I am sitting on a wooden bench, by the red-brick wall of a small Elizabethan palace. I am leaning against the arm-rest. My legs, stretched out before me, take up two thirds of the seat, and my bare toes are wriggling with the pleasure of sunshine. Behind the bench, a few sprigs of lavender nod to the breeze, and express their soothing fragrance. The self-satisfied gurgle of the Tudor courtyard fountain is caressing my soul. Somewhere in the vicinity, a crow is cawing. I sense mockery in his or her tone. On my lap, is my usual A4 spiral notebook; in my hand, my usual fountain pen.
A gentleman and his wife stop to ask me directions for the café in the park. Before I have a chance to point, he exclaims, “Oh, my goodness – you’re writing! And with a proper pen! It’s ages since I’ve seen anyone do that. I’m impressed!”
I am not used to strangers expressing quite so much astonishment, true, but I am used to getting looks; looks that combine puzzlement with wariness or a hint of admiration. Sometimes, when I look up, I meet a supportive smile from the person opposite me on the Tube or across the coffee shop. In my mid-forties, what used to be viewed as youthful quirkiness is now labelled as middle-age eccentricity but, the truth is, I have written with a fountain pen since I was nine years old – ever since I was sent to a French school. The teachers there demanded that we use nibs. Allegedly, it helped improve our handwriting. I have just never grown out of it.
I derive great pleasure from writing with a fountain pen. I love the soft murmur of a well worn-in nib as it glides on the paper, tracing glistening black swirls which turn into an elegant matt as they dry. I own four fountain pens. The latest addition has not yet got used to the caprices of my hand. It has not yet learnt to pace its ink flow. It stumbles, rebels, catches on the paper, and scratches it with a harsh rasp. I try and be patient and exercise it regularly, to train it to my fingers. The eldest of the four saw me through my final school exams. The stainless steel barrel is just the right thickness and weight for my hand. The crimson plastic of the grip section has changed shape over the years, moulded by the inside of my right middle finger knuckle. The small nib tip skates across the paper with seamless dexterity, and in almost total silence. It is an old friend who knows all thoughts and whims, and is at one with my hand.
I like the fact that you can hold a fountain pen in your hand lightly, and not have to force it down onto the paper as you have to do with a biro. I like the boldness of the black ink that stands out against the white paper, like an uncompromising statement, ready to be counted.
Do not get me wrong. I can type on a computer. I have an excellent working relationship with my 13’’ MacBook Pro. It always knows what I want, and executes it to perfection but I cannot open my heart to it. I must hand-write it first, then convey it to Mac. I can, when faced with time restrictions, create a text straight onto computer. However, I always feel as though I have missed a stage of the process; like leaping from A to C without going through B; like eating a sandwich on the hoof instead of a sit-down meal; or jumping over a river without walking along the bridge.
Paradoxically, it can take me longer to come up with a sentence on a computer screen than on a sheet of paper. I stare at the screen and become aware of its almost imperceptible tremor. It does not inspire me, yet I cannot look away, even though my eyes start to feel tired. I get distracted by the low but monotonous whirr. Thoughts and words start chasing one another at increasingly vertiginous speed, in a chaotic game and I struggle to keep up.
The moment I pick up my fountain pen, thoughts and words get into pairs and stand in an orderly queue, waiting their turn to slide down the ink syphon and flow out smoothly through the nib onto the paper.
Because my thoughts have to obey the speed of my wrist, they become more focused, more anchored. Words written on paper feel more tangible, more physical, more firmly rooted in soil – even more real. Also, my handwriting reflects back to me my own feelings about what I am writing. It is not as professionally neutral as the perfect Palatino font programmed on my Mac. It becomes irregular, crooked and even illegible when I am writing out of duty or necessity. However, the letters increase in size, the curves grow smoother, the loops acquire panache, and my penmanship becomes clearer when I mean the words I write. One could say that my handwriting is quick at calling my bluff.
Any creative writing I do – be it a theatre review, a short story, or my weekly blog – I prefer to hand-write first, then copy/edit onto computer. My novel, I am typing directly onto my laptop because I cannot bear the thought of having to copy 100,000 words. I sometimes wonder if that is the reason I am finding it difficult to connect with my novel, and why it is taking me so long to write.
In his marvellous, inspiring book, The Places in Between, Scottish historian and politician Rory Stewart narrates his journey on foot across Afghanistan, in 2002. He talks about the serenity of mind he achieves while walking. He refers to travel writer Bruce Chatwin, who
“concluded (...) that we would think and live better and be closer to our purposes as humans if we moved continually on foot across the surface of the earth. I was not certain that I was living or thinking any better.”
I agree with him.
What Rory Stewart feels about the physicality of travelling on foot is akin to how I feel about writing by hand. It gives me a sense of achievement and continuity. It is grounding and brings me peace of mind. It is profoundly healing. By translating my imagination into words, hand writing manifests the ethereal into the physical - with a solid, stone bridge. I would not miss out on the walk over that bridge for anything in the world – there is a wonderful view from it.
* * *
Last year, to celebrate the publishing of my translation The Whales Know, by Pino Cacucci, I treated myself to the best fountain pen I have ever had, and which has made me forsake all the others in my collection. It's a chunky, heavy number, made of reddish pear wood and chrome. It feels snug in my large hand. The nib, made of solid stainless steel, never had to be trained but seemed to be at one with my handwriting from the first swirl I traced on the paper. It is not an elegant pen. It's built like a tank. But it glides on the paper like a gold-medallist figure skater.
This is a revised version of the piece originally published on Wordpress on 12 August 2012