Penman No. 61: TSE, Sir Winnie, Neil, and Other Penmen

WritersPenman for Monday, August 26, 2013

A FEW months ago, I was thrilled to read the news that TS Eliot’s pen had been lodged with the Royal Society of Literature, replacing a quill pen that had been owned by Charles Dickens and used by the society’s fellows to sign themselves into the exclusive club. Now based in Somerset House in London, the society counts some 500 fellows among its members, and not surprisingly these have included some of British literature’s most illustrious names both ancient and modern, from Yeats to Rowling. (Fourteen new fellows can be elected to the society every year; they need to have published at least two outstanding books and gained the acclaim of their peers.)

The story, according to The Guardian, was that Dickens’ quill pen had understandably lost its sharpness, and that a replacement was therefore in order (members can also choose to use Lord Byron’s pen, reportedly still in fine shape). Eliot’s widow (his second, actually) Valerie had just died in 2012 and had willed his pen to the RSL, making the turnover possible. (Before we leave the subject of quill pens altogether, let me note that these medieval tools took a lot more to make than pulling big feathers from the butts of geese, including tempering in hot sand and sharpening with what came to be logically known as a pen knife.)

It took some Googling before I found a picture of Eliot’s pen, which was never identified in the news stories (picture above courtesy of The Telegraph). From what I knew of vintage pens, it was a Waterman in black hard rubber with two wide gold bands, on one of which was inscribed Thomas Stearns Eliot’s initials. It had been a gift from his mother Charlotte; Eliot had moved to England from the US in 1914 when he was 25, so the pen, which dates to that period or a little earlier, might have been a parting gift.

I remembered Eliot’s pen over last week’s rains when, with nothing much else to do at home (that’s not quite right—I always have something to write, but am a horrible procrastinator), I took out my pens for a ritual rubdown and came across a few I hadn’t seen in a long time. That was because these were special pens kept in a special corner—pens donated to my collection by writer-friends, pens they had actually used in their work. Over the years, as word got around of my fascination with fountain pens, generous friends and patrons like Don Jaime Zobel de Ayala and Wash SyCip have gifted me with lovely pens, which I continue to treasure.But the pens I’ve assiduously run after have been those of my fellow writers, especially older friends who started writing with them in the pre-computer age.

My little writers’ corner now includes pens from National Artists Franz Arcellana, NVM Gonzalez, and Virgilio Almario, as well as from dear friends and colleagues Doreen Fernandez, Jimmy Abad, and Jing Hidalgo. They range in kind from a Parker 51 from Franz and a Montblanc 220 from Doreen to well-used ballpoints from NVM and Rio. (I’m still hoping, one of these days, to be able to ask for pens from Bien Lumbera, Frankie Jose, the late Tiempos, and Greg Brillantes, among others.) Needless to say, these pens will never be sold on eBay. If and when we open a Writers’ Museum, or at least a permanent display like they have at the National Library of Singapore, I might consider loaning or passing them on, but for now they’ll stay with me in my man-cave, feeding my fetishist longings alongside books signed by Nick Joaquin, Jose, Brillantes, Bienvenido Santos, JM Coetzee, Frank McCourt, Kazuo Ishiguro, Junot Diaz, and Edward Jones. (Some of these—the non-Filipino ones, excepting Junot’s—I wouldn’t mind putting on the block someday.)

Before typewriters and word processors made everybody’s writing look like everybody else’s, writers and their pens enjoyed a special relationship, some more so than others.

Mark Twain, a friend to Filipinos in his staunch opposition to American imperialism, preferred the Conklin Crescent Filler, a pen that used an inverted half-moon of gold to press down on the rubber sac in the barrel to release ink. It was a very popular filling system in its time and Twain became something of a poster boy for Conklin, so when the company was recently revived (like so many other long-dormant pen makers, on the heels of a neo-traditionalist trend boosting fountain pen sales), it named its flagship pen what else but the Mark Twain.

But Twain’s popularity never came close to that of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who was reported to have used a Conway Stewart—a venerable British brand recently revived—through the dark days of the war. So formidable a figure was Churchill that not only Conway Stewart but Montblanc and Onoto have also come out with pens in his honor.

