Thursday, 10 January 2019

A finer line

I hate to be boring. But I think I've just bought an item that will add even more pleasure to my daily routine. It's that Parker 51 pen I ordered. It arrived yesterday afternoon.

I was so excited. I was so looking forward to rediscovering what was so good about an easy-to-use, nice-to-hold, iconic writing tool that used to serve me so well.

There was also the 'green' aspect: no more single-use disposable plastic pens. From now on, I was going to use just one pen, for everything, occasionally buying another bottle of ink in a glass bottle that could be recycled. No waste! Ah, what about using more paper? Was this a new threat to forests? No: I would chiefly be writing on notepads made from recycled paper. This pen would help me do my bit to save the planet.

The proprietor of Vintage Fountain Pens, Mark Catley, had done a proper job with packaging and posting. Getting the pen in my hands, I gave it good first inspection.

If you know your Parker 51s, you'll see the signs that confirm it's a Mk II Aerometric, the 'classic' version of the 51. Mark Catley thought it dated from around 1965, and I wouldn't disagree, although when I carry out deeper research I might find reason to place the manufacture of my pen earlier than 1965. But for now that date is 1965, which makes it some fifty-four years old - and five years older than Dad's, which is precisely datable to 1970, and is a Mk III.

There aren't many things that still look mostly unblemished after fifty-four years. It's a testament to the quality of manufacture, and the fact that these were - in their day - objects of desire, even status symbols, and were well looked after. I can just remember a time when, for a man, having the 'right' pen made a difference. It got him the same kind of respect that a well-cut suit did. If bold handwriting flowed from his pen, especially a bold signature, everyone would take note. Dad had an especially impressive hand, and his sweeping 'W R Dommett' signature was positively phallic! Very much The Man In Charge.

Parker launched the 51 in the early 1940s and produced it until the mid 1970s. It looks uncomplicated, but it was a sophisticated pen, and Parker spent millions developing it. Although always fairly expensive to buy - even a model with basic trim would still cost the same as a whole week's wages - it was one of the the best-selling fountain pen for adults ever made. And one of the most reliable.

There were four main versions, all similar to the casual eye, and three different filling methods were tried over the years. You could have the pen in all kinds of colours and finishes, gold included. But I didn't want a pen fit to sign an international treaty. I wanted one that looked a lot like Dad's, but in a different colour, and fitted with a different, thinner nib to suit my own handwriting better. Men tend to like broader nibs that write thickly and richly, and produce an impressive and assertive result on paper. I wanted to make a finer line.

Over dinner the other night, a friend asked me why I didn't just ask a dealer to change the nib, and generally restore Dad's pen to its full glory. I wouldn't have needed to buy one for myself, if I'd done that. But that's not what I wanted. I really did hanker after an original pen that hadn't been modified, nor mended with parts cannibalised from another pen. In any case, I wanted my own pen. For which I was prepared to pay.

I had already bought some Parker Quink ink. 'Quink' is a shortening of 'quick-drying ink', and the 51's ability to use such ink, and avoid smudges, was once a major selling point. So too was the hooded nib. Many people (including the friend who suggested using Dad's pen with a different nib fitted) prefer an exposed nib, and they do look good. The one on my Mont Blanc pen in the late 1980s and early 1990s had looked especially nice - here are two shots of that beast:

A hood, however, inhibits evaporation and stops the ink drying on the nib. So you don't have to keep putting the cap back on every time you stop writing for a moment, simply in order to keep the nib wet. Therefore, unless you leave the pen uncapped for half and hour, it will always write perfectly as soon as you touch the paper again. Which is more than what you can say of modern ballpoint and rollerball pens, which can dry out and may need a couple of test squiggles to get them going.

Well, I filled up. Filling this particular fountain pen involves unscrewing the barrel, dipping the nib end into the ink bottle, pressing the refill bar four times to draw in enough ink, wiping excess ink off the nib end with a tissue, and screwing the barrel back on. A rigmarole, or a delightful ritual, depending on how you view these things. I'm guessing this will turn out to be a once-a week job. But I'll be very pleased if I need to do it twice a week. I do so like a delightful ritual.

And my new pen wrote beautifully. It did take a bit of getting used to, because, unlike a ball pen, you hardly press at all. In fact I'm still adapting, having come from years of rollerballs. But I can show something already. Top, below: a page out of a small notebook, showing my bank and credit card transactions in early 2000, written with Dad's pen. It wrote rather thickly. Bottom: the same entries, copied onto another page of the same notebook, but written today with my new pen.

In 2000 I was still at work, with (as it turned out) only five more years to go before early retirement. But I didn't know that, and glumly expected to retire not earlier than 2012, when sixty. I suppose I was not in the very best frame of mind. My job was senior, interesting, but not especially exciting. It's no surprise to see my handwriting look compressed, as if mentally I'd hunkered down for a long, uncongenial haul until release. Whereas the 2019 handwriting is larger, much more open, and surely indicates someone with a brighter, happier outlook entirely. A person with no more responsibilities, obligations, or unwelcome calls on their attention.

By the way, I don't believe in graphology, that is, the analysis of handwriting to discover the writer's true character. But I do think you can draw sensible conclusions about where and when a person learned to write, whether they are tidy-minded, and whether they currently possess good muscular control. I would never assume that 'artistic' writing (generally in the italic style) always indicates something deep and good about a person. It may be no more than a sign of vanity. Besides, it's unfair to attempt a judgement when most people write so very little nowadays. Modern life has left us seriously out of practice!

The line for 'Micro Anvika' (and the £269.95 spent there) refer to a computer shop in Croydon's Whitgift Centre (long gone, of course). On 19th April 2000 I was buying a Palm Vx organizer - in essence a pocket computer with a screen - which I could use to take notes and store them. Here it is, showing some BBC news synced off the Internet:

Its novelty and sheer usefulness immediately won me over, and it meant the end of my various handwritten paper records. The Palm could handle the lot. I duly transcribed all my handwritten records onto the Palm, and then kept moving them from one successor device to the next. So, from the fateful day that I bought my first Palm, handwriting anything at all became a rarer act. Mobile Tech had come into my life. You really didn't need a pen any more.

Ultimately the handwritten notebook entries for April 2000 have come down to the present day as part of a large Word document for all of the year 2000, and appear like this on my phone and laptop:

Which is all nice and clear, but lacking in charm, don't you think? From 2001, details of my money transactions went onto Excel spreadsheets, with charm even less in evidence, although the ability to number-crunch the information in various ways was invaluable.

I won't be reviving those quaint notebooks, but it will be nice to pen casual notes and jottings - and there are surprisingly many occasions for that, more than I thought - with a handsome vintage writing device.

I don't think the shots above showed the teal colour of my pen very well. Here's some more shots, taken in my kitchen under warm-white LED lighting:

The black leather pen case dates from 1991. I bought it at a pen shop in Guildford (yes, a proper pen shop!) and I've used it with a variety of pens and pencils ever since.

I could use it with my Parker 51. But I think I will instead make a new case myself, to precisely fit my new pen, and that pen only, out of the leather offcuts I bought at Pittards in Yeovil last year. I came away with tan- and teal-coloured offcuts, to closely match the bag I'd just bought. 

At the time I had in mind making an inner pouch for the bag, but have never needed to. Well, now I can design and make a pen case - hand-sewn of course. A little craft project for the week ahead.

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