Penman No. 234: A Glimpse of Interesting Manila

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Penman for Monday, January 16, 2017

ASIDE FROM the fountain pens which I’ve recently stopped collecting, I’ve long nursed another, quieter passion, albeit on a much more modest scale. Since my grad-school days in the American Midwest in the 1980s, I’ve been drawn to old books from and about the Philippines. Sadly I can’t read Spanish—one of the great regrets of my college life, a casualty of our generation’s sweeping rejection of everything that smacked of colonialism (except, ironically, English)—so my pickings have been confined to books in English, largely from the late 1800s to the early 1900s.

I stumbled on the first of these books—and began to be conscious of their significance—while I was poking around antique and thrift shops for pens. The Midwest, with its many universities and industries (not to mention pen companies like Parker and Sheaffer), was a cornucopia of all things old and wonderful, and inevitably my eyes would drift to the dusty bookshelves that typically carried cookbooks, old Bibles, local lore, and Western novels.

Now and then, however, I’d get lucky and come across a book with some Philippine connection, usually from around the early years of the American occupation. With titles like Uncle Sam’s Boys in the Philippines and Our New Possessions, these books celebrated American imperialism, the novel fact that it now had a colony across the Pacific that deserved to be introduced to curious readers in Kansas and Missouri.

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I remember finding the massive two-volume Our Islands and Their People for $10 in a Milwaukee antique store, only to have to leave them behind when I flew home from graduate school in 1991. But I did bring back a small trove of similar material, and have added to them since then, largely via eBay.

My Holy Grail had been a first edition of Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart (I would acquire one later locally in the most interesting circumstances—I’ve told the story here—and would give it to my daughter Demi as a wedding present), but another precious book I was relieved to have saved from the Faculty Center fire by foolishly leaving it in my car is a first English edition from 1853 of Paul P. de la Gironiere’s The Adventures of a Frenchman in the Philippines, an eBay pickup from the UK.

I’m not an antiquarian by any means; I lack the vision, the resources, and the scholarship for that. To be honest, I haven’t even read everything I’ve collected, a pleasure I’m saving for my impending retirement. I just like salvaging these well-worn volumes from the scrap heap, or from some dark corner where they can’t possibly be appreciated. They’re neither particularly rare nor valuable—only two or three have cost me more than $100—but they all contain very interesting, if sometimes horrifying, stories about America’s imperial project.

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It’s difficult, even for a Filipino, not to be entertained by the descriptions in these early travelogues, revive as they do the nostalgic charm of a vanished era. Take, for example, Interesting Manila by George A. Miller, first published in Manila in 1906 by E.C. McCullough, a $10 purchase from a bookseller in Massachussetts.

Its evocation of the past reminds us that Manila was already old even then: “Beautiful these old churches were in their scars and moss and vines. Many have been spoiled by fresh coats of paint. But who can sit silent in their vaulted aisles without hearing from those stained and mellow walls, whispered prayers of priests who long since have vanished, and shadow chants of acolytes who have joined the choir invisible?… My first experience in a Manila church was at High Mass in Santo Domingo at the early hour. There were sixteen hundred candles shining in the gloom of the old sanctuary, and a thousand worshipers were kneeling on the polished floor. Among the high arches gathered the smoke of the incense, and way up in the dome the morning sun streamed red and gold through the colored glass.

“The chanting of the priests reverberated through the aisles like the noise of a cataract, and the answer of the prostrate people was like the murmur of many waters upon the sand. Then the great organ with its thundering reeds made the old pile ring and shout like some strong giant in sport, and in the succeeding silence the people waited in awe for what might follow. What did follow was the chanting of the boys’ choir without accompaniment, and the effect from the high gallery was as if the voices came from everywhere, the very stones had suddenly become vocal and joined in the acclamation.”

In a voice we might be hearing today, Miller laments the thoughtless “restoration” of these old buildings: “The present Malate church has been restored until it is of little interest. The old tile roof, the hole in the west gable made by American shot, and the walls with shrubs and trees growing in their crevices made a building worth going to see, but now it is all paint and corrugated iron.”

The vividness and vigor of the experiences described can be exhilarating: “One of the really delightful experiences that many people have never discovered is that of a trip up the Pasig at sunset. We took the car to Santa Ana and at five-thirty stood by the river and were besieged by a dozen vociferous banqueros, who contended for the distinguished honor of carrying our lunch basket to the landing. The bancas all looked alike, but there must be the preliminary diplomatic stunts as to distance and price. Tagalog, English, and bad Spanish were mixed in a verbal storm for five minutes and then we were aboard and off for Fort McKinley.”

Sometimes these colonial reports afford us a priceless glimpse into our prewar treasures, likely long gone: “There are about twelve thousand volumes on these shelves,” Miller notes of the Franciscan library. “The library of the Recoletos contains about nine thousand volumes; that of the Augustinians eleven thousand, and the Dominicans have eighteen thousand. Most of the collections contain several copies of the celebrated ‘Flora de Filipinas’ by Fr. Blanco and his co-laborers. This work is in six volumes and an index and is a remarkable piece of scientific research. The best edition contains two volumes of colored plates of the flora of the archipelago, and the press work done, in Barcelona, is of the best.”

And then again quite often the interest doesn’t come out of the narrative itself but in the perspective, which almost inevitably involves some triumphal trumpeting of America’s virtues. Miller’s assertion of the Westerner as a man of action and of the Oriental as a laidback soul is typical of these white male observers’ musings:

“The West is known by its deeds, the East by its dreams. The Anglo-Saxon lives in the concrete, the Oriental in the shadows. The American, having found a ‘proposition’ in a field, makes haste and sells all that he has and buys that field that he may dig therein and get ‘results.’ The Oriental inhales the drowsy fumes of some far-off good that was, or is, or is to come—it little matters which—and is content.”

Interesting Manila, indeed—but even more interesting was what these books said of their linen-suited writers.

