This was a submission for the ‘What I Treasure’ feature in The Simple Things magazine. I never heard back from them but patience is a virtue, apparently…
I’d always coveted my dad’s gold nibbed fountain pen and was delighted when he gave it to me for passing my 11+, just as his mother had passed it onto him thirty years earlier when he’d gained his place at the grammar school.
I’d often admired how he ended letters with his flamboyant signature, the smooth nib of the pen flying across the paper as he underlined his name with an exuberant swirl and a flick of his hand. I’d tried to imitate it with my felt-tipped pens but they just didn’t deliver the same panache. Once I had my ink-stained hands on Dad’s pen, however, I spent hours perfecting my autograph, trying out different slants and styles (yes, I went through the hearts over the i’s phase) until I had the perfect signature that expressed to the world that this eleven-year-old was confident, stylish, yet thoughtful.
At school, all work had to be written with a fountain pen but I soon discovered that my treasured pen, which needed to be filled up from a bottle of ink, wasn’t as practical as the cartridge pens the other pupils used. I couldn’t cart around a bottle of Quink in my school bag so I switched to one from WHSmith that did the job but its scratchy nib and plastic barrel didn’t spark the same joy. My special pen was saved for home.
Pre-internet and email, it was surprising how many letters a child could write each week: thank you letters for birthday and Christmas presents, Swap Shop competitions (those famous words ‘entries on a postcard, please’), signing up to fan clubs, and, of course, writing to pen pals. My pen pals included a girl from our twin town in France, my cousin in Scotland, and a friend in Somerset I’d met on holiday. I wrote religiously every week, usually on Holly Hobbie or Snoopy notepaper, carefully blotting each page before inserting them into the envelope. Then waiting impatiently until the reply fell through the letterbox a few days later. Very different to today’s teenagers used to instant responses on Snapchat and WhatsApp.
Forty years later, when I’m never far from my laptop and phone, I still regularly use my pen. As a writer, I often write longhand into a notebook where my fountain pen allows my thoughts and words to flow on the page in a way that typing on a keyboard doesn’t. It’s almost like a form of mediation. I’m also an ‘authorised person’ who can register weddings and here my trusty pen comes into its own as I carefully complete marriage registers and certificates with special registrar’s ink, smug that the hours invested into my signature weren’t wasted as I sign my name with a flourish.*
And when I send cards and notes to keep in touch with my dad, I like to think that the pen infuses each word I write with precious memories and love from me to him.
*Annoyingly, since I wrote this, the law has changed and marriage certificates are now printed off a computer at register offices (where’s the romance in that?) so I no longer write historical documents. Which is a bummer.