UK Pen People – What On Earth Are We Like?

1 October 2015 By ian

We are a funny bunch in the UK. Many of the cliches about us are, in fact, true. We really are rather polite, with a standard purchase of, say, a packet of crisps, involving several dozen pleases and thank yous by both parties. We really do enjoy our tea, our first response to any crisis being to put the kettle on. (And we shudder, to the very depths of our national soul, when we see how foreigners make their tea.) We will sometimes stand in a queue just because it exists, not necessarily knowing what we are queuing for. However, not all the myths about us are correct. We don’t all live in London and many of us don’t know the queen personally. More pertinently to this website, we are not quite so steeped in tradition as you may have been led to believe. Most people, pen-wise, use a Bic ballpoint if they use a pen at all, and, in meetings, iPads and Surfaces are de rigeur. So what’s it like being a pen person here? I asked around a little and here is what I found.

Now, before I start, everyone who responded to my questions is good looking and intelligent and most, though not all, are teachers. I am a teacher in the UK who likes pens, so it’s not surprising that there’s a similar trend amongst people I’ve made contact with online. When I’m talking about us in the article, I’m talking about myself and the gorgeous people who answered some questions for me.

Most of us first met a fountain pen whilst at school but despite the poor quality of classroom-supplied fountain pens, still maintained a fondness for them, often reinforced by dads or uncles with much better pens. We did mostly have a period in the wilderness, after school or university, when we somehow made do with cheap biros (ballpoints) and other monstrosities, before seeing the light and returning to good pens (usually, but not always, fountain pens), often through getting into art or calligraphy.

My Dad had an amazing Sheaffer fountain pen that he had as a birthday present that he used. Unfortunately it was stolen, so we got him a lovely silver replacement. I loved fountain pens at school. At university I took all my notes in bright pink in a fountain pen.

The fountain pen habit [at secondary school] was encouraged by “Nutty Nick” – Mr. Nichols the fearsome science teacher … “Use a proper pen!” he would shout at plebs using biros. As he was prone to holding boys by their ankles over a bin until any chewing gum was expelled, this directive was usually complied with.

IMPORTANT NOTE: We very rarely do this in schools nowadays.

Interestingly, one of my respondents, not a whole lot older than me, was taught handwriting using a dip pen and inkwell.

I asked everyone how many pens they own. Most confess to about 15 or so. One admitted to 190 which is about double what I have. However, given that, as when asked how many glasses of wine you drink in a week, most people halve the actual number, these figures could in reality be much higher.

Favourite brands: no consensus. We like Pilots and Sailors, of course, and quite possibly pilots and sailors. Can never resist joking about Sailors. But just about every other brand came up too.

We Brits are supposed to be a fairly reserved bunch but when it comes to pens we seem to be, in the words of several respondents, “open and proud”.

I am quite open about my pen passion, and will happily talk to anyone who is silly enough to ask a question about fountain pens.

I don’t mind who knows, although I haven’t told anyone how much I’ve spent.

I didn’t say this, but I could have done.

Friends and colleagues tend to view our hobby as vaguely charming and a little eccentric. Some don’t understand why you don’t just use a Bic, others use fountain pens too. (I think this is an increasing trend.) Not everyone is so tolerant though.

The only bad reaction I’ve had was from Thijs van Leer at a recent Focus concert. He examined the proffered TWSBI with disbelief, although his guitarist had just signed my ticket quickly with it. Of course, he went back to using his marker which is easier for him.

Foreigners can be so rude.

It seems we do generally have very patient spouses. None more patient than my beautiful wife.

We all make extensive use of the internet to research potential purchases, using Pennaquod (yay!) and forums like FPGeeks as well as blogs. As for purchasing, that’s mostly online, with Cult Pens, Pure Pens and the Writing Desk all getting several mentions. (Disclaimer – these have all sponsored Pens! Paper! Pencils! in various ways over the years.) We’re lucky that most UK retailers offer free next day delivery anywhere in the UK. We also sometimes stray over to eBay and Amazon now and then, seduced by the low prices. Being British, we do at least have the good grace to feel guilty about it.

Talking of guilt, one person said she sometimes researches potential purchases by kidnapping pens from desks. This is just not cricket.

Most of us have been to actual real shops and don’t mind paying a little over the odds for a pen from an independent place. The state of chain shops in the UK is disappointing, on the whole, with them selling a fairly generic and uninspired range, but there are some independent gems to be found.

I asked about pen shows and no-one (myself included) had ever been to one. Many people didn’t know there were such things. Given the sorry state of the UK Pen Show website I’m not surprised. (If you want to know what’s coming up this year and next, rather than in 2013, the Facebook page is regularly updated.)

You probably don’t even need to live in the UK to have heard about our terrible customs charges. This, when combined with shipping costs, can often (but not always) cancel out what seems like a bargain from overseas. Most of the reason for higher costs in the UK is because our businesses have already had to pay those charges.

My experience of the Japanese sellers has been very good, whether its ink or pens … I have saved a lot of money … I would buy abroad more but I have had a lot of problems with UK customs.

However, some pens aren’t available at all over here, Franklin-Christoph being a prime example, along with Nock Co cases and although pens from most Japanese brands are available, it’s only a subset of their full range. Sometimes we have no choice but to buy from overseas.

What can we learn from this? If you live in one of those abroad counties, are we any different, do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts, either in the comments or on Twitter.

Finally, here is a public service announcement.

How to make a proper cup of tea

There are many sophisticated and, no doubt, posher and better ways of making tea but when you drink four or five cups of tea a day you don’t want to be faffing about with teapots and strainers and all that nonsense. But what you must do is use boiling water. I cannot stress this strongly enough. If you don’t use boiling water then you are either making one of those funny green or white teas or you are wrong.

  1. Put the kettle on. (If you are from the north, put t’kettle on.)
  2. Put tea bag in mug. Don’t use the very cheapest tea bags but avoid anything that has a name that isn’t a time of day. For example: Earl Grey tea is wrong; Breakfast tea is okay.
  3. Discuss the weather.
  4. The instant the kettle boils, pour water into mug.
  5. Poke it around a bit with a teaspoon.
  6. Remove teabag.
  7. Add milk and sugar to taste. (How much sugar is a good indicator of social class and/or age.) (Being old and middle class, I don’t have any sugar. I also don’t have any milk but people think that’s a bit weird.)
  8. Drink tea
  9. Set the world to rights.

Thank you so much to Theresa Young, Phillip Walters, John V. Keogh, Calvin James Smith, Lucie and Holly for taking the time to help me write this. And also Gwen, who wanted to help but like me is a teacher, and my timing in asking for this right at the start of term was almost cruel, and so she didn’t have chance to get back to me in time.