Friday, 11 October 2013

In praise of cheap pens

I find a lot of cheap pens at car boot sales. They're "school pens", quite often - a dying breed, maybe, as so many schools now insist on the use of ballpoints, but an attractive breed if you get the right ones; made for duty, so robust and forthright. Some are horrible cheap things (Reynolds, 1970s Platignums), but others are rather good - the Parker Vector, though I think it's ugly, is reliable, and comes with an extensive range of jazzy screenprint decorations, while the Waterman Kultur is one of my favourite pens. (You can still get the Kultur for 10 euros or so in many French supermarkets, in the translucent plastic version, though I prefer the slightly upmarket versions with yellow metal bands and marbled designs, or the glitter pens with their tiny flakes of 'gold' in the translucent plastic. And I'm still looking for the Lara Croft pens.)

Waterman I think has a slight edge here, not just because it often seems to have taken a successful mid-range design and redesigned it for cheapness. The firm seems to have done well in manufacturing cheap pens that didn't feel cheap: the Forum, for instance, whose contrasting plastic rings and tassies give it a good 3D feel. (The Reflex with its hideous sheet metal clip isn't so successful in my view.) The Graduate in metal is another nice pen, a tubular flighter that just seems to have an edge on the Vector metal version - it's just that bit more classy.
Parker Vectors, left - Waterman Forums, right

Oh yes, the Flash. A Waterman pen about which I can find almost no information on the internet, but which turns up with fair regularity, and actually there's nothing wrong with it at all. I keep finding spare caps, too. (I wish I could find a spare Parker 51 cap, but I never can. It's always the little Flash cap, which is quite striking with its vertical fluting.)

I like the Pelikano - I've already blogged about this lovely little pen - and I like cheap Lamys, too, because Lamy doesn't forget its design principles when faced with creating a less expensive pen. For instance, the Lamy Joy calligraphy pen is, as far as I'm concerned, another design classic - the same 'paperclip' clip as the Safari, a wonderful red that contrasts with the glossy black of the pen - and as always with Lamy, the engineering delivers functionality in the form of easily swappable nibs. I see a lot of Rotring Artpens, too, though for some reason I have about five in 1.1mm and never see the other nib varieties at car boots.

Then there are the lookalikes. I got a cheapie Stypen recently which looked to me as if a Frenchman with no understanding of Bauhaus design had got hold of a Lamy Safari and tried to make it into a French retro pen. Not a success. (On the other hand I have a Stypen wood-barrrel, metal cap pen that is just as delightful as the Faber Castell Ambition, and much more comfortable to write with. For me, anyway.) But I'll come back to lookalikes at some later date; there's an interesting thread on FPN about (mainly) Indian lookalikes, and that's before you get on to the Chinese clones, which are a huge subject in themselves.
Stypen pretending (not very well) to be a Safari
 And the Pilot V-pen. I love it when I get a chance to buy a lot of these for almost nothing - I got seven for a euro recently! Lovely cheapie pens that work, and that are fun to doodle with.

So what's so good about cheap pens?
  • They're cheap!
  • That means you can have lots of them. Which is nice when you want a pen you can chuck around, or to give a pen to a child who's just ready for their first FP, or to someone who has never used one.
  • And which is also nice when you manage to find all the different Waterman Kulturs, because a whole range of pens does look pretty, and on my income I couldn't have ten Waterman Man 100s, not unless I was very, very lucky at car boot sales for the next twenty years...
  • That means you can play around with nibs or repair techniques or Frankenpen-making, without the fear of messing up an expensive nib or cracking priceless old celluloid. Want to make a Lamy 2000 BB into a cursive italic? try it on an old Parker Vector first.
  • I remember once at Covent Garden there was quite an impressive bass singing one of the smaller officer parts (Mr Redburn? Mr Flint? I forget) - and then John Tomlinson came on as Claggart and suddenly, you knew the difference between pretty good and bloody-hell-this-man-is-a-force-of-nature good. I think cheap pens can sometimes help us appreciate the really great pens. I don't mean cheap-and-nasty pens, I mean good, functional, nice cheap pens; then when you get your hands on, say, a vintage Parker Vac or Duofold, or a Waterman 92, or a Sailor King of Pen, you can just feel the difference. 
And by the way - someone else's take on cheap pens. Worth a read, particularly if you're heading to eBay to grab some cheap Chinese writers.

1 comment:

  1. You have some beautiful Forums! I recently got my first Waterman Forum, which was followed by a couple of others. I absolutely love them! They are such FUN pens, and the style is so interesting and different. The nib on each one functions very well. They have changed how I buy pens. Now I want fun pens! Even if they are more expensive than a Forum, I want them to have something that makes me want to use them, and makes me want to use bright colorful inks. Really enjoy this post!