Tuesday, 18 January 2011

The Fundamental Human Writes

These days when we write, whether for work or pleasure, we instinctively head straight for the computer and type away. And why not? Typing is easy and fast, it offers the convenience of spell-checks and layout templates, and once we’re finished our work is effortlessly disseminated via printer, email and the Internet for all to see. This is all very well and good and thoroughly convenient and modern and practical and time-efficient and so on. But if your mind works like your dear correspondent Hemlock’s – and I pray for your sake that it does not – then you might reflect on us all, hunched over glowing screens, hammering away at plastic keyboards, marshalling unseen legions of silicon semiconductors to our will, and you might conclude that it all looked a bit dreary and industrial, a touch conformist and maybe, well, just a teeny tad totalitarian.

Meanwhile the process of writing, actual writing, that timeless union of the physical art of penmanship and the cerebral powers of language, has been cruelly relegated to the servile duties of an aide-memoire. With no laptop handy, we scribble onto sticky notes, scrawl shopping lists and doodle on the backs of envelopes with the aid of cheap, disposable and environmentally unfriendly ballpoints and glutinous gel pens. We neglect that special power of handwriting to produce something unique: an original composition, in an individual script.

Many of us here in the Ataraxian Club feel that this should not be. That’s why our members may often be found scribbling away right here in the Club’s drawing-room, still instinctively flinching at the memory of Teacher's cane each time they blot the page, continuing to make good use of that most illustrious and refined of writing instruments: the noble fountain pen.

Perhaps the last time you even saw a fountain pen was in your school days, when it was squashed into your games bag and subsequently ruined your rugby kit, prompting your father to strip to his jodhpurs in a fury and thrash you with a length of birch. Fear not, I can help. Of course not with your unresolved childhood trauma, don’t be silly. But if it’s a recommendation for a fountain pen you’re after, I would humbly suggest you strongly consider something from Pelikan’s Souverän range.

Widely regarded as some of the best writing instruments in the world, they’ve got the lot: a unique and time-served pressure-equalising differential piston system; massive ink reservoir; brass components; quintuple-lacquered resin barrel; and most important, iridium-tipped, diamond-ground, rhodium and gold plate nibs that are readily interchangeable and available in a range of sizes. They really are beautifully crafted things. Certainly there are other, pricier pens out there, adorned with swanky hand-cut engravings or incorporating more precious materials into their design. Observe, for instance, this overdesigned carbon fibre Italianate monstrosity (though perhaps not if you’ve just had a heavy lunch). It’s yours for a mere thirteen hundred and twenty quid with no change for a ciabatta. But few of these alternatives, if any, will match or surpass the writing characteristics of the Pelikan.

Best place to get one? You can pick up the mid-sized M600, your humble Hemlock’s preference, from Cult Pens for £135 in their winter sale. Considering the spotty adolescent manning the concession stand in your local John Lewis will charge north of £200 for the same pen, that is no bad deal; even other online retailers typically put them around the £180 mark. If your budget won’t stretch that far, the M200 uses all the same mechanisms as the pricier Souveräns but lays off on the expensive materials. It will also give you years of impeccable service. Yours for £45 from the same place.

While you’re there, pick up a bottle or two of Diamine ink. It’s excellent stuff, British made, and comes in a broad variety of colours to suit all tastes. Best to steer clear of permanent and registrar’s inks for now, since some are acidic or contain iron compounds and they can royally bugger your new pen if you don’t know what you’re doing.

“But Hemlock,” you may cry in indignation, “Why bother? Is it not just the worst sort of sentimentality and neo-Luddism to harken after hand-writing in the modern age? Don’t you even want an iPhone 4?” Of course, the great innovation of typesetting has given us everything from The Oxford English Dictionary to Penguin Books, from The Wall Street Journal to Heat magazine; and computers have spurred us on to create inestimable and ever-growing quantities of blogs, essays, articles, opinion-pieces, periodicals, polemics, and public notices of all descriptions. All of this does great service to society, with the obvious exception of Heat magazine. But in all these cases, technology is aiding the process of writing with the broader, impersonal public in mind.

What print and computers cannot do is to make your writing personal. As soon as the typesetter’s block or the digital interface is placed between the writer and the recipient, some element of the human connection diminishes: the letter, diary, poem, note, or whatever-it-is that we intended to write becomes that bit less personal, that bit more standardised, less unique, more mundane. If you are writing with someone in mind, whether it is a letter to a friend or to someone whose work you admire, or even for your own gratification in a diary or jotter, then you do yourself a great disservice if you do not write it by hand.
So it is that in my idyllic and unrealisable vision of a better, brighter, more human, more enlightened and altogether sexier world, we would all be enthusiastic amateur writers, eagerly sending and receiving great quantities of handwritten letters, furtively swapping diaries with loved ones and closest friends, fervently leaving a paper trail of our emotion and experience behind us as we live our lives. Yes, I did just say that handwriting makes the world a sexier place. Think about it. Sex can only connect you with the animal aspects of a person. Writing connects you with the human. That is a far more personal thing to share, far more intimate, and it possesses the power to move you so much more deeply, and to change your outlook on life forever.

Hopefully by now you have leapt from your seat in a passion, sworn against typing another word on a computer ever again, and swept the contents of your desk to the floor in the grandiose throes of your excitement. If so, relax. Sheepishly recover your computer from the floor and stick an Elastoplast over that conspicuous crack in the screen. You’re still going to need it. But don’t forget to treat yourself to a fountain pen, or if you already have one sitting unused on a shelf, take it down, dust it off, send away for a bottle of ink and promise yourself that the next time you go to write, you make sure to take it personally.

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