Onoto—another British pen maker, associated with Thomas de la Rue which used to print our banknotes in the pre-BSP days—also claimed Sir Winnie among its famous users. In the age before paid celebrity endorsements, catching someone popular using your product was good as an endorsement, and was free besides. The minders of today’s Onoto have come up with incontrovertible proof—a letter sent by the young Churchill in November 1915 to his wife Clementine from the trenches in France, where he talks about “the venomous whining and whirring of the bullets which pass overhead.” But the clincher for the company was the ending: “Send me also a new Onoto pen. I have stupidly lost mine.”)

Speaking of the French, Fountain Pens: History and Design quotes the French theorist Roland Barthes waxing ecstatic over his pens: “In the end, I always come back to fountain pens. The important thing is that they can ensure the graceful handwriting I care so much about…. I have too many fountain pens and don’t know what to do with them. Yet, as soon as I see one, I can never resist buying it.”

There’s probably no more famous user of a fountain pen today than Neil Gaiman, who employs quite a range of them, from among the 40 to 50 he reputedly owns—a TWSBI, a Pilot, a Lepine, a Delta, and a Visconti, among others—not just to sign books but to actually write his novels with. He lives, he says, in “a house full of Macs” and is a self-confessed iPod freak, but he told the BBC that, with pens, “I found myself enjoying writing more slowly and liked the way I had to think through sentences differently. I discovered I loved the fact that handwriting forces you to do a second draft, rather than just tidying up and deleting bits on a computer. I also discovered I enjoy the tactile buzz of the ritual involved in filling the pens with ink.”

Pen addicts (the fancy name is “stylophiles”) can never have just one pen to use, so we prefer to talk about “the rotation,” that merry-go-round of favorites we keep constantly inked and polished, ready to be taken for a ride. There’s a lot of debate in the group over whether one should carry one’s most precious pens; I’m of the school that believes that life is short and runs ever shorter, so that fine pens, like Rolexes and Patek Philippes, should be carried with pride and reasonable care. I can’t tell you how many pens I’ve lost in my practice of this carpe diem philosophy, but I have no regrets.

These days, my most faithful pocket companion and favored pen in hand is a 20-year-old Agatha Christie, a largish black pen with a clip in the form of a sinuous snake, a tribute to its exalted namesake and her penchant for mystery. This gorgeous pen has written nothing more noteworthy than, well, notes, but having it in my pocket puts a lift in my step, and even doodling with it puts me in a trance, poised as it were to write until its cache of ink (either Rohrer and Klingner Sepia or Diamine Oxblood) runs dry.


In these digital times, of course, hardly anyone except Neil Gaiman really writes stories and novels with a pen anymore, and even this piece is being written on a MacBook Air, which is threatening to croak any minute now for want of juice. That was the beauty of the pen, a writing instrument you could pop into your pocket and pull out as the inspiration or necessity struck you, batteries and brownouts be damned. I’m sure that Tom, Mark, Winnie, Roland, and Neil would wholeheartedly agree.

Penman No. 60: Enter the Listicle


Penman for Monday, Aug. 19, 2013


I WAS online last week looking up the rumors about the impending release of the iPhone 6 on September 10 when I glanced at the sidebar of the page I was reading and spotted a new word out of the corner of my eye. The word was “listicle”, and immediately I wondered if it was something cold, sweet, and edible, or some sinister medical malady, some unnerving imbalance afflicting grown men.

I clicked the link, and learned something new, thanks to Anna Lawlor of The Guardian: “The journalistic lexicon has a new entry; the ‘listicle’, describing a list-based article. From The Sunday Times’ ‘100 Best Companies’ to Buzzfeed’s ’31 Things You Can Make Out of Cereal Boxes’, listicles are equally beloved for their condensed information format and online virility and decried as lazy journalism for the perennial lunchtime ‘news snacker’.”

News snacker? What the heck was a news snacker? Farther down the piece was the definition: someone who engages in “checking news content far more frequently, for short, sharp bursts of attention.” In other words, that’s someone who checks out the headlines on his or her mobile phone or tablet five to six times a day.

