I have a penchant for pencils. And biros and felt tips and roller balls. Whenever we visit a museum or other tourist attraction, the first thing I check out in the gift shop is their range of pens. To me there is no finer souvenir of an enjoyable family day out than a pen with the name of the venue on it.
Provided, of course, that the shop’s stock matches my high standards. The perfect souvenir pen must write a fine line in blue or black ink, have a durable casing in a tasteful colour, and sit comfortably in my hand. It must have a slogan or logo that I’m not ashamed to be seen with, although in a moment of weakness I can be persuaded to invest in one of those with a small perspex chamber, filled with liquid, in which something moves up and down – a boat afloat on a river, perhaps, or a soldier on parade outside a palace.
I have been known to seek out a National Trust shop specifically to buy one of their Biros. Anything rather than use the cheap, scratchy pens that Gordon, my husband, picks up free from the bank, or worse still, an Argos midget.
A merry band of souvenir pens permanently inhabits my handbag, segueing slowly into a different mixture as one after another runs out of ink, to be replaced next time I visit a museum. (And I visit a lot of museums.)
The cheering power of the pen is not limited to those from famous places. Lately I’ve been particularly fortified by a beautiful set of Penguin branded pencils that I won in a raffle. I love classic, simple branding, and Penguin fits that bill (or should that be beak?) Each is in a different, mouthwatering colour and bears the title of a great book in an elegant, spare typeface.
But today an unbranded pencil stops me in my tracks. I pick it up at random from one of the many pencil pots that populates our desk-heavy house (five desks for three people), to scribble an addition to my Ocado shopping list. It makes an annoyingly thick line on my tiny square of paper; it’s like writing with molten lead. (And yes, before anyone points it out, I do know they put graphite, not lead, in pencils these days.) I stare accusingly at its shaft, wondering where it has come from. And then, for a second, my heart stops. For it’s an artist’s 7B, bought by my first husband John.
John died twelve years ago, ten days into the new millennium – but here his pencil remains. Who’d have thought it? To be outlived by a throw-away item that cost him less than a pound.
John’s addiction to graphic designer’s accoutrements was as entrenched as my own to the writer’s tools. His desk was littered with Rotring pens that had to be used at a precise 90 degree angle to make the ink flow properly; crispy,ancient half-used sheets of Letraset; chilly metal rulers, used with a Stanley to cut a perfect line in a piece of paper. (Oh, how he’d have loved the new Pantone Hotel that was recently featured in the Independent’s Traveller supplement!) Here was a man who really appreciated the precise gradations of Hs and Bs in pencils. He always found the commonplace HB an unsatisfactory, sad compromise: it was neither one thing nor another.
I resist the urge to take my revenge on the poor pencil by sharpening it away to nothing in my battery-powered pencil sharpener. (Who doesn’t love those?) And then I realise with a start that as my need to write anything in 7B is very rare, this wretched pencil will probably outlast me too.
I cast it aside and grab from my handbag one of my faithful museum biros. Ah, the one from the SS Discovery! Now that was a lovely day out. I resume my shopping list, a little calmer now. But deep down, I’m wishing that Ocado could deliver an elixir of eternal life.
It’s not just the pen that can be mightier than the sword.