The rate of change is accelerating

23:40, Feb 23 2014
Joe Bennett
Joe Bennett is an English-born travel writer and columnist who lives in New Zealand with dogs. His columns are syndicated in newspapers throughout New Zealand.

I stopped in a country town to stretch my legs and eat a heavyweight pie.

Standing in front of a junk shop window I was fingering a blob of meat and cheese from my shirt, when I caught sight of a big glass bottle and my mind flew straight to a primary school classroom.

Beneath tall and narrow windows a woman whose name is long gone from my head was teaching us to write with proper pens. The ink we dipped those pens in came from just such a bottle.

Teacher did the pouring, filling an inkwell at the head of every desk. The pens had simple metal nibs that Shakespeare would have recognised, Chaucer, too, and even Bede, the 8th century chronicler. For though their ancient pens were the quills of geese, the design of the nib was identical. Press hard and the slit in the nib splayed and the ink came thickly. Ease up and the flow shrank to a blue- black wisp.

The nature of the nib required a certain skill. You held the pen, as I recall, at 45 degrees and wrote in such a way that certain lines were narrow and others broad. I never mastered it. But if I close my eyes now I can feel the barrel of the pen, the ridge above the nib and and the inky callus that developed on the inside of the top joint of the middle finger.

When we did maths we wrote the numbers in pencil. But words, their more sophisticated cousins, had to be done in real wet ink. And for the first years of my education we wrote them in a copy book.


The copy book was as old as school. My grandmother would have had one, her grandmother, too. I saw an 18th-century copy book once in a museum. On the page it was open at, a child had written 20 times in beautiful italic script, "Conceal your wants from those who cannot" . And then beneath the 20th line he'd added "help you".

It isn't bad advice.

That 18th century copy book was faultless. Mine was a blotted mess. But soon it didn't matter because this was the 1960s and everything was changing. Penmanship was suddenly yesterday's skill. The copy book was rightly seen as drudgery, with the result being that my generation's handwriting is the worst of the 20th century.

Nevertheless, fresh ink remained the only medium for words throughout my education, delivered by a fountain pen. Inside a fountain pen there was a rubber sac and on its flank a little lever. Pulling the lever squeezed the air from the sac. Dip the nib in ink, release the lever and the sac filled up.

But what mattered with any pen was the nib. A nib was personal. When you found one that suited, you lent it to no-one because another's hand could ruin it. For years I wrote with a yellow Osmoroid, a cheap downmarket beast. Of all the pens I've owned it was the only one to make the act of writing pleasant and my handwriting, if not a thing of beauty, at least not actively repellent. I wrote all my exams with it and applied for jobs with it in distant lands. I may still have it somewhere, but it's lain unused for years.

For the fountain pen was as obviously doomed as the horse and cart. It required too much clutter: Ink bottle, cartridges, blotting paper. And it was also always liable to failure. That failure could be catastrophic.

The ballpoint pen, in contrast, was simple, cheap, reliable, clean and quick. Its only weakness was its perceived lack of class. That prejudice made no sense, but it remains vestigially in the Western consciousness. No ballpoint ever signed an act of Parliament, peace treaty or warrant of death.

Now, even, the ballpoint's on death row. Email has killed the hand-written letter. Item by item, the digital screen is replacing paper. The shopping list is electronic, the diary, the Christmas card.

I suspect that every generation believes it has lived through an era of unprecedented change. And every generation may be right. For though change is a constant, the rate of change seems always to accelerate. Just look at a film made only half a dozen years ago. It isn't the hair or the clothes that you notice, so much as the technology.

The astonishingly innovative becomes comically outdated so very soon. It is already possible to feel nostalgic for, say, the Sony Walkman. Do you remember how sweetly its little plastic body sat in the hand?

No, nor do I. I hated the bloody things. But I did and do love pens.

The Southland Times