So, it was an obvious though rather belated thing to do to join the Writing Equipment Society. On Saturday they held their annual Writing Equipment Show in London, and not knowing quite what to expect, but hoping to return with bags bristling with more writing tools, maybe even a twelfth handbag pen, we went.
Now this isn't a show that was particularly well advertised. In fact, if you weren't in the WES (with its beautifully minimal hand-drawn logo), you would't have known about it. Entry was a nice cheap three quid for 'members', and once inside the conference room opened out into stalls and stalls of...fountain pens.
Coloured ones, shell ones, wooden ones, bamboo ones. Old ones, antique ones, Titanic ones, ones which came with a compass and a hand-carved box. Ones with diamonds on. Ones with filigree, ones with broken bits and missing tops. And many men of a certain age counting out large quantities of notes onto tables, tooled up with loupes and magnifying glasses. Now I'm into my fountain pens (I have many, and between them they've produced a great many illustrations) but I confess the lack of ink and nibs was probably etched onto my face.
Still; it was fascinating to see the range of ways one might display a pen collection - if I wanted a hand-made Italian display case, I'd have found one. Or a tasty cast iron rack. Mine live in a cardboard pen tray, together, their branded cases removed and stored away - we'll have no assertions of hierarchy here, Monsieur Mont Blanc. Picturing my dip pens standing nib-down on blotting paper, drying in their old school test tube rack, I winced at the comparative preciousness of some of these instruments, coddled and squidged into velvety sleeping bags and walnut beds. At the same time, I felt sorry for them - how many would ACTUALLY be written with, their bladders, sacs and reservoirs tested to the limits, their nibs flushed through with myriad inks?
In fact I was asked a few times what my particular interest was. I may have attracted interest being female and half the mean age - I was one of only a handful of women; the others mainly wives of exhibitors, though still obviously enthusiasts, and servers of coffee. 'Well,' I said, 'I use mine, I draw with them'. 'Hmm. You collect?' 'No. Not really. Got a nice Mont Blanc and a lovely 70s yellow Parker off my Dad but that's it really'. Their attention would thus wane, though not rudely - there was clearly not quite enough mutual geek-ground on which to blot our respective frothings (or enough purple notes clutched in my sweaty hand!) Every person was kind and interested - but it was certainly very niche.
The antiques though were interesting. Instructions for pens and their use and maintenance had the same sobriety and sense of responsibility that you find in an old car owner's manual - when you were expected to change the oil yourself, check the headlamps, tighten the fan belt, watch your plug gaps with your feeler gauge (my first were 0.65). Same for the pens. Printed ephemera was present but had its own separate show later in the year - beautiful, but my own collection however small has come to me through flea markets, charity shops and relatives. And I rather like that.
Nibs did have a small presence, in their colourful boxes of assorted age. We live not 40 minutes from Birmingham's Gun Quarter, in which not only were small arms manufactured but at one time, the majority of the world's nibs, by companies such as Leonardt, Gillott and Mitchell - and home today of the brilliant Pen Room. So I have many boxes of nibs, and intend to use them all in due course, so on remembering how many there are at home (and that eBay exists) I restrained myself.
Short and sweet, we thought our one hour mooch round the show would be the sum of our autographic experience that day. But it wasn't. Having been fleeced of an additional £86 for a train ticket home (a result of misleading information, badly-printed timetables and robotic staff) we stood the entire trip home in that jostling chilly gap between train carriages - you know the space - and we weren't the only ones. When the similarly-treated besuited man trapped in the door next to us muttered 'f*cking unbelievable' under his breath in a comforting Northern accent, I barked out an enthusiastic agreement. When later, in the middle of his story of a complaint about a missing parcel, I asked if the parcel 'didn't happen to contain a pen, did it?', he eyed me as if I was in possession of special witchy powers. 'Ow d'ya nor that?' he asked, one eyebrow raised. 'Your wristband,' I said '- been to a pen show today?'
Turns out we were trapped in the chilly corridor with Stefan Jackiw, pen restorer and enthusiast of Ukrainian origin hailing from Stockport. We learned more about pens on the accidental train home than we had at the show, and now have a resource for servicing and repairing our own pens. What an enthusiast. Stefan's channel on YouTube is stuffed with tips and demos, found under the name Penkino. And I left the train with his gift of an old Parker Slimfold, with its 'so black it turns blue under moonlight' bodyshell, currently next to me on my desk. Though already full of Diamine Grey, it's not quite made it into the pen tray yet...I need to give it time to get to know the others.
Actually...I did come home with that twelfth pen after all, didn't I?
Grandmia Pens' film of the show:
More on the history of nibs:
and the emergence of the fountain pen:
and the Pen Room, Birmingham (next trip!):