I suppose that’s me—I’m online all the time, and can’t help peeking into the news, my eBay bids, and the chatter on my favorite fountain-pen and Apple websites every few hours—but I’m also old enough to still be reading the newspaper from the front page to the back page with my morning coffee, and to watch one or two TV newscasts before bedtime. So rather than a news snacker, call me a news glutton, which I almost had to be to pick up a new word and concept like “listicle.”

Come to think of it, we are in the full-blown age of the listicle, and you don’t have to look much farther than the STAR to realize that. Toward the end of every July, the STAR celebrates its anniversary by coming out with lists of anything and everything its inspired Lifestyle writers can put together (in my case, this year, I offered “27 bits of advice I give to young writers”).

If lists float your boat, then you have to be a regular on, which serves up lists of such engrossing subjects as “10 strange non-sexual ways people have orgasms,” “10 creepy historical vampires you’ve never heard of,” and “10 unconfirmed victims of famous murderers.” (Talk about learning something new: from a list of “10 earliest versions of everyday technologies,” we learn that the first smartphone—with email, predictive typing, and some basic “apps”—was an IBM phone named Simon, which weighed a pound, was the size of a brick, and sold for nearly $1,000 back in 1994.)

But there were lists, of course, long before the Internet. In 1977, David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace, and Amy Wallace compiled the first Book of Lists. Featuring such irresistible morsels as “famous people who died during sexual intercourse,” the book became a hit, and was periodically updated and reissued.

As you can see, some lists are more serious and some more ridiculous than others, although we should probably admit that silly lists are usually more fun to read. No one really talks much about lists like “10 things we need to do as a nation to move forward,” although we should. By their very nature, lists draw attention and achieve popularity because they seem to create patterns we’ve never seen before in the raw, undigested mess of our daily lives; patterns are intriguing if not mesmerizing, a kind of eye candy of the mind, but also reassuring at the same time, in that they bear the promise of an underlying logic to everything. Lists create mass, and mass creates credibility if not consequence.

To get on the serious side of lists, the first “listicle”—certainly the best known to lit geeks like me—has to be the “catalog of ships” in Book II of Homer’s Iliad, where every Greek and Trojan chieftain who took part in the Trojan War is listed along with a description of his home city and the ships he brought with him. There’s a lot of debate among scholars about the historical veracity of this catalog, there being a 500-year gap between the war and Homer’s own time, but some scholars have come to the all-too-human conclusion that, well, lists change and grow with time. As a website devoted to Greek studies puts it:

“An intermediate theory is that the catalogue developed through a process of accretion during the poem’s oral transmission and reflects gradual inclusion of the homelands of local sponsors by individual singers… In the most recent extended study of the Catalogue, Edzard Visser, of the University of Basel, concludes that the Catalogue is compatible with the rest of the Iliad in its techniques of verse improvisation, that the order of the names is meaningful and that the geographical epithets evince concrete geographical knowledge. Visser argues that this knowledge was transmitted by the heroic myth, elements of which introduce each geographical section… W. W. Minton places the catalogue within similar ‘enumerations’ in Homer and Hesiod, and suggests that part of their purpose was to impress the audience with a display of the performer’s memory.”

(Note to self: add “Edzard Visser” and “W. W. Minton” to a list of “names that sound like heavyweight professors’ names.”)

The sidestep to Homer and the literary catalog reminded me of another famous employer of the catalog, the American poet Walt Whitman (known to many of us as the author of that perennial declamation favorite, “O Captain, My Captain!”), whose epic Leaves of Grass surveyed the broad American landscape and used poetry to do what Instagram might have achieved in another time, taking snapshots of the passing scene, creating quick portraits of “newly-come immigrants,” “the squaw,” “the connoisseur,” “the one-year-wife,” “the paving man,” “the canal boy,” and so on.