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Penman No. 219: The Chase and the Company

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Penman for Monday, October 3, 2016

 

THERE COMES a time in every collector’s life when he or she realizes that the road has suddenly ended—that there’s hardly anything more to be found, no further byway to be explored. It’s a sad acknowledgment but also in some ways a relief, knowing that one’s disposable income (and better yet, one’s savings) can go to more prosaic but in all likelihood more practical objects—a roof repair, or new tires for the car, or a larger fridge, all long overdue.

None of those, of course, will quite compare with the gleam of a 1786 Carolus III dos reales or an early edition of the Noli or Fili, or a 1950s Mercedes 180 (nothing too special, just one of my favorites) tucked away in an old garage. Or, in my case, a 1936 Wahl Eversharp Coronet, widely upheld to be the “acme of Art Deco pen design.” I’ve lusted after a Coronet in more than 30 years of pen collecting, even keeping a picture of it in my burned-out Faculty Center office, and maybe came close to acquiring it once. But like all “grail” pens, it remained a wisp of a dream, within tantalizing sight but always beyond one’s feeble grasp.

I knew I’d come to the end of my collecting road when the thought struck me the other day that if a Coronet were to be offered to me tomorrow for a reasonable price, I would probably smile and politely decline, preferring to keep it a pretty phantom forever. If I actually held it in my hand it might seem dull and stale, its Pyralin inserts (whimsically described as “Dubonnet red”) somehow lacking in the fire of fantasy.

Come to think of it, I’ve bought only two or three pens over the past three months—at least one of them for resale—when I used to acquire one almost every week. At its peak three or four years ago, my collection of vintage and modern pens numbered more than 300, ranging from the 1890s to the present and representing many of the best pens of every period (excepting the Coronet), by brand and model. It was a collection put together over many years of patient pursuit, of moving up from one model to the next tier, of selling five average pens to buy a first-rate one, of foregoing ampler lunches in my grad-school days in the American Midwest to be able to afford mid-range Parker Duofolds, Vacumatics, and 51s.

Some of those early buys turned out to be bargains and lifetime keepers. Back in 1987, I agonized for a week over whether to purchase an ebony Wahl Eversharp Doric from 1934—another Art-Deco icon, with a 12-sided cap and barrel and a latticed cap band—for the princely sum of $28. Thankfully beauty won over economy and I still keep the Doric, now easily ten times its purchase price.

Another classic I found at a Milwaukee antique shop in 1990 for a small fraction of its true value was a Parker Duofold Senior in Mandarin Yellow, a large fat pen from the mid-1920s, much sought after for the rarity of its color. Bought for $68, I had to resell it a year later for $380—still well below what it would fetch today—when I was living on turkey backs and trash fish on my meager stipend. And how can I forget the gorgeous 1938 Parker Vacumatic Oversize in burgundy red which I found in Edinburgh in 1994 and based my “Penmanship” story on?

It was stories like these that kept my interest in collecting alive, almost as much as the pens themselves, the remaining 150 or so of which I can’t possibly all use and learn to love, even if I rotated them every other day. I still value my best pens as marvels of both art and engineering, which also just happen to lay exquisitely shaded lines and whorls of glorious ink on fallow paper.

I suppose the end began a couple of years ago, when I turned 60. I started selling pens from my collection—even pens I had kept for over 25 years—to allow the members of our pen club, especially our millennial newbies, the privilege of owning and writing with something their grandparents may have used. That’s also when I began using my best pens, like the Montblanc Agatha Christie, on a regular basis—a bit like driving a Rolls to the 7-11—but my reasoning was, as we UP people like to say, if not now, when? What might have been ostentation at age 35 can now only be fondness in a senior, and the silver-snake-clipped Agatha gives me sublime pleasure even in the pocket, and many times more so when I sign my name—even on office forms—with its double-broad stub nib and sepia ink.

Such, I think, are the pleasures of aging, when one turns from sheer accumulation to discernment, and to the dawning acceptance of the finitude of all things, including and especially material objects, no matter how lovely and intricate and painstakingly acquired, be they pens, cars, watches, or Persian carpets.

Whereas I used to check eBay literally a dozen times a day (employing a special search term to ferret out the most desirable vintage pens), today I hardly blink when, say, a 1928 Parker Big Red sails under my nose for less than $100—let someone enjoy the bargain, as I’ve done myself many times. It was the hunt that kept me in the game, but I’ve learned that spotting the target but letting someone else take the shot could be just as satisfying.

In what was likely my last big pen adventure, a few months ago, I found another of my “grail” pens—the much-coveted Montblanc Ernest Hemingway from 1992—being sold online for about half its usual price (if you really want to know how much these babies cost, try Google). The seller was in Malaysia—reason, perhaps, for Western buyers suspicious of anything too far East to shy away, but to me a heaven-sent circumstance.

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I closed the deal (drawing deeply on my savings, but what the heck, a Hemingway appreciates better than a time deposit) and, in a moment of inspiration, I did some quick computing and figured that it was only marginally more expensive and a lot safer to fly out to KL on a budget fare and pick up the pen personally the next day than to entrust everything to PayPal and a courier service. And that’s what I did. I always enjoy KL for whatever excuse takes me there, but I daresay no Argonaut ever crossed the South China Sea just to pick up an orphaned Hemingway and bring it home. (To be honest, it’s my second Hemingway—I use the other one, the gift of a generous friend, exclusively to grade student papers, in a bright orange ink.)

Over the next few years, I’ll be trying to bring down my remaining stash to an absolute core of about two dozen pens, which will be our daughter Demi’s inheritance from me (sorry, anak, no tracts of sugarland or bubbleback Rolexes here). They won’t necessarily be the most expensive pens—Demi can sell those off, if I don’t—but the ones most laden with story, blobbing like ink at the very top of the nib, eager to be disgorged. It’s been a privilege playing steward to these fine shapers of fine words, and I may miss the chase but not yet the company.

Penman No. 173: Lines and Letters

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Penman for Monday, November 2, 2015

IT’S BEEN a while since I’ve written about my favorite pastime (aside from my weekly poker binges and my foot-massage-and-movie dates with Beng), so indulge me this break from the headaches of literature and politics and let me talk about those obscure objects of my writerly desire—pens and all things appurtenant thereto, as my lawyer friends would say.

