Tuesday, 6 December 2016

The visceral pencil of J. Ballard

J. G. Ballard typing from The Literary Review, 2001

In Crash, J. Ballard's most notorious novel, human flesh converges with automobiles, wheels converge with sex, "the horror of death with the love of spectacle," celebrity with the car crash, "blood, semen and engine coolant". Obsessed with the death of celebrities in car crashes, one of the characters of Crash uses a pencil as a phallic instrument and weapon in one to express his visceral desires:

"I turned the pages of Vaughan's questionnaires. The photographs of Jayne Mansfield and John Kennedy, Camus and James Dean had been marked in coloured crayons, pencil lines circled around their necks and pubic areas, breasts and cheekbones shaded in, section lines across their mouths and abdomens."

Vaughan "was looking down at a display photograph of the actress leaning against the motor-car. He had taken a pencil from my inkwell and was shading in portions of the actress's body, ringing her armpits and cleavage. ... His pencil cut heavier grooves in the picture. The shaded areas had begun to perforate under his more and more savage slashes, blows with the broken pencil point that punctured the cardboard backing. He marked in points of the motor-car interior, stabbing at the protruding areas of steering assembly and instrument panel."


J.G. Ballard's Crash was first published in 1973.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Pens and pencils in Don De Lillo's Underworld

The desk at the end of the room was out of the thirties in a way, equipped with items fashioned to Edgar's specifications. Two nibbed black pens. Two bottles of Skrip Permanent Royal Blue Ink , No. 52. Six sharpened Eberhard Faber pencils, No. 2. A pair of 5x8 linen-finish writing pads, white. A new 60-watt bulb in the standing lamp. 

[Sister] did penmanship instead, demonstrating on the blackboard the cursive flair of her own hand. She showed the slant, the loop, she stressed the need to stay between the ruled lines, she told them to take their fountain pens and follow the motions she made in the air, and they did, working the wrists, looping in unison, and they shaped a tempestuous capital T that resembled a rowboat in a rainstorm.       Matty sat there nearly spellbound, writing in the air with his brother's old Parker vacumatic, a streaked green model with an arrow clip. 

...and there is the kid with ink on his tongue, there is always a kid with an inky tongue. Waterman's blue-black. What does he do, drink the stuff? 

...because she felt stirrings of information in the dusty corridors of the convent or the school's supply room that smelled of pencil wood and composition books... 

...and you look at the things in the room, offscreen, unwebbed, the tissued grain of the deskwood alive in light, the thick lived tenor of things, the argument of things to be seen and eaten, the apple core going sepia in the lunch tray, and the dense measures of experience in a random glance...the chipped rim of the mug that holds your yellow pencils, skewed all crazy, and the plied lives of the simplest surface, the slabbed butter melting on the crumbled bun, and the yellow of the yellow of the pencils, and you try to imagine the word on the screen becoming a thing in the world... 

Don DeLillo, Underworld, Macmillan: 1998, pp. 560, 718, 776, 250, 827.

Monday, 29 August 2016

The Pen and History by Hillary Mantel

Who leaves a mark on paper? Who decides what's written down as history? Is there a Truth beyond what is taken to be the truth?
"For hundreds of years the monks have held the pen, and what they have written is what we take to be our history, but I do not believe it really is. I believe they have suppressed the history they don't like, and written one that is favourable to Rome."

Thomas Cromwell to Henry VIII in Hilary Mantel's, Wolf Hall, London: Fourth Estate 2010, p. 219.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

A Dusty, Dirty Looking Inkstone

I hate seeing a dusty, dirty-looking inkstone with an inkstick that has been used in a slovenly way so that it is rubbed down on only one side. It also makes an unpleasant impression if someone puts a cap on a writing-brush whose head has become large and shaggy.

It is even more important for a man to keep his writing-table in perfect order. If his inkstone-case is not made in several tiers, it should have two fitted boxes, and its gold lacquer design should be attractive without looking contrived; his inkstick, brush, and other equipment should all be chosen to attract attention.

antique Japanese writing box

Some people seem to think that the actual appearance of their writing utensils is unimportant. They have a box of plain black lacquer with a cracked lid, into this they put a tiled inkstone, which is broken on one side and whose every crack is so embedded with dust that one feels that a lifetime would not be long enough to clean it properly. They rub a little ink on the stone, barely blackening the surface, and pour water over it all out of a celadon jug, whose tortoise-shaped spout is broken so that there is only a gaping neck. Yet they are quite content to let people see this unsightly collection of objects. 

Korean 12thC celadon water jug
Sometimes it will be a woman who has a poor hand yet who always wants to be writing something. She picks up a brush which one has used until it has acquired just the right hardness, and very awkwardly she soaks it in ink. "Is there anything inside this chest?" she asks as she starts scribbling something on the lid. Then she flings one's brush down on its side so that the head is immersed in the ink. Her behaviour is hateful, yet how can one bring oneself to tell her so?

The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon
Sei Shonagon was a court lady in tenth-century Japan. In her Pillow Book she notes down all the things that attract, displease or interest her in daily life. 
Translated by Ivan Morris.

Penguin Classics 1971
pp. 205 -206

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Irritating Things About Ink by Sei Shonagon The Pillow Book

"One finds that a hair has got caught in the stone on which one is rubbing one's inkstick, or again that gravel is lodged in the inkstick, making a nasty, grating sound."

* The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon
Sei Shonagon was a court lady in tenth-century Japan. In her Pillow Book she notes down all the things that attract, displease or interest her in daily life. 
Translated by Ivan Morris.
Penguin Classics 1971

Monday, 16 May 2016

The inkpot of Virginia Woolf

The thickness of this nib and the luxury of this paper will show you that I am in a rich and illiterate house .... gothic, barbaric. I dip my pen into the hoof of an old hunter.

