Writer and Author

Tag: Fountain pens

In Praise of Luddites

I’m in the Irish Times magazine today. For once I’m not on about murders and mayhem, this time I’m bringing my low tech fixation to a wider audience.  Anna Carey’s piece is looking at the pervasive use of obsolete equipment in the modern world.  Radio star Ryan Tubridy still uses pencils, author Charlie Connelly prefers to let his fingers do the walking with phone books and I’m there extolling the many virtues of my beloved Esterbrooks.

I’ve written about these great little pens before on this blog and, apart from smart phone and netbook, they are the tools I rely on most on a day to day basis.  Using a fountain pen has made my shorthand faster (handy for long legal digressions) and when I’m not court reporting the way the pen glides across the paper does seem to allow the ideas to flow more freely when the writing isn’t flowing as it should.

Mind you, if the truth be told, I’m a closet luddite in more than just my choice of writing equipment.  While I love technology and everything it enables us to do, there are some times when making the switch from digital back to mechanical just seems the obvious thing to do. Apart from my little Esties I also collect old Russian film cameras.  There’s something about working around their many eccentricities to take a decent photograph that can seem so much more rewarding than the cocksure precision of digital photography. Don’t get me wrong.  Digital cameras are great and if I want to make sure I get the shot I want I’ll use one, but the alchemy of the film process seems to infuse the whole photograph with a kind of magic – or maybe that’s just what I say to myself to explain the stripes of the light leaks and the fuzz of my less than accurate manual focusing. 

Using these old film cameras is a completely different experience to digital photography.  When I bring out my 1953 Zorki 3M, people stop and ask about it.  They don’t mind if I point it at them (I’m a purely amateur snapper I hasn’t to add but I’ve always enjoyed street photography) and the whole expedition turns into more of an adventure – even if the shots aren’t as good as the one’s I might bring back from digital outings.

Maybe my clinging to the manual and awkward has a little something to do with my 70s childhood.  Some of my earliest memories revolve around brown outs and power cuts that swept across England in the mid 70s.  It always seemed like a good idea to have access to equipment that didn’t require a power supply and could work in any environment.  Apart from my cameras and my pens I have always kept a manual typewriter handy…well you never know!

Whether the attraction comes from paranoia or nostalgia or just plain practicality I’m not about to upgrade my old school equipment any time soon.  There’s a time and place for technology and then there’s time to do things the old fashioned way. Quite frankly I wouldn’t want it any other way!

Tools of the Trade

Today I’m writing in praise of fountain pens.  It might sound a rather perverse eulogy about an irrelevant luxury but my fascination has a far more practical root.  I use them every day and they’re as much a part of my kit as my laptop and my shorthand notebook.

I’ve used fountain pens pretty much all my life.  I went to one of those schools where they were considered to have magical properties developing the handwriting of small children.  If we used our fountain pens (cheap plastic Stypens with washable blue ink and only that) our handwriting would exhibit such exquisite regularity and grace that anyone reading it would be totally at our mercy…or something.

I bought into the hype but as a lefthander I had  to endure years of ink stains and smudged pages with no sign of this miraculous calligraphy we had been promised.  I got the hang of it eventually though and could write pages at a time where the nib didn’t gouge a hole in the paper or the ink sputter little blue raindrops all over my science homework.  I actually got to like the feeling of the nib gliding across the page and my hand never cramped with a fountain pen the way it would with those evil scratchy biros that were the only cheap option before the advent of gel pens.

One of the first things I bought when I left home was a proper grown up fountain pen, a black and gold affair to replace the sugar pink Waterman I had been using up till then.  When I got my first job as a journalist I went out and got a grown up Waterman for more money than I’d even spent on a pair of shoes.  But as I got into the job the pen ended up sidelined for anything other than a brief note or my signature.  I started typing everything and my speeds increased until the words seemed to magically appear on the page almost as fast as I had thought them.  The only time the pen got taken out of it’s leather case was to write Christmas cards and each year I noticed how far my handwriting was slipping from the graceful loops we were taught to aspire to in school.

But there are times when the clack clatter of the keyboard seems a little bit too aggressive.  Those times when an idea is taking its time in forming and the blinking of the cursor becomes a blink of accusation that taps out it’s taunts in a staccato rhythm.  When there’s no deadline looming and there’s time to indulge such thoughts something a little more sensuous is in order.

I recently went on a bit of a quest to find a pen that I could write with as smoothly as I can type.  Something that would glide over the page so smoothly and sit in my hand so neatly it was just an extension of my arm.  A pen that would allow the hand to form the curves of the word and smoothly as the fingers tap out the qwerty code to put thoughts on the page.

The magical pen is apparently an Esterbrook.

.Esterbrook pen ad

These little pens were the Volkswagen Beetle of the pen world, manufactured in their millions by the American company Esterbrook from around the Second World war.  They’re so common they can be found cheaply on EBay and they clean up to look as if they were made yesterday.

I use an SJ, like the green pen in the advert, smaller and thinner than the standard J model.  It was  made sometime in the 1950s.  It’s light and sits perfectly in the crook of my hand.  But the best thing is the nib.  You can change the nib on an Estie and the choice of alternatives is vast.  I can get a nib designed for shorthand or one that will give my writing the look of a thin ribbon on the page as the line widens and contracts according to the direction of the stroke.

But the best thing about using a vintage pen is the history.  I have no idea who owned my little pens before me; whether it was the pen of a school child trying to master that elegant penmanship I could never get the hang of in school; or maybe a secretary whose shorthand would surely have put mine to shame as she took dictation in a Mad Men pencil skirt and figure hugging sweater.  Maybe it belonged to a writer or a journalist doing what I do long before I was born.

Using a pen like that makes a blank page an invitation not a challenge and these days my handwriting’s no longer looking like it was the work of a drunken spider.  It can coax out tentative ideas when the clock’s not ticking and best of all does not need a nearby power supply like my laptop.  I’ve some time between trials and I’m looking forward to blocking out some new ideas with my little pens.  Most of the time the tools of my trade are the latest gadgets, netbooks, flash drive recorders, social networking and all that jazz.  Sometimes it’s nice to get back to basics.  It really is a nicer way to work.

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