Activation Energy

When I first told my parents I wanted a fountain pen, they laughed at me. A generation that had grown up learning to write on the scratchy, messy, finicky things couldn’t believe that someone would want to turn his back on the easy, consistent and reliable world of rollerballs and ballpoints and fuss with inkwells, pistons and sensitive nibs. Of course, they didn’t realize that for many of us today, the fuss of the old-fashioned is the draw. 

Fountain pens and mechanical watches had similar trajectories: once standard, newer, cheaper and more reliable technology decimated their makers in the 1970s. Quartz, then digital watches kept time much better, while disposable ballpoint and rollerball pens made the act of writing much simpler… and now pads and phones make writing on paper itself seem fetishistically old-fashioned.  Fortunately, it seems many men have that fetish.  In the 1980s, the remaining mechanical watchmakers rallied to make their product seem like a precious luxury. Just like them, the remaining makers of fountain pens have made the act of writing with a fountain pen, as well as the paraphernalia and complicated rituals involved in filling, cleaning and writing with one, an experience.

The pen pictured reflects that story… and another. It’s a Conway Stewart, an English brand founded in 1905 (and strangely named for a contemporary music hall act with no connection to the founders). From the 1920s, the brand became well-known for colorful, patterned pens in casein (a milk protein) or celluloid.  Over the decades, its name became synonymous with quality, if not luxury, pens: Isle and I were recently at an exhibition on Churchill and Shakespeare (no shoe circle photo exists though) which featured for no apparent reason Churchill’s red Barrow & Hepburn dispatch case and Conway Stewart pen. The rise of ballpoint pens killed Conway Stewart in the 1970s.  But its story didn’t end there. Drawing on the brand’s British heritage, entrepreneurs relaunched Conway Stewart as a luxury penmaker in the 1990s.  As a harbinger of that best-of-British relaunch, the 1998 G8 summit in England featured Conway Stewart pens for official signings.  Several decades later, the first Kingsman movie, which lined up a host of British heritage makers to kit out its spies, used a Conway Stewart as a literal poison pen. 

I can attest that my Conway Stewart, which dates from the relaunch, is the best fountain pen I have used: smoother and more balanced than others I have owned.  Its model name is “The Dandy,” because I’m not in denial about myself. And having lost all the other fountain pens I own, I don’t allow this one to leave the house. It’s just as well since that’s where my inks, notebook and ancient crocodile blotter are, the last of those necessary to keep ink from smearing.  As I’ve written before, I found that I needed some physical inspiration to make myself write. A fetish object, one could say. I enjoy being able to play with colored inks, to feel the ink flow out with liquid smoothness… when the pen is working correctly. For I realize that fountain pens are a smeary affectation, one that in fact distorted my handwriting years ago when I had to change the way I wrote to keep an earlier pen from sticking and scratching. But this object makes committing my scattered extracurricular thought to paper an indulgence. 

I wrote that my pen reflects the story of fountain pens, and more. After the demonstrated magnificence of the relaunched Conway Stewart, the reader could suppose it stands as a success story of continued British craft supremacy. In fact, it is a testament to how branding and globalization work today. I learned that Conway Stewart’s gold nibs were made in Germany, its pickup in France, and that in fact only the pens’ bodies were made in England: hand carved from a single block of resin, which sounds more impressive before we recall that resin is basically plastic. And despite its plot-hinging appearance in Kingsman: The Secret Service, the relaunched Conway Stewart went out of business soon after. Another company bought its unused parts, but not its name, to assemble and sell a few pens that could not be called Conway Stewart. 

In real life, stories rarely end cleanly, with metaphors intact. Am I clinging to a piece of the past, another tiny talisman of a lifestyle I most assuredly don’t belong to? That’s one perspective. For me, my pen’s a tool that encourages me to write – or in this case of this aborted shirt order, sketch –what clouds my mind in order to clear it for the future.

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