At its best—and Whitman shows how—the listicle, or at least its literary form, can achieve a transcendent significance, a more-than-the-sum-of-the-parts meaningfulness that ordinary lists such as “the 10 best-selling burgers in America” can’t convey. Whitman scholar Betsy Eikkila explains it thus:

“Whitman’s catalog technique serves as a democratizing device, inscribing the pattern of many and one. By basing his verse in the single, end-stopped line at the same time that he fuses this line—through various linking devices—with the larger structure of the whole, Whitman weaves an overall pattern of unity in diversity. This pattern of many and one—the e pluribus unum that was the revolutionary seal of the American republic—is the overarching figure of Leaves of Grass.”

If that was a bit much for you, no problem. There’s always and its promise of a yummy news snack to get you through another day of tedium at the office, and you don’t even have to choose between “10 of the slowest plants to ever bloom” and “11 cool facts about polar bears”—you can have them both, and more. They may be low on fiber, but hey, they’re high on sugar.

Penman No. 59: A Boon for UP Artists

IMG_2770Penman for Monday, August 12, 2013

LAST WEDNESDAY, I had the privilege of being part of a special ceremony at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, this time for the UP Arts Productivity System or APS awards. Initiated under former UP President Emerlinda R. Roman in 2009, the APS provides substantial monetary incentives to artists within the UP System for work produced within a three-year period (or five, the first time you apply). Twenty-eight UP artists were honored, including 17 from the first batch in 2009. (A similar system had been earlier put in place for UP scientists.)

A committee of peers—themselves highly accomplished artists, including National Artists—receives and evaluates applications from Diliman and UP’s many other campuses. Points are assigned to specific works, such as books, productions, exhibitions, and major lectures; further points accrue from notable awards and distinctions, especially forms of international recognition. Within this committee, spirited discussions inevitably arise over the merits of an artist’s work. Since the award is given for new and continuing work, it isn’t a lifetime achievement award, and no matter how highly regarded an artist may be, only his or her sustained productivity will be recognized by the APS.

Not surprisingly, many questions and concerns come up in the APS. The proper and fair valuation of artistic work is one of the most difficult tasks anyone can assume, even and especially within an academic setting, which may not necessarily reflect what the market thinks say, of a painting or a commissioned biography. Academia is the bastion of theory, and an award-giving situation like this challenges and exercises every humanities professor’s notions of what is good and valuable.

The idea that art itself is of real value is, in the first place, something one can’t assume to be a general belief in our country, and even in our university. Painters have it easier in terms of establishing their worth, because people have gotten used to the spectacle of, say, a Van Gogh selling for many millions of dollars, even if they may not understand why. They can look at a painting or sculpture in their living room or in an office lobby and at least appreciate its decorative value (although modernist art will probably leave them deeply perplexed, especially when told that the piece was worth a lot of money).

The utility and practical value of a poem is far more ephemeral. Artistry in the form of a service—say, directing a play or curating an exhibit—is even harder to apprehend for many. This is why it takes another artist—or a scholar and academic—to seek out and to recognize these obscure but important triumphs of mind, spirit, and sensibility over matter.

There are awards enough in the Philippines for artistic endeavor, capped by the National Artist Award, which the Supreme Court found the good sense to rescue from pit of political patronage. Elsewhere there are the FAMAS, the Palancas, the Thirteen Artists, and any number of music-industry awards. What distinguishes the UPAPS is its recognition of artists who also teach, or teachers who also manage to produce good art despite the well-known rigors of teaching and that other great devourer of time and energy, administration.

This is particularly important in an institution like UP, which—not unlike many other Philippine universities today, for understandable reasons—seems to have reoriented itself toward more support for science, technology, and engineering. (One thing most people don’t realize is that, based on enrolment figures alone, UP Diliman is really basically an engineering school; those of us in a small minority in the humanities and the law just happen to be noisier than the typical engineer.)

I was told that the UP science complex—an impressive array of colleges and institutes geared toward establishing UP as a force to be reckoned with in regional S&T—has so far received some P3.5 billion in various forms of support and investments, chiefly from the government. Under President Alfredo E. Pascual, UP has asked Malacañang for a small fraction of that for what we might call cultural infrastructure—studios, laboratories, theaters, exhibition spaces, and equipment that our students and their teachers need to produce significant new work; so far I’ve yet to hear of a firm commitment for even this sliver of support given to S&T. (For the record, we shouldn’t be competing with S&T, but alongside S&T for our share of the national budget.)

