The Write Stuff

    1 December 2012

    Here’s what you should get your loved one for Christmas.
    1. A nice fountain pen.
    2. Philip Hensher’s The Missing Ink. You need to buy 2. — especially if the recipient is male — in order to make him properly appreciate the point of 1. Otherwise your generosity might well be wasted.

    This is what happened many, many years ago when my girlfriend of the time bought me a handsome antique pen. As I unwrapped it, she studied me carefully for my reaction. ‘It was very expensive. You’d better like it,’ she warned. ‘Oh great. A bloody pen,’ I thought. But obviously I didn’t say that. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I love it!’

    But I didn’t. Just the other day, I was cleaning out the pen holder one of the kids — possibly even dating as far back as the Rat — had made me out of bog roll and wrapping paper. And I found the antique pen, snapped in half. Tragically, I don’t think I used it even once, which makes me feel both sad and guilty. If only I’d known then what I know now.

    What I know now is that pens are bloody great. They’re not — as I imagined in my wasted middle youth — a fogeyish affectation, but one of the essential tools of a civilised existence.

    You need one first and foremost, of course, in order to be able to write comfortably and legibly. For me, ballpoints just won’t do because they only work at a near-vertical angle, which constricts my flow and makes it harder to form my letters and renders the physical business of writing a painful chore.

    Owning a really nice, expensive pen, on the other hand, makes writing feel like more of a pleasure than a duty. Thank-you letters, for example, become not a begrudged necessity but a delightful opportunity to play with your shiny toy and also to gratify the person who gave it to you by being seen to use it.

    But there’s another reason, at least as compelling as any of the ones above: you need a pen because it’s an essential weapon in the culture wars. After 9/11, I started taking my kids to church, not just for the obvious reasons, but also because I believe that in the great clash of civilisations there can be no room for casual bystanders. The fountain pen — though not, perhaps, on such a global, apocalyptic scale — serves in the similar struggle to preserve lovely old-school values from horrid, smelly new ones.

    Which is where Philip Hensher’s The Missing Ink comes in. Here, Hensher elegantly and wittily spells out what we’ve all probably noticed but would prefer not to admit: that the age of writing by hand is coming very rapidly to an end. He notes: ‘At some point, the ordinary pleasures and dignity of handwriting are going to be replaced permanently. What is going to replace them is a man in a well-connected electric room, waving frantically at a screen and saying, to nobody in particular, “Why won’t this effing thing work?” ’

    No more can we stop this revolution than writers of illustrated manuscripts could hold back typeset print. What we can do is at least strive to guarantee that the pleasures of writing continue to be enjoyed in our lifetimes and in those of our children. And the way to do this is a) to arm ourselves with the right weaponry (as it happens, William & Son, who kindly lent me some exquisite examples, also make shotguns) and b) to remind ourselves what it is that makes the art of writing so cherishable and special.

    Hensher offers lots of examples: that masochistically satisfying little groove you wear down in the flesh of your middle finger from repeated pen use; the nostalgic bliss of soaping and scrubbing the morning’s accreted ink from your fingers; the fun of flicking ink — either to get it flowing through the nib, or just for the hell of it. Preceding all this, of course, is the bizarre experience of learning to write in the first place, which tends to happen so early in our lives it feels more like a dream than something that actually happened to us.

    We know it must have done, though. At some stage, for example, I will have noted someone crossing their sevens in the continental style, and thought to myself: ‘That’s exotic and sophisticated. I’m going to copy that.’ (‘Your hand is formed by aspiration to others,’ Hensher sagely notes). During the war, this would have marked me out as suspect. In the film Went the Day Well?, it’s how the Nazi spies give themselves away.

    Then there’s vexed issue of what ink colour to use — and what it says about you. Hensher reckons it has to be black or blue-black if you want to be taken seriously. He’s right: royal-blue is babyish and first-year-ish (because it’s washable); green means you’re mad; red is psychotic; although I did very much enjoy my turquoise period.

    Your writing style is similarly instructive. Hensher, like most of us, has firm views on this. ‘Someone who uses the Greek E probably had an early homosexual experience’, ‘Anyone who writes a circle or a heart over their i’s is a moron.’

    And it all starts with the pen. My kids swear by their Lamys, but when we’re older we deserve to treat ourselves to something with a bit more heft, a bit more polish, a bit more gold and silver. I can’t be doing with watches. Can’t see the point. But a super-posh pen, now that I really covet.