Design, Frustration and Regret. (I’m fun!)

Sometimes we pen nerds get called luddites. This is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what the pen nerd mentality is all about.* It isn’t a need for things to be old for the sake of being old. There’s just something very beautiful about the design and functionality of fountain pens. They can inspire joy in a way that the devil’s ink sticks don’t. It’s not that we like them because they’re old. Well, maybe someone does. They’re a sensory delight, they have gorgeous and clever design, they’re items that last forever and they’re an approach to items that show that you can go beyond the bare minimum that’s needed to put a line on a page. I would say that they’re more sustainable than a box of Bics that you throw away one by one but that argument works better when you have a single pen rather than however the hell many it is that I have.

After the London Stationery Show, the trade magazine Stationery Matters was featured as a guest publication on Have I Got News For You and they laughed at the idea of fountain pen bloggers attending the show in order to go home and write it up on a computer. Aside from the fact that some of the more committed weirdos among us do actually hand write blog posts, this is only a contradiction if you see pens and computers fulfilling the same role in someone’s life. Oh sure, you can write stuff on a computer, and clearly I do. But you can make music on a computer! Why do you need that cello? You can make art on a computer! What do you want with that paint? A computer is a multifunctional tool but it is not the only tool that should exist, and you’re not rejecting computers when you pick up another tool.

I love computers. I love what they can do, and they’re pretty user-friendly these days. I say that although I’m the first to admit that as soon as technology goes wrong I start whining until my Beloved strolls over to fix it in exchange for a can of Pepsi and a bucket of gratitude. I have no kneejerk response to technology. In fact my love of the lovely pens is due in some part to the fact that they were a brilliantly useful invention when they were first made, because let’s face it, dip pens have their uses but they’re a bit of a pain in the arse if that’s all you have. Storing the ink INSIDE the pen? Awesome move, buddos. I’d suggest that you’re less likely to make a mess that way, but as my fingers haven’t been ink-free at any point since 2016, that is less than evident. I put it to you that I would have made more of a mess had I been forced to use dip pens the whole time.

Another example often given of an elegant innovation that has made a great difference to humanity is the humble bicycle. I do not agree with this. I cannot ride a bike. This is not because I have all the balance and coordination of a drunken newborn giraffe. It is because the only way you can possibly make a bike stay upright is by befriending the magic pixies who run alongside each bike, holding it vertical and cackling. They’ll help you get to work but they’ll exact a terrible price. So fuck bikes.

But you can have a design that was a great innovation, and has greatly helped humanity in all sorts of ways, but which is nonetheless malevolent and moves me to hate and rage.

I am talking about the sewing machine.

I am talking about my sewing machine.

My mother in law (whose quiltmaking skills are incredible and leave me in awe) bought me a Janome sewing machine in 2012. I love it. I use it. But I also hate it. This is because there is no invention that wants to mess with your mind like a sewing machine. It is all about getting every single last detail right. If something is a millimetre out the whole enterprise comes crashing down. A few years in, I’ve worked out what causes many of these problems, and I encounter fewer problems in the first place because I just automatically do things the right way now.

But I can still be reduced to hours of staring at the damn thing, wondering why my stitches have gone to shit or it isn’t making stitches or, as yesterday, why the fabric was sitting sadly in place rather than moving forward. After a billion years of adjusting and checking and opening stuff up and removing fuzz and swearing and pleading with the machine, it turned out that there was a little switch on the back of the machine that turns the feed dogs off. I do not know why I would want to turn the feed dogs off. Is there a reason why you’d want to turn the feed dogs off? Or, more accurately (and this is infuriating) why you’d want to have the feed dogs doing their thing, but just lowered a couple of millimetres, so that you can see the little fuckers moving, but they do nothing to move the fabric along? Or why the switch would be an inconspicuous little  thing on the back of the machine that you can hit easily without noticing it? Or why they couldn’t put a label on it saying “this turns the feed dogs off for no reason” -? I had a couple of sewing lessons when I was at school. This is the perfect length of teaching time to make something crap and unfinished and show you that sewing machines make no sense and hate you. I have persevered; I don’t regret it; I am immensely grateful for the gift. But sewing machines are quite different from pens. Pens will love you. Even the most humble and basic of fountain pens is a testament to human ingenuity.

But every now and then you do get a pen that’s finicky like a sewing machine. I mean, technically a millimetre is a big thing in the land of pens. It can be more than enough to render a nib unusable, make leaks happen all over, and make me rage. But the difference is that pens don’t generally seem to throw themselves at problems in the way that sewing machines do. Until…

My invitation to send me a palladium nib to play about with bore fruit with Mah Man Scribble. Hurrah! He sent me a Karas Kustoms Ink Clipless. It’s black. It’s shiny. It has no clip. It has a palladium Bock nib.

The idea behind Karas Kustoms is that you can mix and match bits of pen to create the combination of your dreams. Is there a need for this? I do not feel a need for this. But they must be selling to somebody so… I guess? It’s some kind of metal (I could ask but I can’t be bothered) of a heavy persuasion, covered in black lacquer in this case but available in a great many colour options which you can combine. Karas Kustoms have, in so many ways, failed to win me over. I have a particular pet hate of anybody changing a C to a K in a word. Whenever I pass a Kool Kids Klub I wish to burn it. I also don’t much like solid metal pens, large pens or heavy pens. I have total disdain for most pens that don’t have a clip. So there wasn’t much to win me over here with Karen Kustoms. She was different, but surprisingly not in a way that gave her any personality.

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Karas Kustoms: if you want Karacter, it Kosts extra

 I *think* that when I first tried it out I found the palladium nib a bit “meh” – I certainly liked it less than gold. I don’t know that I found anything to rate it above steel. Are the Visconti ones significantly different? I have no idea.

But it’s difficult to write a review here because this is where it all went wrong. Somewhere along the way (I have no idea when) the screw-in nib unit from Bock had got very slightly unscrewed. This meant that the nib was sticking out perhaps a millimetre or two further than it should have been. I didn’t notice until I capped it and felt some resistance inside the cap. When I uncapped it again, the nib was bent. Well hot fuckety. Damaging an expensive borrowed nib is, to me, on about a par with that weird dream where you have to take an exam that you’ve never studied for and you turn up naked and the invigilator is your old PE teacher, holding an axe. Abort! Abort! I mean… KK could have given us that extra millimetre of room inside the cap. For some reason they didn’t. I eased it back. It isn’t completely straight, dammit. It doesn’t write well. But now faced with a bent nib that’d cost £135 to replace, I went back and grovelled to Scribs who was very nice about it. It’s almost certainly very fixable, but the offer is there to pay for repair or replacement as necessary. If he’s reading this. Which he is. So now Karen Kustoms goes off home and I slink off into the darkness.

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This nib, man.
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Even less straight than me.
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Sorry Scribs.

* Well the term “luddite” as used today is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what the luddites were about. They didn’t smash the machines out of a silly, misguided attachment to old things and fear of new things. They attacked machines because they were afraid that the machines were going to take their jobs. They were right.

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