We have, not incidentally, a good many lawyers among our members at the Fountain Pen Network-Philippines (FPN-P), which isn’t surprising, given how lawyers have traditionally used pens in their work, and at least in taking their bar examinations. Those pen-wielding members of the Philippine bar include Undersecretaries Albert Muyot, Ronnie Geron, and Rey Cruz; SEC Chairperson Tess Herbosa and SEC lawyer Joanne Ranada; pro-gun advocate Ticky Tabujara; former ACCRA lawyer Elsa Divinagracia; and Aboitiz lawyer Anthony Goquingco. While he hasn’t formally signed up with FPN-P, Supreme Court Justice Marvic Leonen, an avid pen user, has turned up at a meeting or two.

We also have a sizeable representation of doctors—among others, Novartis executive Aileeen Dualan, surgeons Jojo Hosaka, Joy Grace Jerusalem, and Leo Ona III, Healthway Medical head Eleanor Bengco-Tan, barrio doctors Edrie Alcanzare and Jim Lopez, Dagupan-based rehab specialist Hazel Gazmen, company physician Kristine Arabaca, and new Med graduate Mark del Rosario. Predictably, there’s a special thread in our forum devoted to providing specimens of our doctors’ handwriting—the more unreadable, the more impressive.

Alongside these professionals come teachers, writers, artists, businessmen, bankers, students, and all manner of writing enthusiast, drawn to the group if not by pens then by inks, papers, calligraphy, or drawing. What started out in my front yard in Diliman seven years ago with less than 20 people has grown to over 500 members on our dedicated website at http://www.fpn-p.org/, and more than 2,000 on our Facebook page (being FB-averse, I stay out of that group, but you’re welcome to sign up there if FB’s your thing).

Once or twice a month, we get together—typically for a long Saturday lunch in a Makati or Ortigas restaurant—to play with our pens and to doodle away in wild abandon. While we may talk politics in the corners of the meeting and devote some attention to tangential interests like watches and knives (you’d be surprised how many pen people have one or the other or even both as secondary hobbies), the focus is clearly on fountain pens, inks, and papers.

Whatever for? There’s no better way I can explain it than group therapy. As I’ve said in this column many times, it’s the sheer tactile pleasure of laying down lines and letters on a page, of watching the ink spread through the paper’s fibers, creating networks of meaning, or otherwise an impression of beauty, an entirely handmade beauty at that. This is what you can’t get from a ballpoint or a rollerball—a soft or shaped nib that can create breathtaking line variations from from extra-fine to triple-broad, that can be so sensitive to the touch that the merest tremor can betray some deep-seated emotion. With every stroke of the pen, another worldly care is banished, another rampant anxiety quelled. There’s nothing more intimate yet more revealing than that stroke, the physical commitment of thought to paper.

Fountain pen collectors (among other creatures infected by the same virus of compulsive acquisition) often speak of their “grail” pen, that one elusive, near-unattainable pen that calls to them in their dreams and shimmers like a mirage on the horizon of their consciousness. That pen could be as simple as a Parker 51 that they recall their father used, or as weighty as the Montblanc 149 favored by Supreme Court Justices, or as uncommon as a custom-made Nakaya or Hakase epitomizing the finest of Japanese craftsmanship.

Over the past 30 years of immersing myself in the hobby, I’ve had many such “grail” pens cross my fevered brain, and have actually had the good fortune of realizing most of them—a 1938 Parker Vacumatic Oversize in burgundy, a Parker “Big Red” Duofold from 1926, a Montblanc Agatha Christie from 1993, and, most recently, a Montblanc Ernest Hemingway from 1992. Almost as interesting as the pens themselves, each of these pens has a story behind it, a near-mythical chase across decades and continents.

Unlike many collectors, I don’t keep my best pens in a case, under lock and key. I rotate them for daily use, praying that I’ll never lose one, although that’s almost a statistical certainty. It isn’t ostentation that impels me to do this, but rather an acute and growing awareness of time passing—of the sense that, at my age, I probably have another ten good years left, and what a waste they would be if I let my happiest acquisitions moulder away in some dark drawer, never having kissed paper.

If all this talk of pens makes you want to reach for one—whether in memory of a long-forgotten practice or in anticipation of a novel experience—then join us this Saturday, November 7, at the Cinema VIP Lounge of Century City Mall on Kalayaan Avenue in Makati as we celebrate International Fountain Pen Day (yes, such a day exists) around the theme of “Celebrating Analog Writing in a Digital Age.”

Open to the general public, the day’s events will include a pen-and-ink art exhibit, a calligraphy workshop, a sketching session, as well as an introduction to fountain pens for children. Guests may also avail themselves of services such as vintage pen restoration, appraisals, and nib tuning.

For supporting this project, FPN-P would like to thank Manila’s leading purveyors of quality writing instruments such as Everything Calligraphy, Faber‐Castell, Lamy, Parker, Scribe Writing Essentials, Sheaffer and Wahl‐Eversharp/PenGrafik. Our special thanks go as well to Asia Brewery for their assistance.

Entrance is free, so take those leaky old pens out of your grandfather’s desk drawer and bring them to us for a cleaning and a good chat. But I warn you: fountain pen use can be highly addictive, and leave your fingers stained in the most wonderful colors.

Penman No. 109: Ode to the 149

IMG_4575Penman for Monday, August 11, 2014

 

FOR THE past few decades, nothing has declared “I’m a fountain pen!” more emphatically than the Montblanc 149, also known as the Diplomat. This is the daddy of modern pens, the big kahuna, the standard by which other pens—fairly or unfairly—are measured. You’ll know a 149 when you see it. It’s as long and as fat as a cigar, which is probably why it’s been traditionally considered the quintessential man’s pen, the kind you’d find in the pockets of Supreme Court Justices, oldtime newspaper editors, and connoisseurs such as my friend the architect Toti Villalon, although fashionable but feisty ladies have been known to sport one.

