Penman No. 160: Hemingway in Manila

HemingwayManilaPenman for Monday, August 3, 2015

THE LAST time I thought about Ernest Hemingway, it was a few weeks ago when I was teaching his controversial 1927 short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” one of my all-time favorites for its compactness and subtlety, not to mention its grasp of human psychology.

Coincidentally, when I was giving that lecture, one of the pens in my pocket was an Ernest Hemingway—the first in a series that Montblanc called its Writers Edition pens, issued in 1993. Considered one of the “holy grails” of pen collectors, it had been generously given to me by a fellow member of the Fountain Pen Network-Philippines (; we had a small business arrangement, but the cost of my own service was so negligible that the pen was practically a gift, most thankfully accepted.

My pen’s inscribed with Hemingway’s signature, but ironically, I don’t think Hemingway was ever much of a fountain-pen person, and being the practical, outdoorsy person he was, would probably have disdained carrying anything fancier than a Parker Jotter. He was actually known to favor pencils and typewriters—Angelina Jolie bought his 1926 Underwood as a wedding gift to Brad Pitt—and he wrote this down to explain why:

“When you start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none. So you might as well use a typewriter because it is much easier and you enjoy it that much more. After you learn to write your whole object is to convey everything, every sensation, sight, feeling, place and emotion to the reader. To do this you have to work over what you write. If you write with a pencil you get three different sights at it to see if the reader is getting what you want him to. First when you read it over; then when it is typed you get another chance to improve it, and again in the proof. Writing it first in pencil gives you one-third more chance to improve it. That is .333 which is a damned good average for a hitter. It also keeps it fluid longer so that you can better it easier.”

I’ve since located an online sample of Hemingway’s handwriting—likely in pencil—which has him drawing up a list of recommended readings for young writers (among them, Stephen Crane’s short stories, Madame Bovary, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Oxford Book of English Verse). It’s comforting to know that his penmanship is a lot like mine—cramped, stiff, and generally ugly.


One of the things that I forgot to mention to my audience—a group of English teachers—was that Hemingway once visited Manila, in February 1941, with the clouds of war already hovering above Europe, where the young Ernest had served as an ambulance driver in World War I. (Ambulance driving seemed to be strangely attractive to young men who would soon make a name for themselves in the arts and letters. Aside from Hemingway, these illustrious WWI volunteers included the writers John Dos Passos, E. E. Cummings, W. Somerset Maugham, and Archibald MacLeish, the composer Maurice Ravel, and the filmmakers Jean Cocteau and Walt Disney.)

In another uncanny connection to fountain pens, Hemingway and Dos Passos served in Italy close to the factory of the Montegrappa fountain pen company, as Montegrappa continues to recall on its website: “Close to the Elmo-Montegrappa factory was situated the Villa Azzalin, which during the conflict. was converted into a field hospital. Two volunteer ambulance drivers for the Italian Red Cross at that time were the famous writers Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos, both of whom spent many happy hours visiting the factory and experimenting and testing various Montegrappa fountain pens, and availing themselves of the Company’s after-sales service.”

But back to Hemingway in Manila.

An article by Brown University Prof. George Monteiro in The Hemingway Review (Fall 2010) talks about Hemingway’s short 1941 visit, a stopover on his longer assignment to China as a journalist. Accompanying Hemingway then was his third wife Martha Gellhorn, herself a distinguished writer, a novelist and a war correspondent. (Annoyed by her frequent absences—she would be the only woman to land with the Allied troops on D-Day—Ernest wrote her to ask, “Are you a war correspondent, or wife in my bed?” She led a long and colorful life after her divorce from Hemingway, and tragically, like Ernest, died by her own hand at the age of 89 in 1998.)

Flying to Hong Kong by Pan Am Clipper from San Francisco via Honolulu and Guam, Ernest and Martha stopped by in Manila for a few days and stayed at the Manila Hotel, and managed to meet with representatives of the Philippine Writers League, which was then led by Federico Mangahas. There’s a picture in the Flickr photo gallery maintained by Malacañang’s Presidential Museum and Library (whose Director, Edgar Ryan Faustino, just happens to be a member of FPN-P), taken from A.V.H. Hartendorp’s Philippine Magazine, showing Hemingway meeting with Filipino writers.

Seeing it reminded me of a similar picture of the big white Ernest looming over a small brown young Filipino named Nestor—a picture that NVM Gonzalez himself showed me in the 1990s, which sadly may have been lost in the fire that later razed the Gonzalez home in Diliman. Monteiro’s account mentions that Hemingway shared this bit of wisdom with his Filipino counterparts: “I think a writer’s gravest problem, always, is to write the truth and still eat regularly.”

