Margaret E. Kenna

Emeritus Professor in Social Anthropology at the University of Wales, Margaret Kenna has written extensively about the Greek island of Anafi, a place of exile for political detainees in early-twentieth century Greece. Here she shares her writing instrument of choice in the 1960s, an Olivetti Lettera 32:

Prof Kenna's Olivetti Lettera 32 today.
When I went off to Greece in 1966 to carry out fieldwork for a doctorate in social anthropology, I took with me a portable Olivetti Lettera 32 which I still have. It now sits in its zip-case under the desk where my PC is wired up.  I probably used it last in the 1980s but I can’t bear to let it go. Looking at it reminds me of packing for that first piece of research, on Anafi, an island with no electricity, no sanitation or running water, and one ferry-boat a week. I also took some spiral-bound notebooks for daily note-taking and some quarto typing paper (this is long before the switch to A4) for transcribing the day’s findings. I added to my stock of pencils and typing paper from “Pallis” in Ermou on my three-monthly trips to Athens (to collect the instalments of my grant).  

Anthropologist at work: Margaret in Anafi in 1966 wearing a custom made skirt.

I had made a dark calf-length skirt out of sturdy furnishing fabric for myself with a large patch pocket into which the notebook would fit. Very often, however, words or designs would be written for me on the pieces of paper which were inside flat cigarette packs (I was, and still am, a non-smoker), wrapped around the contents, or on the little cardboard slips also inside the packs. My field-note boxes still contain empty cigarette packets with names and addresses written on the backs, corners torn off café paper-tablecloths with directions scribbled on them, and even several whole paper tablecloths onto which sections of a hand-drawn map of the village were fixed with now-yellowing and no-longer sticky tape.

My most vivid memory of typing up field-notes is the problems with the positioning of the “lampa” (the kind of old-fashioned glass-globed paraffin lamp familiar from Victorian thrillers) so that I could see the notebook, the keyboard, and the paper in the machine. At the end of a line of typing the carriage threatened to knock the lamp over, or, if the lamp was perched on a pile of books, the vibration of my typing wobbled it. 

A workspace fit for purpose, Anafi 1966-67.

What no-one, least of all me, had thought of was how to type up what was said in Greek using an English keyboard. My supervisor, Paul Stirling, who had worked in Turkey in the late 1940s, wouldn’t have had such a problem. So, at first I transliterated the Greek in my notebook as I typed, and then later, finding this unsatisfactory, left spaces to write it in afterward.  I didn’t really solve this problem until I acquired a laptop and could “toggle” between English and Greek keyboards.

A writing-related after-thought: when I was involved for the first time in examining a PhD thesis, I spent the fee on a Mont Blanc Meisterstuck pen (one of those fat ones that look as if millionaires sign contracts with them). I still have the receipt. But examining fees have not kept pace with the sum that those pens now cost….

Mont Blanc from the 70s: bargain at £24.50

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Writers and their Tools

Vladimir Nabokov writing

A wonderful compilation of writers and their tools by Alison Nastasi at Flavorwise:

The Writing Tools of 20 Famous Authors

It’s no secret that writers can be quite particular about their writing tools. Some might call it an obsession or fetish, but the pens, pencils, notebooks, and other implements that authors have used to create their most famous works endlessly fascinates us. 

Read more here (contains links back to this blog - thank you Flavorwise).

Thursday, 10 July 2014

In honour of Berthelt

The names 19th-century manufacturers gave to the writing instruments they produced doubled up as marketing tools: the Lancet, the Waverley, the Pickwick, the Flying Scotsman, the Crystal Palace and the Legal pen nibs were thus named to appeal to certain sections of the steel pen consuming population. It was not unknown for pencils to be given names either. Hardtmuth's Koh-I-Noor comes to mind, for instance, and its tapping into the images of the legendary diamond and the exotic Orient. 

Checking out Brand Name Pencil's comprehensive collection of Johann Fabers it is obvious that the Bavarian manufacturer could not resist pencil name giving either: there are Apollos, Jupiters, Alligators and Kangaroos, Golden Rods, Lotuses and Kosmographs, a Sphinx, a Taj Mahal and a Telefon. And then out of Palimpsest's pencil collection box comes the "Berthelt": a cylindrical pencil with a red glossy body and embossed silver lettering with Johann Faber printed in capitals and Berthelt in script inside quotation marks. 

Was this pencil intended to appeal to teachers? According to Stadtwiki Dresden Friedrich August Berthelt (1813-1896) was a teacher, school principal and city councillor in Dresden who  made great contributions to the German elementary school system and founded the German Teachers Association. He looks strict and sour with his hair plastered on top of his bony head, his nose protruding bitterly and his lips pressed together sternly. But perhaps appearances are deceptive. Was it his name gracing the Johann Faber pencil? 

I can imagine a teacher rolling the cylindrical body of the "Berthelt" between his fingers while supervising the pupils bend over their exam papers. As a clock ticked in the silent classroom, he might have had time to doodle on a scrap of paper and observe that the pencil felt like a grade B.  He might have had time to observe that the wood it was made of had got a warm orange hue and was very smooth with no irregularities. And then as he distractedly left the pencil on the desk, the Berthelt in its cylindrical unpredictability might have rolled off and fell on the classroom floor causing the pupils to raise their heads for an instant and the teacher to summon them with a stern look back to work. He might have not stooped himself to pick up the pencil because that would have meant a loss of authority.

All this might have happened well after the Johann Faber company (founded in 1882) was taken over by Faber-Castell in 1931/2 as the remaining stock was sold in A. W. Faber boxes until it was depleted.

The Berthelt's view from the back

Johann Faber "Berthelt" shades of black

The Berthelt's shaving

Wood comparison: Palomino Blackwing - Johann Faber Berthelt - The Dragon pencil - Staedtler Noris - Palomino

Friday, 4 July 2014

Enter the Dragon

How shall I praise thee, Dragon pencil? 
The Dragon pencil is a vintage beauty. 
Deep glossy red, sharp hexagonal body, striking embossed silver lettering, and dark dark lead. And a dragon: a silver print of the beast complete with tail, wings, turned head and scales. Someone put effort into that design. The luxurious lacquered red and the dragon print  and even the little flourish on the letter A exudes a kind of exclusive orientalism, the aroma of the East carried into a Bavarian design.

The dragon in the Dragon Pencil

The Dragon pencil produces a dark smooth soft line - not as soft and as dark as the Palomino Blackwing aka king of dark - but a very pleasant and satisfying line it is. Also it holds a sharp point much longer. It is a lightweight pencil, easy to handle, pleasing to the eye. It was kindly given to Palimpsest at some time in the past by the good Lexikaliker (read his review here) and has been kept in the collection box since. But now I intend to turn it into a stub. 

Nice sharp edges of the hexagonal top
The Dragon's shades of dark

similar black with Palomino Blackwing but not as soft and retains point for longer

nice writing with you, Sir

turn it into a stub, I will