There is no doubt that those of us who are somewhat advanced in years tend to look down on today’s crop of students with something approaching disdain.
“We had it tougher” is a refrain that echoes down through the generations and we all have a tendency to view our own schooldays through nettle-tinted glasses – teachers were blood-crazed ogres who would thrash you to one inch of your life if you looked sideways at the kid beside you; confusing ‘there’ and ‘their’ meant public ridicule in the corner of the classroom, which would doubtless result in lawsuits for personal anguish today; not handing in your homework on time was often punished by a public beheading in the playground on big break.
All slightly exaggerated, of course. But we can truthfully say, with hand on heart, that at least today’s young scholars do not have to grapple with the machinations of the most foul of all educational contraptions – the fountain pen.
The transition from junior to secondary school is often not a smooth passage but nowhere was there more of a leap than in the choice of writing implement.
In junior school, everything was done with a pencil – maths, history, picking your nose, fishing your eraser out from behind the radiator. A pencil is a simple thing. It becomes blunt, you pare it. It breaks, you pare it. Eventually it becomes too small to hold and you get a new one. Life is good, the days are sunny.
With your acceptance into secondary school however came a thirty page handbook informing your parents, somewhere near the bottom of page 18, that the student will require a fountain pen. A wha’, da?
There were two types of fountain pen – one that sucked up the ink and one that used cartridges. I started off with the former, which necessitated the purchase of a bottle of Quink, a dangerous item to put in the hands of a young schoolboy.
My father took great pride in showing me how to load my pen. Unscrew the bottle of Quink, insert one end of the pen into the ink and squeeze the body, thus creating a vacuum (which as we all know is absolutely loathed by its arch-enemy, nature.) Release the body of the pen and the ink will rise to fill the space. Replace the lid of the ink, making sure the top is secure. Wipe the nib of the pen on the blotting paper and reassemble the pen, using the manual provided. What could be simpler?
I soon found out that the fountain pen was well named, with its habit of spraying the navy liquid everywhere. My white shirt soon resembled a piece of Wedgwood pottery, decorated in abstract navy designs. It ended up on my fingers, on my face and, on one momentous occasion, on every schoolbook I owned, when I omitted the step of making sure the top of the bottle of ink was screwed on firmly while being transported in my school bag.
The other problem with the fountain pen was that, whereas the school authorities maintained it looked more professional, wielded by young non-calligraphists, the written page soon became a mass of blots as sleeves invariable rubbed the words before they had dried. I have one left-handed friend whose hand to this day is permanently stained through his writing style.
Eventually, my parents acceded to my requests for a cartridge-style fountain pen, though I believe my father saw this as an ignominious compromise, and only agreed when the current bottle of Quink was finished. With cartridges, you simply inserted the end into the pen, piercing the cap and you were ready to go.
The problem was that it always took some time for the ink to flow down to the nib, so you weren’t sure if the cartridge was inserted correctly or not. This often entailed taking the pen apart again, removing the cartridge, soaking your fingertips in ink and trying again. And it still did nothing for the presentation of the written word upon the page.
It was quite a relief to me (and also to my mother who was worn to a frazzle trying new concoctions that would remove ink from shirts) when one by one, my teachers started to allow biros to be used for schoolwork instead. Presumably they despaired of our abilities and railed in the staff room against the decline in standards of the new generation who couldn’t even write a single essay without adorning it with pictures of Lough Neagh.
But old habits die hard and although I now write almost exclusively on a computer, I still end up with ink all over my fingers and have no idea where it comes from. Plus ça change, and all that...