Sunday, 7 September 2014

Pentel Man or Blu-Tack Thinking


There is no pleasure sweeter than the awareness that one is in possession of a perfectly valid reason to recycle old blog posts. Especially when what I wrote didn't really fit in with the rest of the post and I can now make a whole new post out of it without too much extra effort. Sort of a victimless crime. A while ago, I wrote:
The promise of new stationery rarely delivers, in my experience, but continuing to buy it is an act of hope. Which reminds me of a Clive James interview with Jonathan Miller and Robbie Coltrane, viewable here, in which the good doctor goes off on a two minute riff about things and Robbie Coltrane eagerly joins in. What isn't mentioned, and may be relevant, is Coltrane's background as an art student: there is a shop in the basement of Glasgow Art School, and another - at least there was - a few blocks away. I still remember the joy, aged about fourteen, of my first Rapidograph: such perfect things I'd be drawing from then on ...
The recent publication of a book by James Ward entitled Adventures in Stationery sparked off further thoughts - this time about writing, rather than drawing, implements, in particular those orange Pentel pens with a fine tip which I used to use for essay writing when I was at university.

Afterwards they seemed to disappear, only to surface on those I Heart the 80s type programmes. At least, I think they did. (Beat.) Yes, yes, I'm pretty sure I can remember Johnny Vegas saying in a hoarse voice: "If you didn't have a Pentel Pen you were NOBODY." Unless that was spacehoppers and Phil Kay, or rather Peter. Anyway, in the places I normally search for stationery I certainly have no memory of seeing such pens in recent years.

But today I had a quick look online, and guess what? Yep: you can still buy them in large, cheap packs just about everywhere, it seems. You lied to me, Vegas. Or possibly one of those pesky Kay twins. So I'm going to. Buy them in large, cheap packs online, that is. And if traces of an ancient creative flame don't immediately set my veins atingle thereafter it can only mean the manufacturers have switched to a different ink or something.


You can read James Ward's own description of his book here and an amusing Independent article about him by Rhodri Marsen here. Faced with the attraction Ward and others feel for stationery, Marsden tries to make sense of it all:
Perhaps these everyday objects are reassuring, introducing as they do a kind of order in a chaotic world. Perhaps they're aspirational. After all, they facilitate creativity and progress; the purchase of a Moleskine notebook represents a small first step towards writing a novel, or planning a round-the-world trip. And they're certainly tools of procrastination. "When you want to get organised," says Ward, "the first thing you do is come into a shop like this and buy all the stuff that helps you get organised. It's a way of assuaging your guilt over your own inactivity. It makes you feel like you've done something, when all you've actually done is buy a pack of Post-it notes."
Sadly, I can buy all too easily into that.

It's worth reading the whole article, in which Marsden often finds himself laughing at some remark of Ward's meant entirely seriously. Spoiler alert: he sort of gets it by the end, or at least acknowledges that whatever else Ward may be he is undoubtedly a "beguiling storyteller" - as befits a man obsessed with stationery to such an extent that his work colleagues "probably wouldn't try to engage me in conversation about it", unlike his chums online:
At Stationery Club, a transatlantic Skype interview with the man who invented the Post-it note might be interspersed with pints of lager and a comparison of fibre-tipped pens.
Thus emboldened, I can't end this post without a wistful reference to my Sheaffer pen of former years. This was a "gift" hastily handed when I got someone else a present which clearly hadn't been reciprocated. Yet I loved that pen even so: the burnished silver, the smooth feel of it in the hand.

I no longer have it but I do remember that I wrote a monograph about A.A. Milne with it while at art school. Did I consciously discard it? Possibly. It may have been a pleasing thing to hold but the refills didn't last all that long: the tip would go soft and bend and the writing would get fuzzy before too long. Pentel pens may have been cheap and nasty by comparison but they lasted a reasonable time.

Such Shaeffer pens as I have seen available online seem to be either fountain pens or ballpoints - I can't seem to find any felt tips. I did, however, find this heartbreaking plea which has gone unanswered for six years:



And it's not just pens which go off but all the writing-related paraphernalia - yea, even unto the Tipp-Ex and the sticky stuff. Blu-Tack is discussed by Ward at length in the Independent article:
When you buy a new pack of Blu-Tack and open it, there's that perfect blue slab, and it's a rare moment because one pack of Blu-Tack generally lasts ages. But once the first lump has been pulled off, one stretched corner that you have to fold back in on itself, it's not the same.
Which I suppose sums up those stationery-related feelings. That nib  will blunt, that notebook will get all creased, and whatever fills it cannot live up to the promise of those pristine pages.

Incidentally, Blu-Tack figures early on in my writing life - as a cautionary tale. I was part of a writing group and we were each working towards the presentation of a short play. One piece had a workplace setting and st some point included the claim by one character that Blu-Tack was made from dolphins' b*llocks.

The play went along okay, but gradually the realisation dawned on those present that no, all the lads' banter wasn't actually going to lead to anything after all, and wasn't quite enough on its own. I recall the writer later talking to the literary manager of the theatre, surprised and excited by the apparent ease with which you could get a play on. All you had to do was find the money and it would happen.

I didn't keep in touch with the writer. I don't know what, if anything, happened to his play or whether, or how much, his determination was dented after the "perfect blue slab" stage of seeing his piece performed in front of an audience. I hope he worked out at some point that there has to be something going on underneath the surface banter.

Perhaps he saw, or will see, Richard Bean's Toast, set in a bread factory (Bean wasn't allowed to call it Wonderloaf), which is currently being revived at the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park. I remember reading that Mr Bean keeps office hours and indeed hires an office when he's working on a play. Which rather suggests he's the kind of writer who enjoys the thrill of fresh stationery for like half a second and then just gets on with it. I just can't understand that sort of mentality.


What? No, no, that's Tony Visconti - a holiday snap which happened to be pinned up in the studio when Bowie was composing Heroes. It gave rise to a line in the song, of course but could it be that Bowie had also heard the rumour or urban myth about the origins of a certain brand of versatile adhesive material? Was he in fact expressing a yearning in Heroes similar to that of James Ward for that initial dizzying moment of creativity before things are stretched out of true?

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