Unfortunately I couldn’t access the rest of the Monteiro article online (you need membership access to Project MUSE), but I read enough of it to understand that brief as it was, Hemingway’s stopover created quite an impact, enough for the Manila Hotel to use a quote from the big guy as one of its taglines: “If the story’s any good, it’s like Manila Hotel.” The bayside hotel, founded in 1912, has of course hosted other luminaries such as Douglas MacArthur, John Wayne, John F. Kennedy, and the Beatles, aside from another popular postwar writer, James Michener.

As we all know, Hemingway killed himself with his favorite shotgun in July 1961, seven years after receiving the Nobel Prize for literature, in a fit of depression. It was a sad ending to a many-splendored life that we were privileged to glimpse, however briefly.

Penman No. 157: Dandy Doodles

14100168582_2191dbaffc_zPenman for Monday, July 13, 2015

YOU’LL UNDERSTAND if I’m mighty proud of my fountain pen collection, built up painstakingly over the past 30 years. Now numbering about 200, it contains some of the world’s rarest and most desirable vintage and modern pens, and I’m still upgrading it, bringing down the numbers while raising the quality, hoping to downsize it to about 30 of the very best that I can pass on to our daughter Demi not too long from now.

At least that’s the press release. What I’m not saying, and what I’m not too proud of, is how awful my penmanship is, a trail of chicken tracks worthy at best of a Bic ballpoint. We have members in our fountain pen club like advertising executive Leigh Reyes and designer Fozzy Dayrit who can carve out whole new careers as professional calligraphers should they want to, so artfully do they put nib to paper. Oafs like me just wear our pens like others might sport brooches and hats, as body décor to look more substantial and interesting, especially as our other charms wane with age.

The fact is, I can’t write more than half a page of anything with a fountain pen before my fingers start crimping with fatigue, more accustomed as they’ve become to tapping on a keyboard with whispery ease. The saddest part of the story is, the only time my fountain pens get any real exercise is when, joylessly, I have to write out checks to pay for the credit cards and the utility bills.

It’s not as if fountain pens are alien, certainly not to me. We used them as grade-school kids in La Salle, where we also wrote loopy letters for Penmanship class, and where an inkstain on one’s shirtfront was just a blue badge of honor (or so I told myself, to mitigate the embarrassment). But as the world has since moved from writing in cursive to block letters, and from the pen to the computer, our writing muscles have atrophied, and the feathery Fs and coily Qs that garnished our forebears’ documents are a barely legible memory.

So how do I derive pleasure from my pens beyond the sheer, avaricious thrill of ownership? When the day comes to cart away my papers and my trash, they’ll find stacks of well-used notepads in my drawers and cabinets, and the nosy rummager might well imagine discovering some private snippets, or passages from an unfinished novel, among my scribbles. I hate to disappoint the snoops, but they’ll find nothing of the sort; instead, all they’ll come across will be a trail of doodles—page after page of doodles in every color of ink and width of nib. And that’s going to be the big dark secret out of my bag: I buy fancy pens not to craft great literature with, but just to doodle all day, wasting time, ink, and paper on nothing grander than the pursuit of pointless happiness.

My dictionary defines “doodle” as “To draw or sketch aimlessly, especially when preoccupied,” which isn’t too far from Wikipedia’s take on it, which sees a doodle as “a drawing made while a person’s attention is otherwise occupied.”

Here we see that the key idea behind doodling is distraction: you’re thinking about something but don’t really want to think about it, so you do something else, and if there’s a pen in your hand, that pen will have a mind of itself and start making squares and circles and lines that lead nowhere and everywhere. In my case, I know exactly what it is I’m running away from: work! I’m so drowning in book projects that I have no proper business doing anything else—not even writing a column like this—but it’s when things get tough that the doodles get going.

I’m sure that psychologists have a perfect explanation for this, but I’m convinced that there’s a symbiotic relationship between work and distraction, and that doodling actually helps me get my work done by letting me relax while my brain processes headache-inducing conundra like “How can we pass an anti-dynasty bill when 14 out of our 24 senators belong to a dynasty?” You’ll agree that it’s more fun to deal with questions like “Hmm, should I go with the Rohrer & Klingner Sepia in the Montblanc Oscar Wilde or the Diamine Oxblood in the Parker Vacumatic? Heck, let’s do both!”

To some others, doodles are more serious business—or at least halfway-serious, as the Google Doodles illustrate. You may not have heard of them as such, but you’ve surely seen them if you’ve ever used Google, because they’re the quirky, funny, topical drawings that periodically festoon the Google landing page to mark an anniversary, a birthday, or some other cause for celebration.

