March 04, 2006

F5 #3: Mightier than the sword

Yes, I am aware of the irony of writing a tribute to a pen when I can't keep a freakin self-imposed deadline. So sue me.

I have lousy handwriting. I always have. It's small, narrow, and pointy. Loops tend to turn into little horseshoes. M's turn into N's, and V's and W's turn into U's. Block capitals replace cursives at random. Little flourishes obscure entire words. Needless to say, I never got high marks for penmanship in school.

I personally think it comes from two factors. First, I'm left-handed. Like all lefties, I have to modify my writing posture, though I don't use that "hook" that so many lefties adopt. Second, I'm a dyed-in-the-wool note-taker, and when you want to write down a whole lot of stuff before the speaker says something else important, there's not an awful lot of time to make sure your O's are little perfect circles or your T's are crossed.

Over the years, I've tried two things to neaten my handwriting. The first was to revert to block letters when taking notes in subjects that weren't heavy on English text, such as math, physics, or chemistry. I started this in grade 11, and as a result I can now switch effortlessly between block and cursive - even unconsciously, depending on the subject matter.

The second was when I bought my first fountain pen, in 1999. My thinking at the time was that a heavier tool than a standard ballpoint, and which laid down a darker, thicker line, would compel me to write slower, and hence neater. To a certain extent, I was right.

Since then, any serious handwriting I've had to do has been done with a fountain pen. Ballpoints are handy for jotting quick notes, but they simply can't compare to the comfort of a good fountain pen.

That first pen was a matte black Sheaffer "Award" - the first of many, in fact, as the style seemed to be cursed. In a single year, five pens died horribly as I dropped them (point first, of course, with double points for concrete), bent the nibs by accidentally pressing too hard, and otherwise mangled them. Award #6 survived (along with a lifetime supply of spare parts cannibalized from its dead ancestors), but by then Sheaffer had discontinued their fine writing line.1

My current weapon of choice is the Waterman Phileas (or, as the Waterman company prefers to pretentiously spell it, the Philéas). This is an Art Deco-inspired pen2 with a two-tone medium nib and gold-plated trim reminiscent of the band on a fine cigar. The illustration to the left shows the blue-marble Phileas; I have it in green. This is a wonderfully made workhorse pen, and I'm also happy that I'm still on my first one.

Part of the pleasure of writing with a fountain pen is the infinite variety of inks that are available. With cartridges you are generally limited to whatever the pen manufacturer supplies, but with a bottled-ink converter, you can fill your favourite fountain pen up with whatever brand and shade strikes your fancy. Some pen suppliers (like Waterman) frown on you using third-party ink in their pens, but my Phileas is long out of warranty. Besides, Waterman's black ink is rather weak, so for my preferred colour, I would rather use the bolder (and cheaper!) Pelikan 4001.

The fact is, I love bottled ink. Try and find a ballpoint that writes in as rich a shade as Mont Blanc's turquoise or Bordeaux, or Waterman's blue-black. I can't walk past an ink display without stopping, for the same reason I can't walk past a perfume counter: bottle designs fascinate me. Ink bottles are nearly as carefully crafted as fragrance bottles (and perhaps grappa bottles). Mont Blanc's horizontal bottles are the most interesting, while Levenger's long curves and Waterman's crystalline angles have a simpler elegance, and Lamy's Bauhaus-inspired mushroom-shaped bottles (with their practical built-in rolls of blotting paper) reflect that efficient German engineering.

My current stable of fine writing implements comprises:

  • a Waterman Phileas, medium nib, filled with Pelikan 4001 Black
  • a Sheaffer Award, medium nib, filled with Waterman Blue-Black
  • a Sheaffer NoNonsense, fine nib, filled with Mont Blanc Turquoise
  • a red Lamy Safari, medium nib, filled with Levenger Cocoa (a nice shade, but the ink is a little "wet")
  • another charcoal Safari, fine nib, filled with Pelikan 4001 Black (backup)
  • a Parker Reflex, medium nib, filled with Mont Blanc Green
  • another Parker Reflex, filled with Mont Blanc Bordeaux (which has an odd tendency to gum up the tip of the nib with brown goo if left unattended for more than a few days)

None of these pens cost more than $60 - the all-plastic Reflex is sold for under $10, and I think even a Phileas sells for less than $50 now. I'm not a collector, I'm a writer. As I see it, a pen is the most practical tool there is, so it should be affordable and easily replaceable. If you pay over $150 for a pen, you are buying jewelry, not a writing instrument. Of course, some pens exist only to impress other rich idiots.

Mind you, for only about $10, you can get a really relaxing, laconic writing experience. Buy a Speedball nib and handle, and a bottle of ink, then write away, dipping the pen every few words.


1 Or so I had been told, although Sheaffer's own Web site lists numerous styles of fountain pen, including the Award. Perhaps they changed their mind? If it was true, it was ironic considering how much profit my destructive writing lifestyle was making them.

2 A lot of my favourite things seem to be inspired by Deco, in fact. Maybe I should write a post on my fascination with the 1930s? Phileas fountain pens, Old Spice cologne, Gillette double-edge razors - it never ends.