Friday, May 3, 2013

The Missing Ink

Okay, here’s a book you don't need to bother reading.  I had been looking forward to “The Missing Ink” by Philip Hensher, seductive subtitle “The Lost Art of Handwriting”.  Disappointment.  Sketchy, disjointed, padded out with boring interviews of nobody in particular. The best part is the title.
    Not much here for me because it’s Too British and he’s Too Young.  Very British is his  constant consideration of how handwriting reveals education, class origin, occupation.
    As for Too Young -- early on he devotes a page to “pen chewing” – and starts when he is finally allowed to use a “clear-cased plastic ballpoint” in school.  He goes into detail about the “plug you could work free with your teeth and discard, or spit competitive distances.  The casing was the perfect shape to turn into an Amazonian blowpipe for spitting wet paper at your enemies.  Or you would find that the plastic bit would quickly shatter with a light pressure of the pensive molars, first holding together, then splintering, leaving shards on the mouth … The green rollerballs and felt-tips, on the other hand, had a more resistant casing, and gratefully took the disgusting imprint of your teeth…”  
   I’ll grant you that’s pretty good, and I wish I had space to include the footnote with exact instructions for creating the spit-ball launcher.
    But he’s way too young to remember the glory days of pen chewing.  I remember the red-letter day we received our first pens -- fourth grade.  The excitement began when the janitor entered the room with a large can of ink, which I believe he had mixed himself – do I remember the term “lamp-black”?  Up the aisles he went, with a slim hose filling those inkwells, so handily situated for right-handers.  Then the teacher passed out wooden pen holders!! and finally, a little metal pen point for each of us.  I can still hear her instructions:
     Put this in your mouth and suck off the oil it was packed in.”
    That black penholder was made of soft wood, and inside of ten seconds I was chomping the paint off the top end. When it comes to real pen chewing, poor Philip Hensher was born too late.




  1. My recollection of the first ballpoint pens is of the ubiquitous 'Biro' (now the generic name in UK) in the late forties. We used to unscrew and remove the ink tube, and, with a full mouth of rice, use it as a pea-shooter--with devastating results!

  2. I was never allowed what they called "pen privilege," because my handwriting never quite measured up. I would have KILLED for a Bic Clic.