Googling around, I discovered that there’s actually something called the Doodle Arts Magazine (, which happens to be Philippine-based. The people behind the website organized Doodle Fest 2015 a few months ago, and you can still catch the artwork online. If you want to see how good doodle art can get all around the world, have a look at

Me, I’m happy with my squiggles and X’es and endless iterations of “This is a 1928 Duofold” and “This is a Sheaffer Balance” and “This is Carlo Collodi ink” and “This is a fine pen.” Maybe if I wrote something more sensible like “I come from a country without snow and without raspberries,” I could get another novel going and done in no time, but that sounds too much like real work, which apparently was never what these glorious pens and inks were meant to do.


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, 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, 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, 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.)

Flotsam & Jetsam No. 35: New Pens for the New Year

THE HOLIDAYS and turning 60 this month gave me all kinds of excuses to acquire new pens, and here are two of the best ones: a Montblanc Oscar Wilde, issued in 1994, and an Onoto Magna Classic in tortoiseshell, handmade in the UK just last month. I’m broke but happy 😉

They do look good beside my old mainstay, the Agatha Christie. It’s like having three gorgeous girlfriends to take out on a date (shhhh, don’t tell Beng!).

Flotsam & Jetsam No. 34: Pens Noir

I DIDN’T realize how much more interesting my favorite pens could look until one afternoon this week when—during a long and rather boring meeting at the office—I played around with the two pens in my pocket and with my iPhone, and then applied the “noir” filter in my Camera app. Then I went home and took a few more shots of my other pens. Voila—a whole new way of looking at fine pens.

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. 44: Pen Boys’ Weekend

Chito and JPPenman for Monday, April 29, 2013

AS IF two trips up to Baguio in early April weren’t enough, I went up a third time later this month. But while my previous sorties had to do with literature—high-minded work, you might say—this third one was purely for fun… and, well, okay, some education of the esoteric kind. That education, I hope, properly qualifies this piece for the Arts & Culture section, particularly as it has to do with my favorite subject of discussion, fountain pens—that’s right, those inky instruments of insistent individuality.

The members of our five-year-old pen club, the Fountain Pen Network-Philippines or FPN-P, had long planned to hold a vintage-pen-repair workshop in Baguio, and this month it finally happened. Why Baguio? Because that’s where our host—the Bali-based Fil-Am pest exterminator (seriously, that’s what he does for a living) Butch Palma—keeps house when he’s in the Philippines, with a veritable pen repair shop and laboratory in the basement. After some hemming and hawing, seven diehards signed up for the workshop: the onetime mechanic, nurse, and now banker JP Reinoso, our local “nibmeister” or master of nib repair and modification; the retired pharmaceuticals executive Chito Limson; the lawyer and DepEd Undersecretary Albert Muyot; the UP engineering major Jonathan Isip, our resident geek and IT specialist; the UP Special Ed grad student Cesar Salazar, who’s had as rich and varied a business background as any; and the two Butches, Dalisay and Palma.

In FPN-P, my tocayo and I are known as the vintage-pen guys, since our collections (about 200 pens for me, and double that for The Other Butch, or TOB as he’s affectionately called in the group) lean heavily toward prewar pens. I have about 60 Parker Vacumatics—fabulous pens and eye candy, with colorful shimmering stripes—and have learned to repair them myself; TOB also likes Vacs, Sheaffers, and gold pens, and is far more advanced and experienced at repair than the rest of us. But what’s even more impressive about TOB is his armory of pen-repair tools, including a mean-looking heat gun and Dremel drill, maintained and arranged as carefully as a conscientious dentist might treat his picks and forceps. (The comparison isn’t as fanciful as it may seem; the dental pick is one of a pen repairman’s most constant friends.)

Fountain-pen repair is a lot like vintage-car restoration. You want the final product to come out all spiffy and shiny, but there’s a lot of work to do—often insanely complicated work—under the hood. You don’t need just the skills, which no one really teaches; you also need the parts, supplies, and tools, which can be as arcane as they come, such as an inner-cap puller for Parker pens, sac protectors for Sheaffer Touchdowns, lever boxes for hard-rubber Watermans, and rubber sacs and diaphragms of many sizes. These aren’t things you can pick up at True Value; they have to be sourced online, and then painstakingly practiced with, inevitably at the cost of a priceless pen or two.

