Lancaster University, 1993. I’m in a class. It’s the creative writing MA. My tutor is Alan Burns. He wrote Europe After the Rain, Babel, Dreamerika! He was one of a group of experimental writers knocking around in the 1960s which included BS Johnson. Alan used to talk about cut-ups a lot. And he was fond of this exercise: choose a word and don’t say anything but, all day. See how it makes you think. See what it does to the word. How does it change your perception of what words mean. Fishpaste. He spent all day walking around saying nothing but fishpaste. He had a dream once, in which he was playing in an orchestra and he was sweating because he didn’t know what the hell he was doing. But then he looked to one side and there was Picasso on the cello, so then he knew everything would be fine. Interesting guy, Alan Burns.
I like demonstrater pens (a ‘demonstrater’, for those who do not know – and likely do not care – is a clear pen allowing you to see the workings within). My first, and one of my daily workhorses, was a Lamy Safari Vista. I still use it a lot. It was relatively cheap but it writes smoothly, is well balanced and it has a fantastic fat clip. I prefer to write with a fine nib (I spend most of my writing time inside notebooks on the small size) but I bought the Lamy with a medium nib, because I wasn’t convinced it would be as smooth with a fine. I still don’t know if that’s the case, but the nibs are interchangeable so I might experiment one day, if I’m feeling particularly daring.
Anyway, I ordered the TWSBI with a fine nib, because I suspected quality wouldn’t be compromised, given the price. And it wasn’t. It’s butter smooth. It’s a lovely pen to use, and I use it most days even though I was at first worried about taking it outside in case I lost it. When inspiration abandons me, the pen becomes an object to fiddle with, and it does a great job then too. My pen, as you can see, is adorned with some attractive orange sections (the orange version has been discontinued, apparently, making mine not only a thing of beauty, but of rare beauty).
I like to watch the ink sloshing in the faceted barrel. The TWSB can hold quite a bit of ink (current load: J Herbin’s Poussière de Lune – ooh, get me.). The pen transmits its quality through its heft and smooth finish. It even makes a nice noise when you screw the cap back on… In short, it demands to be fiddled with. It even comes with its own little spanner and some silicone grease so you can fiddle to your heart’s content while you give your pen a service.
My only gripe is that you can’t really post the cap. Well, you can, but then you run the risk of hosing yourself with ink when you try to take it off again. The end of the pen has a piston mechanism that you twist to draw ink into the barrel. Twist it the other way and it forces the ink towards the nib. I guess the designers didn’t expect customers to want to post the cap, as it does mean the pen becomes quite large. So best to keep it off, but be careful you don’t lose the thing.
TWSBI also offer a similar model of pen in a mini version and recently released a model called the Eco, which gives you a competitively priced fountain pen. If I come across any of these items in the future I’ll be sure to post a review, but for the time being I’m happy with my 580AL in hard-to-find orange (the green does look good too though… sigh).
When did it begin, this interest… all right, obsession, concerning paper and pens (specifically fountain pens)? I guess as a writer you can’t help but be serious about it. After all, if you’re not a screen demon, it’s what you spend most of every day interacting with. I suppose it has its roots in my childhood, watching Dad working on his cryptic crosswords. He pens a mean block capital, my dad. Very precise and committed. He’d work his way through the fat stack of weekend papers, performing miracles on the Skeleton, the Azed, the Everyman. Once the puzzles were completed he would carefully cut them out of the newspapers and get me to address the envelopes. This I did, desperately trying to ape his measured caps.
He likes his stationery, and has often observed that he owns enough pens to enable him to open his own shop. I’m not quite that bad (not yet), but though I own enough notebooks to last me a lifetime and then some, my head never fails to be turned by the stationery come-on. That said, I’m not what you’d call a committed ‘spotter’. I don’t do smear tests on inks to find out how long it takes for a particular brand to dry out. Ink is wet. It needs time to dry. This I allow it to do. It doesn’t matter to me if it takes two, five or ten seconds. If I like the colour and it makes writing more enjoyable then it gets a big, fat tick. Feathering and bleed… that’s a different kettle of fish; such things irk me probably more than they should. As does a scratchy nib (although you can probably get a cream for that).
I have quite a nice little collection of inks, but I’m not a guzzler. I won’t splurge a fat wedge on a full set of Iroshizuku bottles from a Japanese website, however desirable they might be (I do have one: the ubiquitous kon peki, and very nice it is too). I’ve been leisurely acquiring the J Herbin range over many years, but I doubt I’ll complete it before the old rouge caroubier drains from my, er, sac (but I’ll draw the line at their scented inks, I think).
I thought, in addition to the usual posts I make about writing in general, I’d spend some time talking about the specific things that make it possible for me to do my work – from the tactile knurling of a Faber Castell E-motion Stealth pen, say, to the equally touchy-feely glossiness of a couple-of-quid Rhodia notepad – and how effective they are. Consider it a paying back, of sorts.
Please let me know of your own favourite brands and products; I’m always on the look-out for the next toy…
Interstellar (Hans Zimmer)
Extraordinary. Poignant. Awe-inspiring.
Standout track: Stay
Blade Runner (Vangelis)
Compelling. Exuberant. Exhilarating.
Standout track: Memories of Green
Symphony No. 3 (Witold Lutoslawski)
Frantic. Haunting. Magnificent.
Standout segment: Final movement