I was extremely fortunate to attend a primary school at which biros were not permitted. All the pupils had to have fountain pens, and some of the ancient desks were even equipped with those little holes in which the ink bottles would sit. There was an emphasis on good penmanship, so we wrote endless lines of A, E, R, and other difficult letters, which was actually quite easy with a high-quality pen.
When I progressed into secondary school, biros were still banned, so my parents took me to a rather posh shop in Bristol and bought me a Sheaffer pen. It was red with a silver cap and a tiny nib. Unfortunately, I must have been nervous or bored in class, because I chewed a hole in the end, a hole that grew bigger and bigger as term passed, finally leading to my mother deciding that it was simply too nasty to be seen in public.
So back to the shop we went, and Sheaffer number two was purchased, a pen that is still with me today. It is a much-loved friend that looks as smart today as it did when it was bought, perhaps because this time I managed to keep my teeth to myself and the top remains unchewed. Of course, the pen is worn, but, like a pebble glistening in a river, it is polished to an attractive and comfortable smoothness. My dear old Sheaffer is a deep, lustrous black with a slender gold band at the point at which it unscrews. It may be real gold — it has certainly never tarnished. The nib-end tapers elegantly to a fine point, and the nib was gold once, too, but that has long-since flaked away from use. It's light — very light — and feels just lovely in the hand. The lid is shiny silver metal decorated with long vertical lines, parts of which have been worn down from more than forty years of use. The two halves unscrew smoothly when it’s time to change the cartridge, which always slides into place with a satisfying snap. Despite its age, it still writes as smooth as silk. Unfortunately, my handwriting has degenerated, and all those hours of practising As, Es, and Rs were for naught, but the Sheaffer doesn't mind, and skims across the page just as happily.
Such a performance is not a surprise when one considers the pen’s lineage. It was 100 years ago this year that Walter A. Sheaffer risked his life savings by launching his new brand of fountain pen in the back room of his jewellery store in Fort Madison, Iowa, where seven employees produced the early versions of his pens, featuring a new filling apparatus using a recently patented lever system attached to a deflatable rubber sac in the pen barrel. The company went from strength to strength, introducing new inks, newly shaped pens, a plastic body with a fitted metal cap, and even more innovative mechanisms to make refilling the pen easier. In 1945, American Secretary of State James F. Byrnes wielded one of these pens when he followed President Harry S. Truman in signing the United Nations Charter. With a history like that, how could my little pen be anything but a classic implement — although the company has in more recent years, ironically, been taken over by Bic, the giant king of the biros.
Meanwhile, my own Sheaffer wrote frantically through O-Levels (remember those?), A-Levels, and my first degree. It wrote the reports of crimes and arrests I made when I was in the police force in Yorkshire (when we still had clerks who typed up what we wrote, Dickensian though that may sound now). It then went from the rough streets of Leeds to the hallowed halls of some of the oldest academic institutions in the country, seeing me through a postgraduate degree at Durham and a PhD at Cambridge. At the latter, it filled out thousands of data sheets while also being toted around the same corridors and streets on which Newton, Darwin, and Watson and Crick once strolled.
When I first started writing fiction, it was with my lovely black pen on thick, unlined paper, the advantage being that it could be done anywhere, even in bed — which is definitely not pleasant with a computer. I eventually graduated to a portable typewriter and spent many hours battering away with two fingers on an ancient Olympus, my husband standing by with the Tipp-Ex, of which we must have used gallons. But these days, it has to be a computer, as I can’t imagine my publishers being very impressed with being presented a great sheaf of handwritten paper, no matter how perfect my As, Es, and Rs. And I’m a bit fussier about my prose these days, so a computer allows for revision after revision without the need for the buckets of Tipp-Ex.
But my dear old Sheaffer still writes a hundred Christmas cards a year, and allows me to scrawl postcards to friends and fill in the occasional crossword. It even writes cheques for the Council Tax, shopping lists, and consent forms for the vet as we look after our three very spoiled chickens. It doesn’t travel as much as it used to, because I always worry about losing it — and how frustrated and annoyed with myself I would be as result. But in our home it does make the trek from my office down the stairs to where — while supposedly relaxing with my husband — I can make notes about the oddities of various fourteenth-century scholars, all taken from old documents that he eyes suspiciously as they accompany the pen on its jaunt to what is supposed to be 'down time'.
It has been suggested that my pen 'retire', or that I purchase a more up-to-date model. But I don’t think that either of those options is likely, at least not yet. For one thing, I’m not sure that a new pen could actually match my old favourite. And for another, it looks to me like my Sheaffer still has another forty years in it.
Carmarthenshire-based Susanna Gregory is the author several historical crime fiction novels, including the Matthew Bartholomew and Thomas Chaloner series. Her latest book, Murder on High Holborn, published by Little, Brown Book Group, is available to buy now. Explore more of Susanna's work here.
25 June 2012