I cannot count how many pens and pencils I’ve used in my life.
At school, the pencils were those grotty stubs which invariably had to be sharpened with a pen-knife, because a sharpener would tease out every grain in the cheap wood. Early on I decided that biros were, for me, useless. In the height of summer there would be too many Bic blots on the page, and I never did get on with the plastic barrels. They felt horrible in the hand. The only use for them was as pea-shooters: a rolled-up, slightly soggy piece of chewed paper could inflict annoyance from some distance, while the weapon would be undetectable by a teacher.
Or so I’m told.
However, I did develop a love for real ink pens. Even at school I had several. There was an Osmiroid, which fell apart, and a Conway Stewart (stolen), and I used a Sheaffer for some time (it’s still here in my desk). I had a Parker in stainless steel (also in the drawer). And meanwhile my collection of pencils grew. Even now, I love my pens. I have two really nice Cross pens, one with a fine nib and red ink for editing and revising manuscripts, and my old medium nibbed gold that I used when I was a salesman, but it’s my Conway Stewart pens I really love: a Churchill, a Drake, and my very own Michael Jecks pen in Dartmoor. I use them as often as possible.
But it is the pencils which I have to have about me all day every day. They are just so practical.
No, I do not write my books longhand. It would take too long. I depend upon writing long screeds of text, usually up to 1,000 words in an hour, for long stretches, and with the best will in the world, I couldn’t do that with pencil and paper. It is so much faster to type.
But where the pencil comes in is everywhere else.
I sketch characters’ faces (badly), with all their more obvious defects so that when I am writing I can glance across to their mugshots and remind myself what they are like. The pencil is always in a pocket for those moments when an idea occurs for a new novel or a development in the existing one. I will always carry an A5 or A6 notepad with me, and they are full of scribbled comments, notes on ideas, or other people’s conversations (with rings round incongruous or odd expressions I haven’t heard before).
In short, a pencil is enormously useful.
There was a (no doubt apocryphal) story about NASA. When the Berlin Wall crumbled and NASA and the Russian space agency decided to work together, there were several meetings at a high level. At one, an American, trying to impress his counterpart, spoke of the sums spent to manufacture pens that would work in space. Their solution was the excellent (used to have one of these, too) Papermate with the two heart symbols on the clip. The idea was, as you pressed the rolling ball onto paper, it pumped some ink forward. It was brilliant. Not only was it genuinely space-age, it would work upside-down or anywhere. It cost millions of dollars to design and manufacture, but it was a work of art.
The Russian wasn’t impressed. He shrugged. ‘We used pencils.’
But, and it’s rather a big “but”, there are problems with pencils. For example, what do you do on an aeroplane when your pencil becomes blunt? You aren’t allowed to carry knives on board since 9/11. So, in the old days you had to remember to carry the sharpener onto the plane with you, along with the pencil, and probably a rubber eraser too.
Except I am a professional writer, and if there is one thing a pro like me will do, it is lose things. Carrying three items onto a plane won’t happen. I will forget one of them. It’ll either be in the cargo hold or on the desk at home.
Which is why, some years ago, I bought a Faber Castell Perfect Pencil.
It was sleek, aluminium, and lovely. The thing with these devices is, the pencil can be kept in a pocket perfectly safely, with the dangerous tip covered by the cap. Ingenious. And then, when you need to write, pull the cap off the sharp end — and write! Simple. But rather more brilliant is the fact that when your pencil is growing short, you can shove the back end of the pencil into the cap, and it becomes an extension tube for the pencil. Oh, and if you pull off the top of the cap, it holds concealed within it a sharpener.l
If the Russians had wanted to improve on their space agency’s pencils, this is how they’d have done it. Elegant and very effective — and no ink blots.
I used that Perfect Pencil for about six years, and I would guess I used it every single day in that time. I made sketches of the moors, I wrote notes, I planned meetings and stories with it, I corrected my children’s homework with it. And, yes, I loved it.
And one day a couple of years ago, I went to do a radio interview in Plymouth, and I lost it.
I don’t know where, but somewhere it fell out of my pocket. To this day I regret its loss. The feeling of dull horror — well, OK, raging fury with my own stupidity, if you prefer — was with me for a long time.
But every disaster is an opportunity. If there was one thing slightly wrong about that pencil (don’t get me wrong, it was just about perfect), it was that the barrel of the extender was a little, just a teensy bit, too wide for my comfort. It was OK, and it saw out several pencils with me, but it was just not quite ideal for me.
So that is why I bought the next level up, the Graf von Faber-Castell model. This one is superb. Shining silver, it is thinner, with that distinctive Faber-Castell look about it, a tube with a slight flare at the open end, rising to a more pronounced flare at the cap.
It cannot be improved upon. It is, quite simply, perfect. A gorgeous design superbly executed. And because my children need to know how to use pencils properly (and aren’t allowed to carry penknives at school like I was), I’ve bought two more Perfect Pencils for them from Cult Pens.
But theirs are plastic. I’m not that generous!
As well as collaborating with fellow members of The Medieval Murderers, Dartmoor-based Michael Jecks is the author of thirty three novels in his best-selling Templar series. His latest, Fields of Glory will be published in June 2014 in hardback and Kindle from Simon & Schuster. Expplore more of Michaels' work at: www.michaeljecks.co.uk
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10 May 2012