Never mind, for now, our standing recommendation for the creation of a Cabinet-level Department of Culture to oversee national cultural policy and arts promotion. Never mind that we hardly ever hear about arts and culture in the SONA, very likely because our high officials still see culture as entertainment, as an intermission number without any material contributions to make to the national good.

Last week, where someone could do something about the lot of the Filipino artist, they did, and on behalf of the UPAPS awardees, I’d like to thank President Pascual and his administration for this initiative, and can only hope that it is picked up by other visionary academic leaders elsewhere.

Herewith, the list of UPAPS awardees—including, immodestly, yours truly (who had to publish five books in three years to make the grade!):

MUSIC and DANCE: Maria Christine M. Muyco, La Verne C. de la Peña, Jonas Baes, Josefino J. Toledo; ARCHITECTURE: Gerard Rey A. Lico, Danilo A. Silvestre; FILM: Grace J. Alfonso, Sari Raissa L. Dalena; FINE ARTS: Patrick D. Flores, Jason B. Banal, Leonilo O. Doloricon, Ruben Fortunato M. De Jesus, Ma. Eileen L. Ramirez, Reuben R. Cañete; LITERARY WORKS: Jose Y. Dalisay Jr., Ricardo M. de Ungria, Eugene Y. Evasco, Jose Neil Carmelo C. Garcia, Roland B. Tolentino, Rosario T. Yu, Layeta P. Bucoy, Victor Emmanuel Carmelo D. Nadera Jr.; RADIO, TELEVISION and RELATED MEDIA: Fernando A. Austria, Jr., Danilo A. Arao; SCHOLARLY WORK: Priscelina P. Legasto; and THEATRE: Josefina F. Estrella, Dexter M. Santos, Alexander C. Cortez.

Penman No. 58: Hello STOP Goodbye STOP

Penman for Monday, August 5, 2013

FROM INDIA, last week, came the news that the company that handles that subcontinent’s telegram service had sent out its last telegram, ending a facility that had been available to Indians since 1850. It was also from India that, two years ago, we received word of the demise of the last operating manufacturer of typewriters in the world, a company called Godrej and Boyce, which was still making up to 12,000 typewriters a year until 2009.

It might seem then that the horizon of obsolete technologies lies somewhere between Srinagar and Chennai, but of course we Pinoys know differently. For even in this age of Twitter, Instagram, SMS, and FaceTime, many Filipinos—the oldest and the poorest of us, that is—still have one foot firmly planted in the 20th century, and it will be a while before we’ll learn to let go, at least in our minds, of the things that made our life easier back in 1963.

A surprisingly comprehensive history of the Philippine telecommunications industry, written and published online by Federico and Rafael Oquindo, says that the Spanish began laying out a telegraphic service in the Philippines in 1867.

I’m not sure if we can actually still send paper telegrams to one another, since the old telegraphic companies have either died out or been taken over by telecoms giants more interested in moving money than messages. Your relatives would surely be more interested in receiving a MoneyGram from you, anyway, than your telegraphic best wishes. If you’re feeling wacky, you could also send them a singing telegram, which—for around P2,000—will include a box of chocolates to go with the guitarist and singer, and your favorite song.

But where has the old-fashioned, STOP-punctuated slip of paper gone? Gone the way of the horse-drawn carriage and the steam engine and the carrier pigeon, it would seem, replaced by faster, sexier, and maybe even cheaper ways of getting a message from A to B. In the US, Western Union sent its last telegram in 2006.

To be perfectly dry-eyed about it, few 21st-century citizens will miss and mourn the telegram. To send one, you had to go to an office and scrawl your message on a pad of paper—a message that, depending on your agent’s sharpness of eye and adequacy of mind, could come out garbled on the other end. The cost of the telegram was computed by the word, and how fast it traveled depended on how much of a premium you were willing to pay; I remember that “NLT”, or night letter, was the cheapest option, because you had to wait for some night clerk to attend to your message after everything else went out for the day. And then your telegram, encased in a flimsy plastic envelope, had to ride along with a bagful of others in the back of a motorcycle or even a bicycle to cross rivers and mountains to get to its recipient, two or three days after pushed your message across the counter.

