The Pen Conundrum

Paradoxically, though fountain pens feature large in my life nowadays, I rarely have an occasion to write with them. I restore fountain pens, sell them, write about them, talk about them, advise on them, but I hardly ever apply one to paper except for testing.

In reality, of course, few of us hand-write much at all these days. When I entered the world of work, there were armies of clerks charting production, commerce and finance by filling ledgers with advancing columns of figures. Since the late seventies, the hosts of pen-pushers have been replaced by a radically smaller number of keyboard jockeys. Even in those days, though, it wasn’t fountain pens the clerks used (I’m not quite that old); it was the ubiquitous Bic ballpoint. The hand-written business letter disappeared long ago, and social correspondence is conducted by email. This is not a complaint, by the way, or a yearning for the good old days that never were. It’s a huge and unalloyed benefit that people’s lives are no longer deadened by the crushing boredom of being a progress clerk or a commercial assistant, condemned to spending days shuffling figures from one ledger to another. That’s what computers are for; tedium doesn’t poison their lives. Email’s a lot quicker and more reliable than airmail, too.

I was rather lucky. In quite recent years, I had use for fountain pens at work. In one job, the use of a fountain pen with indelible ink was actually statutory, so that a permanent and unalterable holograph record was created. That function disappeared around 2003 when the powers-that-be concluded that the Portable Document Format file was equally secure and moved the work onto computer. Our £20.00 pens were replaced with £500.00 PCs in the interest of cost saving. You and I might be aware of how trivially simple it is to hack even a signed .pdf file, but my superiors and betters closed their minds to this possibility and progress marched inexorably on.

In a later job, I had colleagues and superiors who were tempted to edit my decisions and reports in pursuit of their own agenda, so I left my laptop closed and reverted to my fountain pen. It may not be impossible, but it’s well-nigh insuperably difficult to alter a handwritten script produced with a very flexible stub Onoto that leaves a line almost as individual and characteristic as a fingerprint.

Now that I restore pens for a living, I have neither time nor opportunity to write much. On the pad by my keyboard rests a Pentel Liquid Gel pen to scribble the odd note I might have to take. My correspondence is done in OpenOffice Writer and my accounts in Excel. All these wonderful old pens pass through my hands and once I’ve established that they write as they should, they’re flushed out and laid aside.

There’s something not right about that…


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