I wrote lavishly recently about how I have gladly taken up the pen. Of course, I have done nothing of the kind. At the very least, my advanced years have not seen me hold on to all things old-fashioned. Nowadays, I take to writing on a computer like a duck takes to water. A long time ago, while working, I stopped using pen and paper to deal with writing. I, along with so many people in the world of office work, had been encouraged to become friends with IT. It soon became my friend. No more did I have to deal with slithery comments about how my comments were not legible, or that my handwriting resembled a manic chicken's footprints on the pages. I gladly dealt with documents in their electronic form and would insert my comments in the text from the ease of my computer, using that feature known as "red lining". No one could say that they could not understand what phrasing I wanted: I would rewrite the section and all would be clear. It looked so dramatic to see on the screen all of my changes rendering the document like a sheet splashed with little lines of blood. Those who like to offer criticism--positive or negative--would understand the satisfaction that came from that process.
Having said that, nothing will ever erase from my mind the shock of the new when I worked at the Bank of England during the mid-1980s. In those days, I was just in the process of seeing the transition from the typewriter to the computer. I drafted by hand and then a secretary typed the document. I wrote in either black, blue-black, or royal blue ink. I used a Parker 51 fountain pen. My hand was steady and quite legible. In those days, comments were always made in manuscript. I had worked hard on an analysis of the history of debt problems and my assessment had been passed to the Deputy Governor, a man named Kit McMahon. This was a great time to shine in the spot light of the gaze of the top officials. My department head had given his approval to my assessment. At The Bank, only two people were allowed to write in red ink--the Governor and Deputy Governor (DG). So, imagine my horror when I saw my note come back with the very succinct red-inked assessment "Utter S**t!" That was blood on the street of my career, I thought. The DG was a somewhat acerbic Australian (see brief biography). I put his phrasing down to that well-known Antipodean no-nonsense approach. Back to the drawing board, and this time my department head and I worked together to recraft the piece in a way that would be less s***ty; it got approval and the rest of the resolution on the 1980s debt crisis is history and my mark is there.
My friend, Thesephone, mentioned to me last night how her man was a bit miffed that when he left his last post all they gave him was a pen. That reminded me of something very deep.
I have been an unhappy man for a long time. I have a vice and as time has passed, I have been able to indulge that vice less and less. I used to slink along dark alley ways in London and peer into doorways. I would slide my fingers along long slender instruments and wonder what it would be like to have them forever. My favourite hangouts were places like Burlington Arcade, near Regent's Street, or some of the antique dealers in The City.
My father was the one who led me onto this slippery path, and I'm sure that he had no idea what he was really doing. When I passed my Eleven Plus exams and went to grammar school in London, my father gave me a gift to start my new phase of schooling. He passed onto me his old fountain pen. It was a beautiful Waterman fountain pen. A dark brown writing machine with a neat little side side lever to suck up the ink, into a rubber tube inside the barrel, and a cute clip (see picture above). (My mother had a grey mother of pearl Esterbrook pen that would have been a great addition.) I slipped it into my blazer's inside pocket and my educational path was set. Well, not quite. I lost that pen during my first year of school, either because it was stolen while I played football during one break period, or it fell out and I never noticed. I explained to my father and we just decided that I needed to learn all the lessons I could from that loss. He never mentioned the pen again and I now wonder if he was ever bitter. After all, it had seen him through his studies in Jamaica, but now his first born had sent it off to who knows where.
But my love had been born. I loved Parker pens and school was not far from their hallowed retail office in Holborn, at Bush House--ironically, also home of the BBC. Like a constant companion, Parker and I were bonded together. But like with so many relationships, things change and other attractions sometimes take your eye. I dallied with Schaeffers. I dallied with Platignums. Neither ever gave me the same satisfaction. Their nibs were never made of gold and never wrote smoothly in my hand. They were good for a few months but we were not made for each other.
They say that money cannot buy you love. But when I left the UK for the land of the mighty dollar, I saw that money could buy you happiness. Rolling in headier circles as I was in that prestigious international institution that I joined, I let my tastes rise higher too. I found in Washington DC not only the movers and shakers of politics and international economics, but also the best pen shop in the world. I would visit Fahrneys often. If I had a pen problem, their "Pen Doctor" would fix it. Rubber plunger, nib issues, missing clips, cracked shells, leaks? Nothing was too much of a challenge. And after all was fixed, the pen would get a buffing and a flush out to be ready to go as good as new. And the eye candy of new models on display. Oh, the joy!
It was there that I reached my peak, when I discovered Mont Blanc. Previously, I had not been much attracted to their stubby styles, even though in the world of finance they were almost as common place as Oxford Brogues and Wingtip shoes. Signing ceremonies for loans used to be as much about the loan as about the signing pens. I never had to sign for any loan so I only could look enviously as friends amassed pens. Would they share and just let me have one? Never. I think the resentment was getting quite deep. But I found some therapy. My money allowed me to graduate to Limited Edition pens. If I could not be a great writer, I could at least be closely associated with one. That's how I splashed out for an "Oscar Wilde" (as shown exquisitely in the picture). My writing really flourished with this Aston Martin of the pen world. To add charisma, my Pen Doctor introduced me to inks of different colour--like green and purple. I was hooked and as my situation improved so did my collection. I had my favourite but my mood could change and a few weeks or so with a new dainty model helped keep my true love fresh.
But it had to stop. Marriage came along and boyish ways had to end. My new wife was also an addict, except I had not known it. I'm not sure when I first noticed that she was taking my stuff. But, each time I got a new model it would disappear. Then I would see it reappear at a casual check signing moment. How could she do this? The final straw came when I went to a special event and Fahrneys gave me a Mont Blanc gift--a beautiful bloc note pad, with a black leather case. "Oooh! That's cute. Now I wont ever have to search for a scrap of paper." The shiver those words sent down my spine is still with me; the bloc note pad of course is not as it now lives in the land of hand bags. And so it continued, till I decided that I had to maybe buy her her own stuff to try to break this habit. I stopped collecting; she increased her collection. I shed all of my special belongings; I was nearly naked. Now, I can say that I have none left. As its exclamation point, a German organization sent my spouse a beautiful pen as a gift for her work with a group of deprived children in Guinea. That finished me. What a circle to close.
But, yesterday, a little flame flickered. While searching for another piece of modernity in Thesephone's house (a headset for a mobile phone), I came across some good old Mont Blanc signing pens, which I presumed were her husband's. As I touched them I could feel old cravings come back. You never really kick the habit. You just have to be disciplined. I wont go back to those days of crazy spending to get my hands on these things. I know I can, but I wont.