One of the biggest tragedies of my young life involved a wonderful red propelling pencil that I was given for my birthday. I think I must have been nine. I can still feel the tremendous thrill of handling it and writing with it. It had a special smell of new plastic. I took it to school and cherished it for at least one whole day. And then I began to wonder exactly how it worked. It was complicated, with several moving parts. So I took it to pieces!
Wantonly, deliberately, I dismantled it. Tiny components fell to the ground. Somehow, part of the beautiful red casing cracked and then broke. Small lengths of graphite snapped and became too small to manipulate. The thing was completely wrecked, for no reason at all, and I have grieved for it and my own stupidity ever since.
Like all writers I have always loved pens and pencils of every kind. I devised several highly complex games requiring different coloured pencils, which I played by myself for hours on end. Words were listed and deleted in specific patterns, somehow racing against each other. I have no idea of the details now — although I do remember ‘Elsie, Mary, Susan’ which was all my own invention. In that one, I would use a book — one I remember particularly was ‘The Cat Did It’ by Brian Fairfax-Lucy, which I won as a class prize at school. Anyway, the game was to go through letter by letter and ascribe each letter with a girl’s name. These were laboriously listed in various colours, down pages and pages of blank paper. Again, it was a race and Elsie always won. As I remember it now, the pleasure was almost entirely in the writing down of the names.
I remember another specific example of a magically beloved pencil. It had different colours, all in the same ‘lead’. Yellow, blue, green and red would appear randomly as I scribbled with it. I actually recall the purchase of it, on a rare family outing to Bideford in North Devon. Again, I fear it did not survive for very long, although I think this time it was merely misplaced, when interest in it waned.
Fountain pens have always presented a sort of quest, which has never quite been fulfilled. I must have owned well over twenty in my time, and greatly enjoyed using them. But there has always been something just short of perfect with every one of them. They dry up too quickly; they scratch the paper; they demand too much pressure to write properly — or the nib is just that bit too thin for the glorious italic script I know I could write, if I only had the right nib! I do remember a phase where I kept a fountain pen filled with vivid green ink and wrote scores of letters with it. Some of them might still be out there somewhere. I had a friend, Mary, who always used green ink for everything. She wore green clothes as well. I suspect I might have been copying her, for a while.
The smell of ink — especially red ink — is one of the most heart-stoppingly evocative smells I know. Just imagining it now brings waves of nostalgic excitement.
I associate pens with particular desks that I have owned through my life. It all began when my grandmother bought me my own little bureau, at the age of nine or ten. I was an avid letter-writer by then, with several penfriends, as well as a keen stamp collector. I would sit down at my bureau (which had an unforgettable smell of new varnish on cheap raw pine — a smell that makes me almost delirious whenever I encounter it, even now) and use whichever was my ‘best pen’ of the moment to write letters, or order more stamps from the Bridgnorth Stamp Club, or solve puzzles in ‘Competitor’s Weekly’. I used that bureau for the next ten or fifteen years, keeping all my writing materials in it, nerdily recording every letter written, every book I’d read, every penny I spent. A compulsive list-maker in those days, I still record some of those same details.
When my godmother died and left me some money in my thirties, I bought a plain antique desk, which was, for some years used by my husband. But when he moved out, I reclaimed the desk and it is now the one I mainly employ for writing — although sadly much less routine writing happens now. One major use for it, however, was over the ten years in which I was Membership Secretary of the Crime Writers’ Association. I would make individual membership cards for everybody, each year, and write their names on the card, using my best fountain pen and strong black ink. When my daughter kindly devised a computer programme that would print the names on the cards instead, I was sorry in a way. Writing those names in my very best script might have been slow and clumsy, but it was also good fun.
I buy pens in considerable quantity even now. Whole boxes of black roller-tip and cheap ballpoints sit around the house. I love packs of coloured felt tips. All my bags contain pens. But actual writing with a pen has become a greatly reduced practice, for me as for most people. I still do puzzles — crosswords, Sudoku, codewords, and so forth — which all need a good pen. I write short notes inside pretty cards for all the usual occasions. But the biggest use is when I travel — which I do a lot. I buy a thick notebook, stock up with ballpoints and one or two pencils as standby, and fill the book with all the observations, ideas, facts and conversations that comprise one of my jaunts. I’ve got a dozen or more of them scattered round the house. I seldom read them again — but they exist. Trips to America, Mongolia, Australia, Syria, Guatemala, Panama, Southern Africa, Egypt and many European countries are all carefully recorded, using a whole host of different pens. Now and then, there is also a doodled sketch or map, for good measure.
A pen is a symbol of civilisation, a lasting tool of communication and self-expression. It also brings magic, delight and occupation to a child who finds the best way of making sense of the world is to write or draw it.
By Rebecca Tope, author of four murder mystery series, including the Thea Osborne Cotswolds series. Published by Allison & Busby, London.
Rebecca lives in Herefordshire, on a smallholding with a substantial collection of animals, which she regularly deserts to go off and see the world.
30 September 2013