Sunday, 29 January 2012

Writer's Bump

There was a blog post in the Guardian this week which claimed that humanities students now have problems completing handwritten examinations because they are not used to handwriting for long stretches.

I can sympathise with this. As the survivor of 11 O-Levels, 3 A-Levels, a bachelor's degree in Sociology and International Relations and chartered management accountancy examinations, I still have mine. I have spent literally days in exam halls. For example, when I sat my final exams for my degree, I had to sit eight exams in just over one week. As each paper was three hours long, that meant 24 hours of furious essay-writing, culminating with two in one day - and a Saturday, to boot. Back then I did not use a fountain pen, but instead the good old Bic Cristal. This, I feel, is the reason why I now loathe them, because if I have to write for a long spell even today, I get some discomfort from my writer's bump, the callous over the distal phalanx of my right-hand middle finger.

This is also one reason why I prefer steno pencils or pencils with rounded profiles such as the Chung Hwa 6903 kindly sent to me for review by Matthias of the Bleistift parish. (It will appear soon, honest.) The standard hexagonal pencil tends to dig in a bit to my writer's bump, making a long writing session moderately uncomfortable. It is also one reason why I decided to use fountain pens when I decided my handwriting had deteriorated too far after years of neglect.

When I studied for my accountancy exams, the training college I attended insisted that students submit their homework assignments in handwritten form. They could easily have accepted computer-based work, to save themselves the trouble of having to decipher the students' scrawls. However, they required us to hand-write our work as a training programme for the exams which loomed at the end of the course. This was eminently sensible. The three-hour timed essay under examination conditions is a stern test of the student's knowledge, and also their physical stamina. It takes time to build up sufficient strength to hold a pen to paper and keep going for that long.

So the students of today have my sympathy, as the proud owner of that particular T-shirt. As computer-based assessment becomes more common, the problem will, I suppose, be replaced with students suffering WRULDs instead. The writer's bump will likely die out along with its owners.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Black Brown and Blue

I never seem to settle on one colour for my fountain pens, but I have found that I don't like to carry around too many or with a very large range of colours. However I have just added a new colour to my daily carry: brown ink. Specifically, Pelikan Brilliant Brown.

After numerous experiments using various shades and makes of ink, I've ended up carrying four fountain pens, two of which hold blue ink, one holding black ink, and the last holding brown ink. How on Earth did that happen? I'm nearly back where I started; I could have saved a small fortune in ink if I hadn't tried all those other colours. For example, I own three different shades of turquoise and two of purple, which now seem surplus to requirements unless I have yet another change of mind.

I find it difficult to escape the conclusion that coloured inks - outside the narrow palette I have described - just look too fussy on the page. I tend to do most of my writing at work, and have happily used any colour I liked; and nobody seemed to care. So much for much of the hand-wringing one finds on the Fountain Pen Network where people fret whether their favourite inks look "professional". The only comment I have received was from one colleague who saw a note I wrote in Diamine Woodland Green, and that was a compliment. But it can be distracting, looking at large volumes of manuscript in violet or orange. I needed to cut down the number of colours I have in daily use.

Black was an easy one. I have always used black ink in fountain pens and the first bottle I bought when I returned to using them five years ago was a bottle of Diamine Onyx Black. Now I use Pelikan Brilliant Black (sic) in a black Lamy Safari, with an EF nib. The line is thin enough not to overpower the page, and the colour is serious enough to be considered "professional". I use this pen only occasionally, however...

...because my favourite pens use blue ink. Blue was always a "problem" colour for me. At school, I hated blue ink - particularly washable blue. It was just so bloody boring. I avoided it for a long time, and it wasn't until I saw some manuscripts by JG Ballard online that I decided that I needed to use blue ink - after all, Ballard is my favourite author and if it was good enough for him etc. Knowing that he used locally-available materials from the stationers and newsagents in Shepperton, where he lived, I guessed he used Parker Quink Permanent Blue. (I have no idea what ink he actually used, and nobody seems to know or care.) I tracked down a supply manufactured in the 1970s and used it for a while. It's probably a life-time's supply unless I take up writing novels in manuscript. I think that age has altered the dye in the ink's chemistry somewhat, because it is much greyer than the ink Ballard wrote with, if the online sources are to be believed. My Quink is closer to a Prussian blue, and not the classic Quink blue I remember from my father's pens. It's very nice to look at and behaves well in the pen, but it's not the same. So I tried a number of other blues, and settled on a couple, those being Diamine Sapphire Blue and Waterman Florida Blue. I use the Florida Blue in my Pilot M90, and although it looks washed-out when dry, it is a fine writing ink. I think this may be the one permanent pen and ink combination, at least until I change my mind - again.

The "other" blue that I use at present is a mixture. I have mixed up a 50/50 concoction of Diamine inks: Imperial Blue and Imperial Purple. The resulting colour is similar to Richard Binder's famous "Blurple" and is a pleasing darkish blue with a definite purple tinge. I am using this mixture in my Pilot Capless. It's good and I am very pleased with it; whether it will stay permanently, well, only time will tell.

As for the brown ink, I had the idea of using it again after seeing a talk at my local astronomical society the other week. The subject was Sir Isaac Newton, using his own words, taken from his letters and notebooks. Having looked at some of the digitised notebooks online at the Cambridge University Library website, I was intrigued to see that many of the notes were written in what seems to be brown ink, perhaps sepia. As I own only one bottle of brown ink, I have used that, and although the Pelikan is much redder than a sepia, it's still very easy on the eye. It looks good on creamy paper in particular, particularly on Moleskine paper stock judging by the test page I have tried out, even though it bleeds through horribly in the Mole's revolting thin paper stock. I will probably put this brown ink into the Capless once the current ink in that pen runs dry; at the moment I am using it in another Lamy Safari, a limited-edition pink model with an M nib that once belonged to my eldest daughter. (Nobody's asked me why I use a pink pen.)

So, I hope that I have narrowed things down to three or four good pens with good ink. You may note that none is filled with Noodler's ink. The reason for that is I have found that Noodler's and certain other boutique inks take a long time to dry on the page, especially with the cheap paper stock I use at work. I loathe smudging, and have come to appreciate inks with fast-drying properties. It is a pity, as I adore the Noodler's inks for their colours; Navajoe Turquoise is a particular favourite but it is too cumbersome to use on a daily basis. They are, however, good for special occasions: this Christmas I wrote cards using Private Reserve Plum, another top-ranking ink for colour and shading but which takes an absolute age to dry.

Or I could, of course, just forget about it and use a pencil.