Virginia Woolf writing to Violet Dickinson from the house of her brother-in-law, 2 January 1907, in Letters of Virginia Woolf, ed. Nigel Nicholson and Joanne Trautmann, vol. I, London: Hogarth Press 1975.
Photo from Graham Budd auction catalogue

Monday, 18 April 2016

No pen no ink

No pen, 
no ink, 
no table, 
no room, 
no time, 
no quiet, 
no inclination.

James Joyce

Friday, 18 March 2016

Cosmic Pencil

A writing instrument to dwarf them all: Mercury. The planet's surface is actually graphite and what's more Mercury was once encrusted in it. Yes, the planet was covered in graphite 1 kilometre thick. If only the universe around Mercury was paper, the planet would have written its way all around the sun. 

Monday, 7 March 2016

Poison Pen (or pen spotting in The Wolverine)

Poisonously sleek and deliciously dangerous Viper in The Wolverine (2013) movie reaches amongst the expensive set of ink wells and pen holders and picks up a fountain pen. She holds it upright and considers it as she confronts Shingen Yashida. Then her serpentine tongue licks its tip infusing it with venom. In a flash she stabs Yashida in the neck. The choice of weapon is not random. Marvel supervillain Yashida is an expert swordsman. Attacking him with a pen will only fatally poison him but prove the old "pen is mightier than the sword" adage true. Is this a Sailor pen she's holding?


Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Writing Time

We write history to combat death, oblivion and meaninglessness. We "put" events or our thoughts of events  "down in writing" to create order, to pin down, to capture what flees and takes with it parts of our mortal bodies. Our time is limited and running out and we want to make sense of it; to create a collection of written-down moments, texts which capture the essence of what was so that we can make sense of what is. We are in flux. "Writing down" thoughts, novels, journals, texts inscribes them on time. These inscriptions install order to our universe and are at same time our memorials. We insist that scripta manent - "written words remain" because how can we accept  a world we are not in?
Like Hugo's automaton we are vessels of records; like Kango Suzuki, creator of the 400-piece clock, we are "writing down" time.


Friday, 26 February 2016

Flying Scotsman runs again

Looking at the Flying Scotsman running again after a decade-long £4.2 refit, I couldn't help remembering the Flying Scotchman nib by Scottish nib manufacturers Macniven & Cameron, a nib promising to run on paper like the engineering marvel on rails.

Wish you were on it?

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Lazarus writing: David Bowie and the fountain pen

What remains unwritten at the hour of our death? A frail David Bowie voice cracking, eyes bandaged, shaking, singing "I've got nothing left to lose / I'll be free / Just like that bluebird/ Oh, I'll be free" seems to surrender himself to death but yet he doesn't. There is no peace in the dimly lit room with the coffin-like wardrobe; the face with its button-eyes is anguished, the guitar sounds distorted; Bowie, the shrouded, tortured figure in bed, gets up and dances his old dance moves bathed in the light coming from the hospital window. His face is the distorted face of the dying, a mask of fear and yet he does not surrender. Something has been left unwritten. 

He sits at the table and grasps a fountain pen. Things have been left unwritten. There are still things to be said, things to be created and yet so little time. He writes frantically on paper - what has been left unsaid? what needs to be said? oh, there is no time - the pen marking the paper, the pen marking the table, the face anxious, the time running out.

The scarred body cannot surrender to the crevices of the bed and the creases of the blankets, it cannot go quietly into the night; it still needs to leave its mark, to write its presence, to dance its last dance. 

David Bowie - Lazarus

Thursday, 4 February 2016

EH Shepard's Pencil Case

EH Shepard's pencil case exhibited in the House of Illustration, London, January 2016

E.H. Shepard is known for his Winnie the Pooh illustrations which to his regret overshadowed in the end the rest of his work. He came to resent Pooh ("that silly old bear") seeing that the illustrations which were for him a sideline became his trademark so to speak. Shepard did political cartoons for Punch magazine and during the First World War he served in France, Belgium and Italy carrying his pencil case wherever he went and drawing sketches from life in the front. The exhibition in the House of Illustration (London) includes over a hundred of original sketches and drawings from the artist's pocket books and correspondence. They are quite a world apart from whimsical Pooh bear. However, it was Pooh who won the hearts of the public.

Pencil case and paint box of EH Shepard in the House of Illustration exhibition "EH Shepard An Illustrator's War". Shepard's son from whose teddy bear, Growler, he had drawn inspiration for Pooh, lost his life in the Atlantic during WWII. 

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Pencil Mask

Rebecca Horn, Pencil Mask, 1972

Strapped around the head, Rebecca Horn's pencil mask inhabits the perceptual space that exists between erotic/fetish object and horror movie prop from Hellraiser. Encased in this contraption with pencils pointing aggressively outwards, the face is inaccessible to the touch. The purpose of the pencil mask is not to invite touch but to make a mark. The mask transforms the head into an instrument of mark making. The mask isolates but at the same time liberates. 

"All pencils are about two inches long and produce the profile of my face in three dimensions... I move my body rhythmically from left to right in front of a white wall. The pencils make marks on the wall and the image of which corresponds to the rhythm of my movements."

The body rhythmically moving and transmitting its movement on to the pencils becomes a writing/drawing instrument. But the act of mark making here contains all things at once: expression, ritual, threat of violence, control, attraction and repulsion, and ultimately a release of energy.

Rebecca Horn Perfomance II