It all seems too cumbersome and too quaint now, but there was a reason for the telegram’s popularity in its day. Very often, it went out to people and places without telephones (yes, there was such a country and such a time), and it was much faster than a regular letter, albeit more tight-lipped. Arguably, the telegram was unique in the power it conveyed and the significance it implied, for only the most important—both the saddest and the happiest—of messages merited a telegram.

Unlike SMS, or even the pager (remember EasyCall?) that preceded the cellular phone, the telegram was too slow for casual banter, too terse for courtship or argument. It worked best at bringing you the good news and the bad news: prizes won, loved ones lost, congratulations, condolences, reminders, pleadings.

I have a soft spot for the telegram, because it figured prominently in my literary career, starting with one I received in May 1969, informing me that I—then a high school senior—had won a national essay competition. Over the next two decades, at around this time of year, I would scan the horizon for the RCPI messenger, the bearer of the only telegram that mattered to me and hundreds of other aspiring Filipino writers: one sent by the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards Foundation, telling us that we had won and inviting us to the September 1st awarding ceremony. (Our exuberant imagination supplied the rest of the unspoken message, which understandably would have cost the Palancas too much to tack on to their congratulations: “You’re a wizard of words, a literary lion, a paladin of prose whose works will sell a million copies, attract hordes of screaming fans, foment revolutions, and uplift human life and civilization!”) I did receive a number of those telegrams, a few of which I still keep as souvenirs, reminders of the Jobsian admonition to “stay hungry.”

There was one telegram I remember sending, sometime in the mid-1970s, from my small hometown in Romblon where I had gone on a short visit with my father and had quickly run out of cash, not having had much to bring in the first place. In desperation, I cabled my new bride Beng, whom I had to leave behind in Manila: “MISSUS I MISS US HONEY SEND MONEY.” And so she did.

And that’s all the old telegram companies do these days—send money to presumably happy recipients. Let text and Twitter take care of the bad stuff. If it’s the physical telegram itself you really want to send or to get, just so you can relive the good old days when people got inky fingers from writing long letters with fountain pens and licked postage stamps and waited for weeks to get something back in the mail, there’s hope for you. A company will still deliver a telegram to a Philippine address (and to over 200 other countries), for $24.95 plus 88 cents per word (no NLT option here); you’ll just need to go online at to avail yourself of this charming if pricey service.

SPEAKING OF other countries, it’s always good to read positive things about the Philippines when you’re abroad, even if they happen to be advertisements. In Hong Kong a couple of weeks ago, I beamed when I turned to the travel pages of a local newspaper and saw how many ads featured our national tourism tagline: “It’s more fun in the Philippines!” The ads offered special packages for Manila (read: the new Solaire casino) and other parts of the country (read: Boracay) via Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific.

Now, I’m one of those guys who—no matter how strongly I might criticize our foibles and follies back home—like to wave the Philippine flag when they’re on the road. Any chance I get, I invite my foreign friends to come and visit, allaying their usual fears by pointing out that they could get mugged in New York or robbed in Prague, anyway—they might as well enjoy our sunshine! Lord knows we need all the plugging we can get, with neighbors like Thailand roping in some 22 million tourists a year versus our 4 million.

I’m wondering now if it was schadenfreude—that wicked burst of pleasure you get when something nasty happens to your neighbor but not to you—that coursed through my veins when I came across an article in The Standard noted that traveling to Thailand was fraught with danger “from jet-ski scams to robbery, assault and even police extortion.” Hah! I thought—that’s what I’d been trying to tell my Hong Kong friends—it’s more fun in the Philippines!

Then I read on, turning the page: “Britain said Thailand is the country where its citizens are second most likely to require consular assistance, behind the Philippines.” Ooops! Sounds like we need to do a little more work in the Philippines.

(Image from