I am returning to the pencil. The premise of which remark signifies consciousness that at some point I left the pencil, a moment I have no recollection of. I am going to have to guess. It was around the age of eleven, just as learning got serious, that we were told we could use biro or fountain pens instead. Implicit in this message was the notion that pencil was somehow junior, inferior, not serious. We did not need a second invitation, filling our pencil cases with anything but the thing they were named after. Some boys went one step further, pilfering their fathers’ disused cigar boxes so that all of their instruments -compass, set squares, protractor, two kinds of rubber, three kinds of fountain pen, biros in red and green as well as blue and black- could be laid out and re-laid out in perfect formation every day, sometimes every lesson. My father did not smoke, so I watched these shows of intense concentration, greater than the content of the lessons in which they took place, and rearranged my geometry set tin with envy. Nowhere do I remember anyone including a pencil. Overnight our work was ruined; I am still waiting for my handwriting to recover.
Just as I cannot remember stopping using them, I can’t quite pinpoint their return. They lie around in the place I work, reproducing in the cupboards overnight when we have all gone home. However many times I clear them away at the end of my seminars (once a teacher, always a teacher…), one will always find its way onto the keyboard of the computer I have been using, or jam itself between spare sheaves of notes that I have passed round. Thus it was (I do not want to admit to actually stealing them) I opened my bag one evening to find a classic Staedtler red and black 2B pencil rolling at the bottom next to my keys. 2B, I thought, where had I seen that before? Not the line from Hamlet, something much more mundane. A line of Larkin’s prose, on the composition of The Whitsun Weddings (or was it The Less Deceived?). Words to the effect that all of the poems were written in 2B pencil in school exercise books, after work, before heading out to the pub. The beautiful rhythm of that, I thought, one half of the evening having built into it a reason to look forward to the other half. The sly dog. And yet I distrusted it too. I had read that sentence just as less salubrious details of his life were being made public via his letters and biography. I was with him on the exercise books, but pencils would be taking it too far. Especially 2B. Nevertheless, the pencil remained. Against my better judgement, I liked the idea of it. I finally deigned to use it in an emergency, when there was nothing else to hand. Which I found plunging into my bag, expecting it to come up with a pen, only to see this slightly tubby looking, ancient instrument of primary school writing in its stead. The meeting date or phone number flowed first time, making as it went a pleasing sound somewhere between a scratch and a whisper. I was in love.
Like all good obsessions, I threw money at the problem. I have now worked my way through the Pentel Energize Automatic (0.5) (can’t quite get the hang of the grip), the Pentel 120 Automatic (lovely grip), the Faber-Castell Gripmatic (supposed to advance the lead automatically) (0.7) and the (lately discontinued) Ohto Comfortcil (2.0). Each has taught me what I have known all along, that I love my original Staedtler the best. Which just persuaded me to throw more money away, at the world’s best pencil sharpener, made by KUM in Germany. (I should be on commisssion.) The first blade shaves away the wood; the second narrows the tip until it emerges like a miniature spear. I hadn’t had it very long when my artist friend Lucy gave me (I still can’t believe this) one of her prized Blackwing Palomino 602’s. I took it as a sign.
I find I can’t read now without one. For underlining and margin notes, the pencil’s the thing. It’s quick and doesn’t smudge; and I hated taking a highlighter to bed with me. ‘Key Para’, I find myself writing over and over again in the next to sentences by Sven Birkerts, Roger Rosenblatt, Maggi Dawn. It’s even happening in poetry books. Years ago all of this would have been unthinkable. The great thing about these pencils (they have begun multiplying in my house as well) is the lack of fuss of them. Just as a child will reach for any old pencil across a primary school desk and start writing, they don’t ask for much. The odd twist of the sharpener, yes. But not much more. Using a pencil I find myself following my best teaching advice: ‘Don’t rub out, just put a line through it’. It is as though the lack of physical pressure required to move my hand across the page somehow removes the psychological pressure to get it absolutely perfect first time. While I know it never will be, it’s a lesson I can never learn too often.