And when a repair newbie’s eagerness outstrips his skills or his patience, disaster happens. Thirty years ago, as I was just getting hooked on pens, I found a rare, mustard-colored Parker 51 Vacumatic in a thrift shop in Michigan for 25 cents—not bad for a pen worth at least 1,000 times more—and promptly cracked the barrel with a twist of the pliers. (Memo to self: heat the barrel with a hair dryer before attempting disassembly, to let the plastic expand.)


You would’ve thought that—dozens of fixed Vacumatics later—I would be a master at this, and maybe I thought so, too. But at TOB’s workshop, I made another dumb newbie mistake: using a tool I didn’t know without reading or following instructions. The tool in point was TOB’s heat gun, which sends out a blast of hot air like some kind of light saber. I was kidding my tocayo about his having a heat gun instead of a hair dryer because—well, if you see his shiny, saintly pate, you’ll understand why—and then I turned the heat gun on a 1940 Vacumatic that I was going to use to demonstrate my graduate-level skills to the nervous newbies. But, alas, before I could say “This is how…”, the heat gun vaporized a chunk of the pen’s barrel, and there in a smoky wisp went another of George S. Parker’s creations, having survived for over 70 years before some dumb monkey with a PhD zapped it to pen heaven.

Happily the rest of our weekend’s forays into the art of reviving dead writing instruments went much less dramatically, with positive results. Taking a break from headaches in primary education, Usec Albert (one of three Usecs in FPN-P, big fountain pens being a lawyer’s weapons of choice) learned how to replace a “jewel” or an ornament in the butt of a ca. 1960s Parker 61, Chito repaired the 1940s Vac of San Beda Prof. Pidoy Velez (threatening to bill him P8,000 per hour for the three-hour service), JP showed me how to breathe life back into a 1930s Touchdown, and TOB put together a pretty 1938-ish blue Esterbrook using a cap and barrel rummaged from my parts bin (and I found a black Vac barrel from his, to replace the one I ruined), so in the end, everything worked out just fine for the pen boys. (And just to get this straight, at least a third of FPN-P’s more than 300 registered members are female, some of them—the amazingly talented Ms. Leigh Reyes instantly comes to mind—blessed not only with formidable pen collections but with divine calligraphic skills as well.)

We didn’t do too badly as amateur pen repairmen go, but we were glad to be reminded that for truly difficult jobs and truly valuable pens, there are pros we can always tap around the world for their unique expertise. For the longest time, the bible of pen repairmen was the late Frank Dubiel’s “Da Book,” but a new generation of more scientifically savvy restorers has taken over. The legendary Richard Binder (who lent his name to the word “binderized,” to mean exquisitely finetuned and smoothened nibs) has himself retired, but nibmeisters John Mottishaw and Greg Minuskin can still refashion a perfect nib from a sorry scrap of gold, and out in Nebraska, Danny Fudge still services my Vacs and Duofolds when I can’t bear to break them myself. Ron Zorn in upstate New York has a backlog of at least six months, but he’s almost the only one who can properly put back a broken pen together—not with superglue or epoxy, but with a solvent weld that takes months to cure. (Can anyone here in Manila do these things? Beyond the simple repairs we did, the short and plain answer is no; Montblanc does do basic repairs in its service center in Rustan’s Makati, and sends on the tougher jobs to Hong Kong and Gemany.)

Is it worth it? That depends on how much you value your pens. If it’s a P500 Schneider or Inoxcrom, replacing it might be cheaper than attempting a fix; if it’s your grandfather’s Wahl Doric or Waterman Patrician, a $30 solution from Danny Fudge (plus postage, of course) will be a bargain. As far as I’m concerned, and as far as I can help it, every old pen deserves a second chance, if only because they’ll never be made again the way they were back in the 1920s. (That’s not entirely true: companies like Conway Stewart have come out with splendid revisions of the old classics, but these pens could cost you more than an iPhone.)

Boys being boys, and with our precious cargo back in their leather cases, we gathered around the table over scotch and coffee, and babbled into the wee hours about a host of manly subjects: cars and carburetors, terabytes and audio formats, Paul Simon and the Beatles, swords and light sabers, Malcolm Gladwell and Jared Diamond. Now and then some new words and brilliant ideas slipped into the conversation: hadoken, innumeracy, dyscalculia; now and then wives and women were mentioned, but not too often. And every five minutes or so, the talk drifted back to pens, about how gorgeous but oh how expensive the prewar Omas Extra Lucens was, about how Sheaffer Vac-Fills use a bewildering range of rod sizes, and, yes, how quickly vintage celluloid can melt in the wrong hands.

Such was our pen boys’ weekend, and—as I’m sure our wives appreciated—there are worse things men can spend their weekends on and weekends with than leaky Vacumatics.