Nick Foulkes surveys his ranks of fine writing instruments, selects his shade of ink and a leaf of smart stationery — then switches on his PC to write about the matchless beauty of fountain pens
THERE IS A glamour about the young man staring defiantly out of the sober gloom of the late-18th-century portrait. There is almost a poet’s intensity about the gaze, while the pale features, white neck cloth and powdered hair cascading to his shoulders provide a graphic contrast to the sombre suit of dark clothes.
However, it is not the young man on the make — Robert Banks Jenkinson would inherit the earldom of Liverpool and become Prime Minister in 1812 — so much as the backdrop to this prototypical swagger portrait of the mid-1790s that attracted my attention on a recent visit to the Lawrence exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. The column and billowing drapery are common enough props, but I was mesmerised by Lawrence’s depiction of the inkwell and the quill standing perpendicular in it. As a still life alone it was a masterpiece expressing a (Basildon) bond between writer and page that has all but vanished.
I suppose the modern equivalent would be of David Cameron, snapped ‘candidly’ by one of Number Ten’s house photographers, playing with an iPad. Given the choice I’d go for the inkwell. I am sometimes asked whether I write my books and newspaper articles by hand. I suppose I should not be surprised and I daresay that this has to do with the deliberately antiquated style of dress that I cultivate; perhaps people think that I drive a coach and four into the West End and work by candlelight. The truth is rather more prosaic. Like everyone else I conduct much of my life through the medium of the keyboard; the blinking cursor is as much a part of my life today as ink-stained blotting paper was when I was receiving my education back in the dark ages of the 1970s.
And yet, as I spend ever greater chunks of time interfacing with the world through the pressure of my digits on little letter-bearing plastic cubes, I find myself ever more hungry for the sensation of a barrel between thumb and forefinger, the barrel of a fountain pen, that is.
I am currently in the grip of a maladie de plume, and while I may not own a quill I seem to have almost everything else. Two large silver beakers — one a piece of regimental silver from the early 20th century, the other carrying the cabochons that mean Cartier — bristle with writing instruments. To their left is a Soviet-era ‘Politburo’ desk set in the shape of a rocket dating from 1969. To their right a small frog wearing a coronet proffers me a red resin and chased silver fountain pen. Strewn around are sundry other pens, among them a rather wonderful silver object about the size of a small surface-to-air missile or a very large cigar, engraved with what appears to be the entire sporting history of the Bentley marque. Over in the far corner, beyond the Edwardian ashtrays, bottles of various hued inks are drawn up in serried ranks.
Moving the nib of a fountain pen across a virgin sheet of paper is a wonderful sensory experience. I never tire of seeing the glistening trail of cochineal, turquoise, navy or black appear on my Nile blue correspondence cards from Smythson, or filling the translucent pages of my Smythson Panama notebooks. And once written on the paper itself changes character: it curls, it crinkles, in short it has been physically affected, its properties altered, by the pressure of eighteen- or 21-carat gold and the delivery of the ink.
I have kept all my notebooks for the past twenty years or so, not that I ever look at them. Nevertheless I find comfort knowing that I have a few shoeboxes filled with my illegible scrawl in dozens of navy calfskin-covered volumes. I also have Smythson diaries stretching back about as far with their jottings, and although these are appointment books rather than memoir fodder they nevertheless convey a sense of achievement, a physical trace of my presence.
And even though I compose my history books using screen and keyboard, the notes I painstakingly make from various sources are recorded on sheets of paper snipped from the back of said diaries, arranged alphabetically in a folder and carefully cross-referenced. Then, of course, there is the pleasure of the cheque: although the greatest pleasure is receiving one, the pain of spending money can be ever so slightly eased by joy of filling out this antiquated transactional medium.
However, I mention these activities in a slightly elegiac tone as one by one they are deserting me. I still use the Smythson notebooks, but the rest are endangered activities. Cheques, as we know, will cease to function in 2018. And to this systemic factor I must add several personal changes.
Earlier this year my large diary fell off the back of my bicycle (along with a tasty Bill Amberg bag, a vintage silk scarf from Hayward and a red cashmere V-neck that I had cherished for years). In extremis I started to make appointments on my BlackBerry promising myself a trip to the stationers. Of course, said visit never materialised and now I am dependent on the infinitely less romantic Microsoft Outlook.
THE PEN AND ink notation of research material has also taken a hit. I was introduced to a system called Livescribe, an electronic pen that allows you to transfer your notes to the computer, a sort of scan-as-you-write system that allows me to record my observations in both physical and electronic form. Trouble is the Livescribe pen is handy but hideous and it needs to be used in conjunction with special paper, but the fear that one day I would lose my sheaf of notes or I would drop them in a puddle and they would wash away was always at the back of my mind — so in a rare outcome, practicality and safety have triumphed over charm and nostalgia.
However, cursive writing still lingers on. I try to write thank you notes when I can remember — however illegible and platitudinous they may be, there is something about them that implies a little more thought and effort than a hastily typed and misspelled email or vowel-lite SMS. And the New Year might see a slight upturn in the amount of actual ink that I will be spilling on the physical page. I was recently approached to write a book about Italian pen maker Montegrappa.
I have already been out to the factory a couple of times and I have to say that I like what I see. It reminded me forcibly of watch factories or the Bentley Mulliner works at Crewe, where details you never even knew existed are fretted over and cared about. Take the piece of equipment that I have very scientifically dubbed the clip-twanger, which replicates years of in-and-out-of-pocket action, tugging the clip 20,000 times. There is a similarly fiendish torque machine to test the screw thread on the cap. But some tests are gentler: there is an employee — and I am not making this up — whose job it is to doodle with each pen that leaves the workshops before it is polished, packed and shipped.
Freed from the shackles of practicality, the Montegrappa pen is a bona fide luxury item, an example of what I call the law of elegant futility in action. I believe that rather like the wristwatch, which should by rights have died out with the arrival of the mobile phone, the stature of the fine fountain pen as a luxury totem will continue to increase. And as such I am busy perfecting my pen snobbery and getting my head around such eternal questions as the optimum proportion of finely ground mother of pearl to add to celluloid to achieve a level of barrel iridescence that is beautiful but the right side of bling. And unless you want to be lulled into a coma, don’t get me started on the subject of the superiority of ebonite feeders (the bit that transfers the ink from the barrel to the nib).
It was the feeder debate that confirmed my view that writing with a pen would remain an important part of my life for a while to come. As a luxury junkie I know I am hooked when I believe the illusion that all the problems in my life will be solved by the acquisition of a new gewgaw superior to one that I already own. Touring the Montegrappa factory I felt the onset of this familiar feeling of inferiority and the concomitant hunger for a new object; you see, much to my embarrassment I was using a writing instrument that had a moulded plastic feeder. I only hope that my private shame remained hidden from my hosts.
Illustration by Sonia Hensler