17. Pen and ink

It struck me recently that my life has mirrored the history of the pen. When I started school the first ink-based writing tool was a ‘dip pen’. Desks were Victorian oak with cast iron frames, in pairs, with tip-up seats. Each pair of desks had two ‘inkwells’ into which the pen was dipped. The pen had a metal nib and a wooden handle like a paintbrush. At one time we could not write for a while because the soluble ink powder had not been delivered.

Dip-pens continued for a time until we had been given, usually by our parents, a ‘fountain pen’ – oh the kudos!. A fountain pen (now sometimes called an ink-pen) has a reservoir of ink which is filled by a lever which squashes a rubber bulb, while the nib was immersed in, more-refined, ink in a bottle. There was a more sophisticated model with a syringe type reservoir. You can still buy Quink and perhaps other brands are available as they say on TV. The pens had names like Waterman, Parker, Schaeffer or Conway-Stewart, and could be very ornate and expensive. They had gold nibs of widths and styles to suit the owner. They still exist, but are now status symbols, seen on antiques programmes and awarded as prizes for newspaper crosswords.

As ‘posh’ fountain pens were/are expensive, a cheaper alternative was produced, with a disposable cartridge replacing the rubber bulb, which anyhow tended to perish and leak.

Ink of course comes in many colours. The ‘default’ was known as blue-black, but blue was acceptable. It was ‘cool’ to use black, green or turquoise although some teachers objected. Recently some members of the teaching profession have claimed that marking in RED “scars the pupil for life”. What a load of old tosh. But I digress.

I got my first ‘Biro’ ballpoint pen in about 1950 for Christmas when they were new on the British market. The Biro or perhaps the more ubiquitous BIC was an invention of the plastics age, where oil-based ink is held in a thin plastic tube and deposited on the paper by a tiny ball-bearing. At the time they were expensive, but now are so cheap that they litter the counters (and floors) of every betting-shop and ARGOS.

Water soluble ball-pens, marker pens with felt tips, thin and thick, are still around. There is even one for use in Bingo-halls which dimply dabs a large blob of ink on the required number and another for white-boards which rubs off with a duster when dry.

My pride and joy is a Fisher ‘SPACE PEN’. Developed by the US space programme to be able to write in zero gravity and no atmosphere; it also claims to work underwater, although I have not tested it in any of these conditions. The Russians of course used a pencil!

My Victorian grandfather could neither read or write, but I never knew that until long after he died. His more educated contemporaries would have been drilled in ‘Copperplate’ script; a very proscribed form of what my children called ‘joined-up writing’. The exam papers I mark are often in a kind of hybrid print-script which is often difficult to read, especially as what I see has been scanned and sent on the internet. The writers I fear only write in the context of the schoolroom as, when they are not communicating in grunts, they communicate by email and more often by texts, which appeared only to be operated using thumbs. Since voice-to-text has been around for some while, perhaps the need to write and eventually to read will disappear. BT NT IN MY TM I FNCY.

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One thought on “17. Pen and ink

  1. I seem to remember that sometimes the blue/black ink issued in schools was so diluted that it barely left a mark on the paper. That was probably fortuitous when small balls of blotting paper were soaked in the ink and flicked by finger and thumb on to the teacher’s gown when his back was turned.
    I also have a vivid recollection of realising how difficult it was for left-handed people to write with pen and ink. When our mutual friend Bert tried to write at the same pace as the right-handers in the class, his left hand smudged the still wet ink. One sarcastic teacher commented on a piece of work of Bert’s work that it might be better if he stopped using a matchstick and used a pen instead.
    Cheers and thanks for those congenial few minutes of nostalgia.
    Danny

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