INSTALMENT 14 – “ Pen Pondering”

Date of writing : 02/02/2014

I’ve probably written more words by hand in the last couple of months than I did in all of the ten years before that.  It’s just not what we do any more – ‘the written word’ has become ‘the typed word’, and people – myself included – groan at the thought of writing more than a Post-it note of text.  Perhaps this is as it should be; progress makes communication quicker and less of a chore; we can fire off an email the length of this paragraph and it can be received and read sooner than I would even have finished writing it by hand.  We take for granted the ever-growing array of methods to choose from; we text, we Facebook, we Tweet, and we Skype. Writer’s cramp is replaced by RSI and enlarged texting thumbs, or nimble Swyping fingers.

There are things I’ve discovered in the process of writing by hand.  I used to believe that the level of ink in the industry-standard ‘BIC medium’ was essentially static.  To witness a biro actually running out seemed to me to be something of legend.  The standard life-cycle of a disposable pen is this:  The shining new object is purchased, or more often taken from a box in the stationery cupboard (a place of the hole-punch and lever-arch file, of DL envelopes too numerous to count, a place filled with the promise of peeling back the paper on a brand-new packet of Blu-Tack; a place where dreams are made), and then used to tick some boxes on a form and possibly sign a name.  It is then placed on a desk, or perhaps in one of those things with different-length tubes, or if it’s very lucky, perhaps in a drawer.

What happens next is part of the mysteries of the Universe.  Like precision tweezers in an undergraduate laboratory, the humble pen has a ‘high vapour pressure’: given a little time it will evaporate.  That one on the desk?  Dave from IT needed it to make a note of your computer’s service tag, then wandered away with it.  The one you put in the tubey-thing?  Sarah from Accounts asked to borrow it when she was talking to Mike on the desk opposite (what even is his job, anyway?) and she forgot where she got it from and left it on his desk.  He took it to the photocopier and managed to leave it there while distracted by Sally from Reception.  The one in the drawer? Perhaps you might use it to fill out some more forms, but one day, you’ll forget to put it back.

With such a nomadic life, the BIC takes a battering.  They are passed from Paula to Pat, they fall from pockets, get down the back of desks, or are cast to the carpet tiles by Edna the over-enthusiastic cleaning lady and crushed beneath the castors of swivel chairs.  They are angrily discarded by Phil from Marketing after they leave their spreading stain on the pocket of his white shirt just before that presentation, they are chewed to oblivion by ‘nervous Nigel’ who works on the 3rd floor, or – perhaps saddest of all – they lie forgotten in that drawer, until their micron-tolerance finely-machined rolling parts become so dried that they will never again leave an unreadable squiggle next to a Royal Mail barcode for a package nobody’s quite sure who ordered.

In short, the infant mortality rate of a disposable pen is something worthy of the intervention of Sir Bob Geldof.  They have so much ink to give, yet they never even have the chance.

The life of a pen in captivity, however, is quite different.  I’ve recently seen the ink go down by as much as half a centimetre in a session of writing.  I’ve had so far to purchase four pens  – not because I lost or broke any, but because they began to fail through normal use.  I’ve still not managed to make one completely run out though.  Sadly, in prolonging their longevity I seem to have also exposed them to diseases of old age … when about two-thirds of the ink has gone, they start to become scratchy and have fade-outs, sometimes needing a good scribble to get going again.   Perhaps this is some kind of pen-dementia.

Anyway, I feel I’ve digressed a bit.  All poor attempts at observational comedy aside, I was going to tell you what I have discovered in the process of writing by hand.  Well, aside from the pen revelations, I’ve realised that it forces me to slow down.  When I put pen to paper, I feel somehow I should be writing something of note.  I’m not saying everything I write is now deeply insightful and filled with gravitas, but because it’s an effort to actually get it down, I try not to start until I’ve at least thought things through a bit.  Because editing is a faff, I want to get the text as close to right first time as I can.  This is probably a Good Thing.

Having a blank sheet of paper physically in front of me also helps me to be reflective.  It’s all too easy to get caught up in a situation when you’re immersed in it 24 hours a day.  I’ve written significantly less in the last couple of weeks, and of course a lot of that is down to just not having much to say.  But I think it’s also a sign of a slight loss of perspective.  Naturally it’s important for me to adapt and adjust to prison life, but that doesn’t mean I have to forget that the world is much bigger than this wing, and ‘go native’, which is something that’s often seen in the world of ‘reality TV’.

I have to confess I’m no fan of reality TV – particularly the recent epidemic of ‘celebrity’ variants where people you may or may not have heard of learn how to do a variety of new sports fairly badly, and sometimes get slightly injured.  However, I did watch the first couple of series of Big Brother.  This was back when there was at least a hint of innocence still attached to the format – before it turned into the bizarre freak show it seems to have become.  Well over a decade of declining popularity and increasingly desperate attempts to keep it interesting, culminating in its summary execution by Channel 4 and painful resuscitation by Channel 5, have left it looking like the shambling reanimated corpse of a long-dead puppy that’s irritatingly desperate for your attention.  In other words, something to avoid [like the length of that last sentence! Ed.] – but I’m beginning to ramble again…

I watched the Big Brother inmates quickly lose perspective and become embroiled in minor arguments about who left their towel on the floor or who said what about whom.  I looked on smugly superior in the belief that I’d be doing far better in their place, because I’d remember it wasn’t the real world.  However, my detached observations of prison life lasted maybe a month, and then I began to catch myself sometimes joining in with the complainers and the whiners. I had promised myself I’d remain a neutral observer of wing politics, but now I find I have allies and adversaries (although thankfully not too many of the latter, as yet).  The slow creep of institutionalisation gradually works its way in.

But here I am, writing still, and hoping that my longhand reflections can shine a torch on the things I want to avoid.  I do still have perspective most of the time, and putting myself in the mental place of a journalist working under cover in the prison system seems a good way to keep that up.  I’ve already twice been accused of being some kind of plant – perhaps I’m overdoing it.  So long as I don’t become delusional and get too caught up in that reality … well, do let me know if you see that happening.

John Smith, BBC News, HMP Anonymous.


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