You’ll also know that that big black pen is a Montblanc because of the white star (sometimes also called the “snowflake”) on top of its cap. Montblanc, which started out in Germany in 1908 as the Simplo Filler Pen Co., later chose the now-iconic white star to suggest the snow-capped peak of Mont Blanc (“white mountain”), the highest massif in the Alps. You’ll see the number 4810 on a Montblanc nib because that’s the height, in meters, of the mountain. (Montblanc, the pen or the pen company, is always spelled as one word; Mont Blanc the mountain is always two.) Some 149s also will have a white diamond—or even nothing—in lieu of the “snowflake,” which can be construed as the Star of David: not good for sales in many places in the Middle East.

The 149’s cap ring (like that of the 146, its junior sibling) will have “Meisterstuck” engraved on it; that’s German for “masterpiece.” This year, Montblanc marks the 90th anniversary of the Meisterstuck line, of which the 149—introduced in the 1950s—remains the flagship; appropriately enough, a special 149 with rose-gold trim was produced to mark the event.

If imitation is the best form of flattery, then there’s no pen more admired—because none more copied—on earth than the 149 (or, more accurately, the slightly smaller 146, but most people wouldn’t know the difference). You can almost be sure that, somewhere in Shenzhen, there are shops and families devoted to one and one thing only: the production of fake Montblancs, for sale in such places as Shanghai’s Nanjing Road or for export by the container van to countries like the Philippines, where they will be sold as cheap corporate giveaways or passed off as the real thing to unsuspecting buyers. Given this traffic, there are websites and pages just as ardently dedicated to spotting Montblanc fakes (here’s a quick tip: if your “Montblanc”’s nib says anything like “Iridium Point Germany,” it’s fake—that’s a generic steel nib employed by many Chinese makers.)

The real 149 is a classic, and deservedly so. Montblanc and the 149 gained popularity in the 1950s and the 1960s, as Americans returning from the War and from their growing contact with postwar Europe became more familiar and comfortable with things German, and with the high quality of German goods. There’s a story that when John F. Kennedy visited what was then West Germany to sign a treaty with his counterpart, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, the German fumbled around for a pen, and JFK sprang to the rescue by offering his—a 149.

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That 149, wherever it is now, should fetch a princely sum on the collectors’ market (like the big red Parker Duofold that Douglas MacArthur signed Japan’s surrender papers with). Indeed, even a new 149 (you can check it out locally at Rustan’s, the authorized dealer for the Philippines) will set most people back a few months’ wages. You can get a thousand cheap ballpoints for one 149—if a writing tool is all you’re looking for. Clearly, that’s not what 149 fanciers—yep, I’m one of them—have in mind.

Among 149 collectors, the pens to go for are not the shiny ones you can grab at the MB boutique, but the vintage ones made of celluloid from the 1950s and 1960s. The old, tricolor (gold-platinum-gold) nibs are also thought to be more desirable because they flex—the tines are soft and can spread apart, producing line variations that most modern fountain pens and certainly no ballpoints and rollerballs can.

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At one time or another, I’ve had maybe ten 149s in the collection, which isn’t too strange because I buy and sell pens to support the habit. I usually pick them up on eBay for a whole lot less than they’d go for in the store, which also means I assume a lot of risks that newbies would be well advised to steer clear of. I’ve kept three of these, and regularly use one. When people ask me why I go around with such a fancy and expensive pen in my pocket, I tell them that it’s because it makes me feel like a real writer, and because I’m 60, and should be able to use and enjoy what I damn well please before I croak.

Not everyone is a fan of Montblanc and of the 149. There are legions of rabid Montblanc haters who eschew the brand in the belief (somewhat justified) that many people buy Montblanc to acquire instant status, and that the company itself has encouraged this pretentiousness by marketing the 149’s plastic as “precious resin.” Detractors see this as pure hype, designed to rack up sales among ambitious junior lawyers and middle managers.

Do you think I care what they say? I’ll never be able to afford the Range Rover or the rose-gold IWC Portuguese of my big-boy fantasies, but when I make loopy figure 8s with my vintage 149—found online for next to nothing at a small auction house in Ohio—I feel like there’s justice in the universe, after all.

Penman No. 104: The Psychology of Collecting

48VacumaticsPenman for Monday, July 7, 2014

 

EVERY OTHER month or so, I take the 200+ contents of my fountain pen collection out of their wooden boxes and leather cases—a few of which reside in a fireproof safe—to ink, doodle with, clean, and reorganize. It’s a ritual that invariably leaves me pleased and at peace. Sometimes I reorganize the pens by age, sometimes by maker, sometimes by color or material.

Any serious collector of, well, seriously anything will recognize this behavior. And I do mean anything—I’ve met people who collect not just the usual stamps or coins or even watches and cars but barbed wire and tractor seats. (I met the tractor-seat fellow 25 years ago in a barn full of antiques in Ohio; when I expressed astonishment at his specialty, he turned around and said, with scholarly disdain at my ignorance, “There’s a fanny for every seat!”)

In the pen forums I inhabit, there’s a never-ending discussion about being either a “user” or a “collector,” the implication being that collectors are simply moneyed hoarders while users are simple, practical-minded folk who’ve never forgotten what things are for. I propose that the truth, as it often does, lies somewhere in between; many users are wannabe collectors, and most collectors have never stopped being users. It’s pointless to think of, say, a 1925 Waterman Sheraton or a 1934 Wahl Eversharp Doric as being just a pen you can write with, like a cheap ballpoint; they may have been utilitarian tools once, but somewhere along the way they crossed the line and became jewelry and art object.

