Pencil

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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.

17 comments

  1. Nell Nelson

    I believe in pencils. There are four on the table downstairs beside my pile of books in waiting. I can’t read poetry without a pencil. I also buy decent erasers always – Staedtler – because of that awful experience known to all pencil users, when you rub out a word only to find you’ve left a huge black smudge on the paper that no other eraser will ever remove. There are also magic pencils, like the one in ‘Marianne Dreams’.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. john foggin

    Mr Wilson, many of your posts have stirred and moved me, but…..and not many will understand why…….few as much as this. Keyboarders of the future will never understand the zen of handwriting, the delicate sensuousness of it, the symbiosis of pen/pencil and paper. I like your oblique acknowledgement of pencil’s provisionality. Perhaps those of your millions of readers who wonder about ‘”2B” need to know the balance of hardness and softness, the steel scalpel precision of 4H, the smudgy sloppy ways of 4B, and the louche grace of a 2B, pretty well at ease on any kind of paper. Nonetheless, Mr W. I aver that for serious business nothing but a 0.8 Stabilo fibre tip will do.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Christine Whittemore

    I love this piece! As (the tiny few) readers of Inscription will know, I love handwriting, books with pages, blank books, writing instruments, and the whole shebang of the materials of reading and writing. For me, it’s sudoku and kakuro that have reminded me of the beauty of the pencil and (of course) its delicate impermanence, its important erasibility. I too would use a pencil if marking a book; but more often use “post-it-type notes nowadays; books I’ve loved all bristle with them. But it isn’t very pretty…anyway, this piece is making me think more about the pencil for poem drafts….it just must be smooth and easy-flowing without needing pressure. I suppose that’s down to keeping it sharp?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Anthony Wilson

      Hello Christine, it is not always the sharpness. A 4B will pretty much write on the pavement if you ask it too, without too much complaining. Good wishes and thanks as ever
      Anthony

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  4. Ann Gray

    I’ve been using pencils for years now. I like yellow ones. They usually have rubbers on, but they are impossible and leave black marks. I don’t think pencil minds a line through it. I think pencils are more forgiving. They know you are only just starting to write something and don’t try to pretend you’ve nearly finished. Pencils also accept that when you are nearly there you might transfer to a pen, a biro or even a keyboard. A pencil knows it isn’t scary, it can make a soft start to something you’re not sure about or what it might become. A pencil is a friend.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Meredith Pitt

    I’m a Staedtler 0.9 woman myself – thank you so much for the ode to the pencil, I’d like to add two last attributes – they write up-side-down which is handy when writing on walls and they don’t mind left-handers which some pens, especially some fountain pens really seem to object to. Thanks Anthony.

    Liked by 1 person

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