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Retro writing

10 July 2017

I (not so) fondly recall my early years at school and getting to grips with the concept of learning to write.

Back in those days, cursive script was the handwriting we were all taught and much of the day was spent scratching joined-up ovals with our pencils on both ruled and unruled pages in our exercise books.

"Round, round, round" the teacher would chant from the front of the class as dozens of little faces concentrated on trying to create an entire line of perfectly matched ellipses.

It was actually more complex than it sounds because not only did each oval have to be the same as the previous one but they also had to slope forward at just the right angle. The left-handers who sloped their ovals backwards were given a stern dressing down and told to conform -- such were the attitudes in those days.

Those of us who were seen to be using only our wrist were also berated for our sins and told to use our entire arm -- God knows why -- but apparently it was important.

Once we'd mastered the pencil we were allowed to graduate -- to the nib-pen


The school-desks back in those days had a small circular hole at the top right corner and into that hole would fit a small china cup -- an ink-well.

One of the must-have elements of our annual school supplies was a nib-pen, a device that is now so archaic that I doubt many people younger than me have ever seen one in the flesh.

The nib pens we used had a wooden handle and a shiny metal nib. This nib bad a split point and a kind of hole which acted as a tiny reservoir for the ink.

Writing with a nib-pen was fraught with peril.

The nib held only enough ink for a few short words and invariably, no matter how careful you were in both the dipping and use of these devices, the nasty blue ink would find its way to your fingers -- and from there, onto the page on which you were writing, in the form of ugly smudges.

And, of course, where there was a nib-pen there was always a blotter.

What is a blotter?

Well it's a special type of very dense and absorbent paper that was used (as the name might imply) to blot up excess ink.

The problem with the very cheap nib-pens we were forced to use is that their control over the flow of ink onto the paper was dubious at best. Freshly dipped, they would create a nice broad line with way too much ink but within seconds, the line would become thinner and begin to break up. The blotter was used to soak away the puddled line at the beginning of your writing so that it didn't get accidentally smeared across the page before it dried.

If you think that this sounds like a bit of a phaf then you'd be right. Not only did the ink monitor have to race round every desk first thing of a morning, so as to load up those ink-wells but you'd also have scores of children with blue-stained fingers marking everything they touched throughout the day.

Much of the negative aspects of nib-pens were eliminated however, when we were old and experienced enough to use the holly grail of cursive handwriting tools: the fountain pen.

Yes, a few years into my education I became the proud owner of such an instrument and things improved immensely. Now, instead of relying on that ceramic ink-well, I could fill up my pen from a tiny bottle of blue ink well in advance of time. What's more, I didn't have to pause every few words to replenish the ink supply -- a single fill would last for at least a day, often two.

Of course blue fingers were still sometimes par for the course because the fountain pens we could afford were usually pretty crappy and sometimes leaked. Most of us learned very early on never to put a fountain pen *anywhere* that you didn't want random pools of ink appearing.

I recall one of my teachers talking about the new-fangled "ball point pens" with scorn and derision. "These pens are not suitable for handwriting at all" we were told. "They do not have the precision or quality of a good fountain pen" and we were forbidden to use them in class.

Of course time changes everything and these days you'd be hard pushed to find a decent nib-pen anywhere although it's interesting to note that fountain pens are making something of a come-back. There seems to be a definite retro-movement underway and I see a number of manufacturers now making fountain pens again.

The Japanese manufacturer Pilot has a couple of very nice fountain pens at surprisingly affordable prices and there are also some offerings coming out of Germany.

The question however, must be asked: why?

Modern ball-point pens are pretty damned good and virtually nobody under the age of 45 uses cursive script any more so the true benefits of a fountain pen will be lost on the keyboard generations.

Never the less, I'm sorely tempted to pick up a new fountain pen... perhaps if only for nostalgia's sake.

Do any of Aardvark's readers still use a fountain pen? Do you have similar memories to my own in respect to your early years at school? When was the last time you used handwriting in cursive script?

Just how much has the world changed in 60 years?

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