At least that’s how I excuse amassing and periodically gloating over, say, my dozens of Parker Vacumatics, a 1930s-40s pen that forms the core of my collection. This was the pen I wrote my 1994 short story “Penmanship” about. (It’s a story about a story that I’ve often told, but the sum of it is that I found this 1938 Vacumatic Oversize in a pen shop in Edinburgh, paid a month’s salary for it, suffered buyer’s remorse, then decided to write a story about the pen, which won first prize in a contest that made me back my salary.) I know enough about Vacs that I can put you to sleep by mumbling mantras such as “Vac nomenclature covers a fascinating maze of models and colors—the Junior, the Major, the Standard, the Slender, the Debutante, the Oversize, the Senior, which is not to be confused with the Senior Maxima, since the Senior came out only in 1936….”

About 15 years ago it wasn’t pens but laptops—yes, Apple Macintosh Powerbooks, particularly the Duo line (the granddaddy of the MacBook Air and all those super-slim laptops people toss into their briefcases today). I had (and still have) about a dozen of these machines, which I used to take apart to upgrade the memory and hard drive (back when 240 megabytes made you king of the hill), before putting them back together again and then pressing the power button to hear that unmistakable startup chime that told me I had done everything right, so I could then step out and face the world and slay dragons and then sign memos.

So why do otherwise presumably sane people like me get our kicks by amassing strange objects most other people wouldn’t give a second look or drag into their homes even if you paid them to do it? I asked myself this question again last week as I changed out the inks (another ritual for the devotee) in my glorified Bics. Why do we take them out week after week, not to write a novel or a draft SONA but endless iterations of “I love this pen I love this pen”?

First of all, you want to be reassured that they’re still there. Collectibles have a way of walking away on little cat feet, and collectors have a sixth sense about what’s missing from the picture.

Second, you want to reassure yourself that you know why they’re there—that the objects have some aesthetic and monetary value. Perhaps that value’s known only to a very few people, which is not a bad thing, because it’s proof of your connoisseurship, of a certain esoteric form of expertise that’s taken you some time and expense to cultivate. It’s like getting a PhD in the truly little, truly fun things (and what’s a PhD these days except a lot of knowledge about very small things, hardly any of which is fun?).

You may be a total loser in nearly every other aspect of life—your face could resemble a well-worn shoe, your family may have deserted you for the coldest parts of Canada, your car could be an escapee from the junkyard—but if you know everything about tourbillons, carburetors, calibers, and (in my case) nibs, then you have good reason to face the world with pride if not arrogance; you have, after all, one of the world’s largest collection of GI Joes, or Tonkas, or Ken dolls, or whatever floats you boat.

Third, let’s go online and ask the experts. Dr. Mark McKinley, in a much-quoted piece on “The Psychology of Collecting” in The National Psychologist, goes back in time to note that “During the 1700s and 1800s there were aristocratic collectors, the landed gentry, who roamed the world in search of fossils, shells, zoological specimens, works of art and books. The collected artifacts were then kept in special rooms (‘cabinets of curiosities’) for safekeeping and private viewing. A ‘cabinet’ was, in part, a symbolic display of the collector’s power and wealth. It was these collectors who established the first museums in Europe, and to a lesser extent in America.”

Since I’m sure I don’t collect Sheaffers and Esterbrooks to show off my power and wealth, let’s see what M. Farouk Radwan (who holds an M. Sc., so who presumably knows what he’s talking about) says about the subject: “Since early years human beings used to collect food in order to feel safe and secure. Because acquiring food was a difficult process with uncertain outcomes humans learned to ease their anxieties by storing the food they needed. The same need, which is to feel secure, is the primary motivating force behind the creation of collections.

“Because life is uncertain and can easily make a person feel helpless some people use their collections to create a private comfort zone that they can control. By arranging and disarranging their collections compulsive hoarders can regain the sense of control over their lives. These actions reduce anxiety and helps those people cope with the uncertainty of the real world.”

So we go back to basic needs and instincts: food and security. McKinley puts these together: “For some, the satisfaction comes from experimenting with arranging, re-arranging, and classifying parts of a-big-world-out-there, which can serve as a means of control to elicit a comfort zone in one’s life, e.g., calming fears, erasing insecurity. The motives are not mutually exclusive, as certainly many motives can combine to create a collector—one does not eat just because of hunger.”

That’s a brilliant insight—“one does not eat just because of hunger”—and it leads to my favorite explanation of the psychology of collecting, propounded by Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein (co-authors of Sparks of Genius, the 13 Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People) in “The Collection Connection to Creativity” (Psychology Today, May 2011):

“The fact is collecting exercises a number of important mental tools necessary for creative thinking. The collector learns to observe acutely, to make fine distinctions and comparisons, to recognize patterns within her collection. These patterns include not only the elements that make up the collection, but the gaps in it as well. Learning how to perceive what isn’t there is as important as knowing what is! And the collector also knows the surprise of finding something that doesn’t fit the collection pattern: Is the mismatch a fake? An exception? Something that belongs in another collection? Broken patterns are often the ones that teach us the most by challenging our preconceptions and expectations.”

Patterns, designs, mismatches, aberrations: early in 1937, just for a few months, Parker came out with a special Vacumatic, with the word “Vacumatic” etched in the gold-filled cap band. It’s one of the holy grails of Parker collectors, one of the rarest and most expensive of finds, and I have one. That should make it the crown jewel of my collection, but it isn’t; it’s the pen that made me write a story about it that’s the rarest one of all, that gives me a lifelong excuse for picking up tubes that squirt inks.

(If you like pens, join us at Fountain Pen Network-Philippines, www.fpn-p.org. We’re marking our sixth anniversary this week!)

Penman No. 84: Pens & Inks

Penman for Monday, February 3, 2014

A YEAR ago, I wrote a piece for this column titled “The (ink and) paper chase,” where I talked about how obsessed some people get with finding just the right paper to write on, fussing over paper color, texture, thickness, and (important to us fountain pen users) feathering and bleed-through.

The last two factors have to do with how tightly the paper’s fibers are packed; the looser they are, the easier it is for ink to spread and scatter through the paper—not a good thing if you’re trying to write a legible letter. This is why ballpoints and cheap paper make better partners—and a good thing, too, that they do, because most people have neither the time, the inclination, nor the loose change to play around with fancy pens and papers, let alone exotic inks.

But what if you did?

