The dying art of owning a decent pen

Why you should never leave home without one

‘I’m afraid you do not like your pen,’ says Miss Bingley to Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. ‘Let me mend it for you. I mend pens remarkably well.’ You know then — if you didn’t suspect it already — that Mr Darcy could never marry Miss Bingley. Is there anything so maddening as someone interfering with one’s pen?

‘Could I borrow your pen for a moment?’ they ask as they jot down a shopping list or scribble a booking reference. ‘No!’ you want to scream in possessive anguish. ‘It’s mine!’ They are sure to split the nib, chew the end, absentmindedly tug the clip that fixes it to the front of your diary. That’s if you do get it back. The chances are that they’ll pocket it, unthinking, and that’s another pen lost to a scrounger. The late architect Zaha Hadid used to cut a pen-shaped groove out of the middle hundred or so pages of her sketchbooks and hide a pen in there like a skeleton key in a spy story. It was always on hand to her; hidden from pen-pinchers.

A proper paper diary demands a proper pen. Not a doodle Biro. Not one of those mini pens you pick up at Argos. But a good one: a Montblanc or Parker fountain pen; a Faber- Castell fine-liner, a Staedtler draughtsman’s point. I favour aluminium barrel pens from the Japanese stationers Muji. They are £4.95 a go, a price that would buy 40 multi-pack Bics, but nothing else will do. If a stranger leans across on a train and asks: ‘Could I pinch that for a second?’ and swipes my pen from the tray table to make a note in the margin, I watch with jealous agony until I have it back.

Reading the Harry Potter books as a child, I wasn’t nearly so excited about shopping for wands in Diagon Alley as I was about quills. Eagle feather, peacock, phoenix. Quills that corrected your spelling, Quick-Quotes quills for journalists. A pen changes how you think. Without cut-and-paste and the ‘delete’ button you are forced to be less slap-dash, to choose your words. Think before you ink. Anthony Powell wrote in his memoirs that: ‘My first novel was set down with a pen, some of the proceeds of its sales devoted to buying a typewriter.’ Did his mind work differently as he click-clacked across the keys?

Surely part of the reason we have all become so flaky, cancelling meetings, not showing up for restaurant reservations, asking: ‘Can we take a rain check?’ is because so many of us tap dates and times into our iPhone calendars. Worse, the iCalendar ‘reads’ our emails, sees: ‘Lunch 1pm Wednesday’ in an email and slots it into the schedule. People who keep proper diaries, writing their appointments in indelible ink, are far more likely to show up on the day. It shows commitment, resolution.

I feel panicked without one. What if the scheme for a novel, a future bestseller, occurs when I am out walking and I have no pen and nothing but a dock leaf to write on? The blank pages at the backs of diaries are just the place for half-formed plots and conversations overheard on the bus. Keep your diary close, and a pen in every pocket.


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