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Bring back fountain pens of youth

PUBLISHED: 16:43 25 October 2007 | UPDATED: 12:01 30 June 2010

TODAY is my birthday - or, at least, that of this columnist who hides behind the Peggotty pen-name. As years pass, birthdays become increasingly less important, the presents invariably routine, whereas in my Gorleston childhood I could usually guarantee that one annual gift would be extra-special.

TODAY is my birthday - or, at least, that of this columnist who hides behind the Peggotty pen-name. As years pass, birthdays become increasingly less important, the presents invariably routine, whereas in my Gorleston childhood I could usually guarantee that one annual gift would be extra-special.

These came not from my parents, who could not have afforded them, but my great-aunt, a spinster who indulged me as her niece's only child. If there was no toy, she sent a crisp white £5 note with black script writing that had to be countersigned on the back before being spent or banked.

She bought my first kite when toys began creeping into shops after the war - a red, white and blue hexagonal Atlanta from Wickens, the toy and baby carriage shop on Regent Road in Great Yarmouth. Another memorable gift was a model yacht, 3ft long with a 5ft high mast, that purportedly had raced in international competitions.

Sadly, it was a flop because its original keel had been replaced by one that was too light, so the beautiful craft spent its time with its sails laying on the water of Gorleston yacht pond, embarrassing and disappointing for me and defying efforts by the adult experts to cure the problem. Truth to tell, Aunt Harriet was conned by the vendor who sold her a faulty yacht.

I never told her of its failure.

As I neared my teens, her best present was a Parker Duofold fountain pen in an olive-khaki colour, with its distinctive gold arrow clip that secured it elegantly to the breast pocket of my school blazer. I was the envy of my chums who were “into” fountain pens but had only cheap ones with unmemorable names.

I altered my handwriting style to maximise on the broad gold nib's flexibility to produce thin upstrokes and bold downstrokes, and did my GCE O-levels with it in 1951.

Biro had just burst on to the pen scene, but all ball-point pens were banned at school. This was still in the era when desktops had an inkwell in one corner, classes had an inkwell monitor who refilled them, and scholars were issued with a slender wooden pen with a nib that had to be re-dipped every word or two, blotted uncontrollably and crossed with uncanny frequency - perhaps by misuse, jabbing it into other youngsters or playing darts with it.

With two or three school pals, I would regularly pop into Jarrolds long-gone shop in Yarmouth town centre while waiting for our bus home to Gorleston from the side of the Regal Cinema. We headed for the pens counter, admired the latest models elegantly displayed in illuminated glass cases, and probably refilled our own pens from the free bottle of ink on the counter.

Also, we discussed them in detail with the helpful young woman assistant named - I think, Kathy Jarrad, who lived near St George's Park - or we just mardled. It was all enjoyable and innocent.

By the way, many townsfolk were disappointed when Jarrolds closed its Yarmouth store in 2001 due to difficult trading conditions, for it was part of the fabric of our shopping centre. Its main Norwich store remains a joy. Oddly, it perseveres with its shop in Cromer which has a population of about 5000 compared with our urban 66,000.

Jarrolds' departure and the closure of David Ferrow's antiquarian bookshop in Howard Street have posed problems for authors of local books needing retail outlets, although I believe our Time and Tide Museum stocks some.

Having learned to write shorthand with a compulsory soft pencil as a necessity for a journalistic career, I soon turned to my trusty Parker because of its aptitude for light or dark strokes to depict the phonetics of the spoken word; a ball pen could not manage that satisfactorily.

And although that particular fountain pen disappeared over the years, I continued to use one wherever possible and still have the dregs of a bottle of permanent blue-black Parker Super Quink (containing Solv-X) in its original box in my office although my present pen uses cartridges.

So, why am I recalling all this? Because the headmaster of an Edinburgh junior school has banned ballpoint pens and pencils and introduced fountain pens for his nine to 11-year-old pupils in a bid to rescue the dying art of handwriting, a malaise stemming from the increase in text messaging, e-mails and modern teaching methods that fail to stress a skill once deemed essential.

Good for him! In support, today's column ought to have been laboriously handwritten on Basildon Bond paper, not tapped out on a computer. In the half century or so that I have been involved with Through the Porthole, many columns in my early years were handwritten but few by fountain pen because nib tips tended to jab into the inferior paper we used - newsprint offcuts - and ink spidered..

Nowadays fountain pens are mainly a luxury allowing tycoons to sign cheques and contracts with a flourish, and statesmen to endorse agreements they seldom keep. They are not an essential in pupils' pockets.

Nobody wants to stop progress, and few folk use a fountain pen in 2007, especially when you can buy a dozen-plus ballpoints in the £1 shops, but it is sad that once-familiar parts of our everyday lives become its victims as times, tastes and habits change.

Newspapers in recent months have charted some of these developments.

For example, commonplace in households at one time was the doily, those plate-sized white lace or paper decorative mat on which cakes and sandwiches stood, often on a compote. One supermarket has stopped selling them because of dwindling demand, although I read elsewhere that the custom of afternoon tea was enjoying a renaissance - indeed, twice this summer Mrs Peggotty and I took afternoon tea, at Jarrolds in Norwich and the Links Hotel in West Runton.

Many a doily had been decorated by children with crayons in an era when colouring books were in short supply.

While I regret that fountain pens and doilies are no longer everyday objects, I am not sorry that cod liver oil and malt have been absent from my daily diet for well over six decades. I used to dread that huge dessert spoonful of the foul-tasting treacly-looking sticky stuff from the big brown jar every day in my childhood in a Government-encouraged bid to keep children healthy at times of wartime austerity.

It was even worse that Syrup of Figs - at least that came only every Friday night in a teaspoon.

Earlier this year I read that cod liver oil and malt was to enjoy a come-back because of its essential ingredients. There will not be a jar in Peggotty's Hut, I assure you, and I hope none of my grandchildren has to suffer its unpleasantness, however good it might be for them.

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