In that column last year, I promised I would write a bit more about inks—the essential, indispensable companions of pens—but I never got around to doing it, at least until now.

Inks are the last thing people think about these days in connection with writing, except perhaps in respect of color, which invariably comes down to a choice among black (business formal), blue (a little more personal), and red (for marking something as “wrong!”). In my late father’s time—he worked as a clerk for a government office, so he used fountain pens regularly—you had the option of using blue-black, very likely as Parker Quink or Sheaffer Skrip, and it’s a color I came to associate with my dad, which is why I keep blue-black as a staple for one of my pens.

The fact is—before fountain pens underwent a kind of renaissance in the 1990s more as a fashion statement than as a clunky writing instrument, followed by a plethora of designer inks—there was a wealth of inks available to the discerning public. You could get them in green, purple, brown, pink, orange, and so on, in brands long vanished such as Carter’s, Sanford, and Stephens’, aside from the in-house inks of the major pen makers such as Parker, Sheaffer, Waterman, Montblanc, and Pelikan. There was also a lively competition among these makers in terms of packaging, specifically in labels and bottles (Carter made exceptionally pretty labels), and the bottles have now become highly collectible on their own, some with their vintage contents intact and still usable after 40 to 50 years.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. How did ink get its start, anyway? At the advent of writing, ink was made from soot or lamp black mixed with gum (says my trusty guide, The Fountain Pen: A Collector’s Companion by Alexander Crum Ewing); red ink was made from vermillion. In medieval times, the quill pen called for a more fluid ink, and this came from tannins culled from vegetables, converted to gallic acid, then mixed with ferrous sulfate (get that?), resulting in a blue-black iron-gall ink, which you can still procure these days. With the steel-nibbed pen (which acid corroded) came inks made with chemical dyes, which also led to an explosion of color.

“The range of ink available by the 1920s would bewilder many people today,” noted Ewing. “It is estimated that the German firm Pelikan alone produced 172 different types, colors, or bottles of ink. There were inks for writing, for drawing, for accountants (which could not be erased), for hoteliers (which could be erased) and so on.”

Which leads me to my first admonition about inks, lest I forget: never put India ink (like Higgins) into a fountain pen; it’s meant for calligraphic and technical pens, and will surely clog your fountain pen’s feed (the part of the pen beneath the nib that conveys the ink), possibly requiring repair. Use only ink clearly meant and often marked “For fountain pens.”

I used to say that I was a pen, not an ink person, in that for the longest time, I limited myself to four basic colors: black, blue, blue-black, and brown. I’m nowhere near becoming an ink fiend—some people collect basically just the inks and couldn’t care less about the pens—but over the past year, I’ve found my desk getting more crowded and cluttered by an invasion of ink bottles, in such sacrilegious colors as Diamine Oxblood and Rohrer & Klingner Alt-Goldgrun (more on these esoteric varieties later). In the ink department, I’m a novice compared to many of my confreres at the Fountain Pen Network-Philippines (at least one of whom, Los Baños-based Clem Dionglay, runs a globally recognized blog on inks, papers, and pens). Ask a newbie question like “What’s a nice bright blue ink?” and you’ll get a dozen responses within minutes (on fpn-p.org), answers such as “Pelikan Edelstein Topaz!” or “J. Herbin Bleu Pervenche!” or “Noodler’s Baystate Blue!”

Ah, Baystate Blue…. Many pen folk swear by it, but I’ve never used it myself, for a couple of reasons: I hate bright blue, and BSB (as it’s called, like LSD or MSG) has been notoriously known for staining if not eating into some pens, like vile acid. Some people love flirting with danger, anyway, in the quest of the perfect color.

That quest, of course, is what keeps the ink companies alive—companies that might as well be manufacturing precious wines and perfumes: Noodler’s, J. Herbin, Iroshizuku, Diamine, Private Reserve, Rohrer & Klingner, De Atramentis, and so on. These are no longer your basic Quink and Sheaffer inks that you can buy (and why not?) at National Bookstore. They’re specialty inks, selling on the average for something like P15 per milliliter, or P450 for a 30ml bottle. (To see a mindboggling assortment of these inks, check out a site like www.gouletpens.com, from where we order our supplies if we can’t get them from NBS or the pioneering Scribe Writing Essentials at Eastwood and Shangri-La malls.)

You won’t believe how exotic and even strange some of these inks are. Mahatma Gandhi would squirm if he learned that a 60ml bottle of his namesake ink—produced by Montblanc, in vivid saffron, of course—sells for $100 on eBay. There are inks with extravagant names such as Noodler’s Black Swan in Australian Roses (a lovely deep pink); Noodler’s even has an ink called Whiteness of the Whale, touted to be “invisible during the day, glows under black light.” Some inks are embedded with gold or silver flakes. De Atramentis makes inks that carry scents like apple blossom, or are actually made from wines like chianti and merlot.

And like fine wines and rare vintages, vintage and rare inks now command an audience and a premium. A few weeks ago, educated by online reading, I felt ecstatic to have located and landed two bottles of the now-rare, 1950s Sheaffer Skrip in Persian Rose on eBay for about $10; it’s a flaming pink ink, which makes it highly doubtful that I’ll ever write with it, but just ask the owner of that $300,000 bottle of Chateau Cheval Blanc 1947 when he’s going to take a sip.

Fountain pens come with all different nibs, nib qualities, and filling systems, making ink choice both a pleasure and a pain for the penman (and penwoman). Snooty collectors prefer piston fillers like most Montblancs and Pelikans, but these pistons require patient flushing to get all the old ink and its color out before switching to something new. This is why I generally prefer everyday converters, which make flushing and ink replacement a breeze. To make things even easier, I’ve matched my favorite pens with my favorite inks, going mainly by color—a black pen gets black ink—so I don’t have to guess, when I pick up a pen or two to bring along for the day, what’s in it. And just for the heck of it, I took a shot of these happy combinations, which I’m illustrating this column-piece with.

And I can’t blame you if, after reading this frothy talk about pretty pricey pigments, all you want to say is “Hand me that cheap blue Bic!” 

