Who still writes with a fountain pen? In these days of iPads, computers and email, do these nibbed, inky and sometimes messy accessories still have a place, or are they purely an anachronism and an affectation, to be carried in the jacket pockets of poseurs? While I read a lot from the screen and write mostly on a laptop, nothing quite beats the ritual of using a fountain pen and the closeness it brings between your thoughts and your words. With a vintage fountain pen, words cease to seem throwaway, they add value to your writing.
I must come clean… I think I am a stylomane – that is, someone who is obsessed with fountain pens. I spend more time than is healthy hunting old junk shops and flea-markets for my next pen fix. Most recently it was a lovely 1950s black Parker 51, found caked in grime in a box at a market in Ghent which cost me 5 euros. I nursed it back to health. To buy a similar model from a dealer would probably have cost me £50-60.
Did I mention that most old pens came with 14 or sometimes 18kt gold nibs? That means that whatever you write (and I mostly use them for writing poetry or letters) is flowing smoothly out of a precious metal, and that’s a pretty nice feeling. I have even written poems about pens – such as those pens I find that have someone’s name engraved on them. What have they written before? Have they signed something the previous owner lived to regret, or did they use the pen to write something truly remarkable?
All sorts of creative people use fountain pens – they are not just the flashy status symbols of Montblanc toting executives. My friend Gerry Cambridge has recently written this fascinating piece on the irresistible charm of the fountain pen. Most people I know who have tried out an old fountain pen soon make space for them in their busy lives, and from there they begin to multiply. You can’t just have one trusty pen, you need one with a flexy nib, perhaps a meaty stub-nib, and a needle-point. Famous poets who used fountain pens include Hugh MacDiarmid (a Parker 51 man), Joseph Brodsky (owner of the mighty flagship Montblanc 149) and Seamus Heaney (a confirmed Conway Stewart user).
If I tried to analyse my love of fountain pens it might come down to some sort of childhood upset. For one, I was left-handed in school and that was frowned upon. Quite why we sinistral people have become such pariahs is a mystery to me, but there are all sorts of strange theories and superstitions about lefties. Anyway, I was told not to write with my left-hand, almost giving me the complex that my writing was in some way inferior and illegible. But I did anyway. My first fountain pen was a Sheaffer, given to me by my Grandfather when I was about 11. That’s when handwriting really became important to me. Later on what I wrote became more important, when poetry came on the scene for me at age 15/16.
At the moment my pen of the month is a huge red Parker Maxima from the 1950s with a gold nib on it the size of a raptor’s beak. It makes writing pure joy, and I’ve scribbled many letters with it already. Letter-writing, now that’s a subject for another blog altogether. But I’d say that we need old fountain pens more so now than ever, because they re-inject time and value into what we write, not just a splurge of words over a keyboard to hit the right word count. Computers, I think, devalue the written word, fountain pens do the opposite. You can picture me proofreading a typed document with a choice fountain pen – a symbol of serious and unrushed thought.