(The inks and pens in the topmost pic are, downwards: Pelikan Blue-Black in the Montblanc Agatha Christie; Diamine Oxblood in the Parker Vacumatic Oversize; Rohrer & Klingner Sepia in the MB Oscar Wilde; Montblanc Carlo Collodi in the Conway Stewart Marlborough; R & K Alt-Goldgrun in the Onoto Magna; Pelikan Brilliant Brown in the Faber-Castell Pernambuco; and Aurora Black in the MB 100th Anniversary.)

Penman No. 29: Some Things Meant to Be

Penman for Monday, January 14, 2013 

MY LATE father Jose Sr.—Joe to his friends—would have turned 90 this coming Saturday. An incorrigible chain smoker, he died of an aneurysm in 1996, and there’s hardly been a day since when I haven’t thought about him. Whenever I travel, which is fairly often, I find myself talking to my dad to tell him, “Tatay, I wish you’d seen this, and this, and that.” He was a simple man whose feet never left his country nor, pretty much, his home; his joys were in the kitchen and in the garden, and his favorite pastime was doing crossword puzzles.

Indeed, in his own way, he was a man of words, a gifted writer who—like I would do, myself—ghost-wrote speeches for far more powerful but much less articulate men. As modest as our circumstances were, there were always books and magazines at home, and even before I could read or write, my father fired up my imagination by reading stories to me at bedtime. In brief, I would not have become a writer had it not been for him.

Nor, speaking of my quaint obsessions, a fountain pen collector. In his last days my father wrote with a cheap plastic Bic ballpen—the kind you can now buy by the box and forget or throw away after a few uses—but in his prime he had some Sheaffers and Parkers that he would load up with blue-black ink, whose ability to bloom into a dark-hearted rainbow on a wet napkin brought me endless fascination. Regretfully none of his fountain pens have survived—which is probably why, as with most enterprises driven by some deep longing, I keep amassing pens, as if they would somehow bring my father back.

Now, begging your indulgence, here’s where this memory detours into the story of a pen and of a box.

A few weeks ago, after months of eager questing, I acquired what collectors call a “grail” pen—an object of acute desire, usually for reasons of great beauty, scarcity, or some sentimental connection. In this case, it was purely a matter of esthetics and collectability: the Parker Duofold Greenwich Centennial would simply be a big, black, overpriced pen to most sensible people, but to me it was the noblest of the modern Duofolds, a reincarnation of a classic 1920s line that established the Parker name for the rest of the century. Made specifically to commemorate the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England—which Beng and I visited around the time the pen was made in 1999—the pen was a special edition with a limited run, and had become rather hard to find.

When I found one on eBay at a price I could afford, I was ecstatic, filling my posts about the find with smileys and dancing bunnies. It was near-mint, the chevrons incised into its black cap and barrel deep and lustrous, its gold fittings rich and warm. Its regal nib was a joy to write with. I couldn’t have asked for more—or perhaps I could, as it came to me without its presentation box. Pens of this caliber always came in pretty wooden boxes in themselves worthy of collection, and indeed, in one discussion of the Greenwich in a forum I frequented, another collector had reported seeing “a small but fancy box with what appeared to be a European cityscape picture on the inside of the box cover.” I wasn’t sure why, but that description sounded oddly familiar to me then.

When the pen arrived from the US I put it to happy use, doodling away, writing loopy notes to no one. The Greenwich was truly an impressive pen and it sat haughtily in my pocket, but now and then I would be besieged by the collector’s constant fear of losing or dropping a valuable pen, and I would begin wishing that I had its box to put it to bed in, before I scored the exquisite chasing on the pen or, worse, let it slide out of my attention in one of my poker binges. But then of course, I didn’t have its box, and I couldn’t bear to stick it in anything beneath its stature.

And then, a few nights ago, something strange happened. As I was idly surfing away to more pleasant distractions (meaning, more pen-related Websites) in the middle of finishing the draft of another commissioned piece, I stumbled on a picture of the Greenwich in its original wooden box. And at that instant, the familiarity of the box and of its pictured scene overcame me, as I realized that, of course, I’d had that box somewhere in the house, somewhere in the very room I was in. Years ago, I had found the varnished receptacle in a thrift store in America, and had been taken by its plaintive beauty—plaintive because it was clearly a box for some majestic Parker pen (the Parker name was proudly emblazoned on it), but it was empty, and I had no idea then what model its proper occupant might have been.

I bought the box for a couple of dollars, and brought it home with me to the Philippines, where I decided that it would house the most precious pen in my collection—my dad’s battered Bic ballpen, the last thing he wrote with before he died. So I was certain I had it somewhere, and I began ransacking my den, pawing through shelves of empty pen and ink boxes (you can imagine what a collector’s nest looks like). Sure enough, there it lay behind a stack of ink bottles, the box that opened to a “European scene”—a cluster of neoclassical buildings foregrounded by a sailboat on the water. (I would later discover that it was a depiction of the Royal Naval College at Greenwich, seen from the north bank of the Thames.)

It was the box that had been designed for—and only for—the rarefied Parker Duofold Greenwich Centennial, and by some stroke of what the poets called serendipity, I had found the box years before I found the pen. I took my father’s crystal Bic in my hand and smiled, thinking, “Tatay, what strings did you pull to make this happen?”

So I put the Parker where it was meant to rest, and now I had to find new and no less suitable quarters for the Bic. Fortunately, on the same shelf was an old Japanese box, gleaming in black lacquer, that I had found in another discount store on Avenida Rizal, and which would originally have carried chopsticks. I didn’t think Tatay would have minded the switch, being an excellent cook.

And finally, I resolved that, in honor of Jose Quinton Dalisay, Sr., the Greenwich pen would henceforth use nothing but blue-black ink, a choice its golden nib seems perfectly content with. My other pens can gorge on Diamine Oxblood and other fancier concoctions, but I had been soundly persuaded that some things are just meant to be. (And here’s to a happy 90th, Tatay!)

Penman No. 6: The Two Helen Richeys

Penman for Monday, July 30, 2012

ONE OF the things that users and collectors of vintage items like fountain pens have to deal with is the fact that these objects were once owned by people who are now, to put it starkly, dead. Through some circuitous route, something that they once held and possibly cherished has come down to us, making its way halfway around the world and providing another lifetime of service and pleasure to its new owner.

Quite a number of the 100+ vintage pens in my collection have names inscribed on them. Since these pens come mainly from the 1930s and 1940s, and since a fountain pen (especially a gold-nibbed one as opposed to a “school pen” that kids like me learned to use in the 1950s and 1960s) would have been something that adults would have owned, it’s reasonable to assume that these names belonged to persons long gone.

Some collectors don’t like these inscriptions and engravings, seeing them as imperfections that drastically lower the monetary value of the objects they’re imprinted on. I strongly disagree. I take them as part of the pen’s provenance, a direct link to the man or woman who once held the pen in his or her hand—who wrote letters of love and joy or anger and sorrow, who signed checks that grew a business and cards that made someone’s day. Few things are more private and personal than a pen—it told your deepest secrets, and you can choose and customize a nib to write exactly the way you want it to.

When I started collecting pens thirty years ago, there was no Internet as we know it today, so there was no way short of spending hours poring over genealogical records to establish just who someone like “F. J. QUIRK”—the donor of my first Parker Vacumatic—was. By the time I got hold of a pen-and-pencil set of Parker Mandarin Duofolds belonging to “BLANCHE SAVIDGE” a few years ago, it took me only a few seconds to discover that Blanche had died at age 95 in December 2007; she had been a longtime teacher in her community in Pennsylvania, had never married, and was described as a “staunch Republican.” Or was she indeed my Blanche? Another Blanche Savidge, born ten years later in 1923, died in 2010 at the age of 87 in El Paso, Texas (curiously enough, she had also been an active Republican). The likelihood, of course, was that it was the Pennsylvania Blanche who owned my Duofolds, because I got them in November 2008, when the Texas Blanche was still alive.

This puzzle came to mind again a couple of weeks ago when I received a bunch of old pens from my sister Elaine in Virginia—pens I had picked up on eBay, with the idea of keeping a few and selling off the rest. One of the pens in the batch was a sweet little Sheaffer Balance in red-veined gray pearl and gold trim from 1934 (after you deal with these pens for a few years, you’ll know their names and birthdates by heart). I had expected something bigger—most of the time, you never really know when all you have on eBay are the pictures, with very little description—so I decided, to help recover my costs on the other pens, that this Sheaffer would go to the pile for sale, as pretty as it was.

Before posting it for sale, however, I gave in to my curiosity and Googled the name on the pen: HELEN RICHEY. The pen looked so fresh and the name was embossed so sharply in gold that it appeared that the pen had been used very little, if at all, these past 78 years. Assuming that Ms. Richey had been at least 20 when she received the pen—it was a high-end Sheaffer that a parent or a spouse might have given Helen on a graduation or a birthday—she would be approaching 100 today, were she alive.

What I found on Google and Wikipedia floored me. There were, inevitably, a number of Helen Richeys that appeared in the search, but at the top of the list were two—the first, an Australian dancer who still serves a judge on the Australian edition of Dancing with the Stars; scratch that one out. The other prominent Helen Richey was a pioneering woman aviator (or “aviatrix,” as they used to be called), the first woman to be hired as a commercial pilot by a US airline. Born in 1909, this Helen once partnered with Amelia Earhart in a transcontinental air race, finishing creditably, and was the first woman to carry mail by air and among the first to teach flying. Sadly her life and career took a tragic downturn: an all-male pilots’ union forced her out of the cockpit, and she committed suicide in 1947.

What an amazing life that was; what an education I’d had in just five minutes, and what an honor it would be if I had the flying Ms. Richey’s pen in my hand. The year this Sheaffer was made, 1934, was also the year Richey won the first national women’s air race in Pennsylvania, and the year she was hired by Central Airlines, a precursor of United. Might the Sheaffer have been a presentation gift, quickly put aside in her rush to return to the cockpit?

As fascinating as that scenario was, I then remembered that the pen came to me from a seller in Illinois, and so I Googled “Helen Richey Illinois”, and discovered yet another Helen Richey, a lady who had been born in Gerlaw, Illinois in 1919, and who had died in the area in February 2012. Suddenly it made more sense for her to be the pen’s Helen; I had bought the pen on eBay in May, a few months after her death, presumably as part of her estate. While she was no barnburner, this Helen had also lived a full life, working in a local school.

And that, I thought, was that—until I did some figuring and realized that the second Helen would have been only 15 when the pen came into the stores and into her purse; not impossible, but unlikely. Furthermore, this Helen had had two husbands—William Nicol and then John Richey—so that “Richey” was her second husband’s surname (John died in 1995). So she got the Sheaffer only after her second wedding; her eldest son George Nicol still lives in Texas and whose age is given by LinkedIn at around 60-64, putting his birthdate at between 1948 and 1952, suggesting that Helen didn’t get married until she was at least 28. Even if she was with William for only a few years before marrying John, she still would have had to be in her 30s—in the early 1950s—when she got the Sheaffer with John’s surname on it.

Given that the 1950s were flush with swanky new pen designs, why would anyone give a loved one, or even oneself, a pen from 1934? Was it possible, even vaguely, that the other, the airborne Helen, whose timeframe accounts much better for the pen, had some Illinois connection? I’ve yet to find out.

More strange connections exist: if this were the flyer’s pen, I’d give it to my son-in-law, who works in the aviation industry and who collects aviation memorabilia in San Diego, California, where a pictorial biography of Helen Richey can be found at the Air and Space Museum.

I’ll leave it to those with sharper genealogical skills and better resources to tease this mystery out. In any case, now that I know this much about both Helen Richeys, I’m keeping the pen, which has suddenly made a friend, across the years and miles, of perfect strangers.

 (Helen Richey’s photo from mckeesportheritage.org)