Class conscious

When, in the early 1940s, Lazlo Biro invented his user-friendly pen, he may have thought he was about to instigate a writing revolution, bringing egalitarianism to the presentation of handwritten words on paper. If he did think that, however, he was mistaken, at least as far as this country is concerned, for the availability of ballpoint pens has only boosted the snob value of fountain pens.

Anyone growing up in the 1970s, as I did, was at some stage given a fountain pen - usually a Conway Stewart - in a presentation box along with a propeller pencil, as a sort of middle-class starter kit. Today, with their exclusivity and beauty thrown into relief not only by ballpoint pens, but also by word processors, fountains pens are the standard option when it comes to choosing Christmas presents for the increasing numbers of men and women who "have everything". A recent article in praise of them began: "Biros are for giros." There are more collectors of rare fountain pens than ever before - including, with a strange inevitability, Rick Wakeman, formerly of Yes - and such connoisseurs have been getting all excited about the sale at Sotheby's this week of the Waterman pen with which Edward VIII signed the instrument of abdication.

I myself have taken to using a fountain pen, maybe in reaction to having grown up in a house where the pens closest to hand were the stubby ballpoints marked "William Hill" that my father brought home from betting shops instead of winnings. I find that my fountain pen doesn't make an impression on the carbon paper underneath the pages in my invoice book, but that's fine; it should not be used for such crass, mercantile inscriptions.

I make a particular effort to use the pen when interviewing people I consider smart - Nigel Hawthorne, for example, who looked on, with trademark suppressed amusement, as I ran out of ink two minutes into our chat. Such calculation in my choice of pen makes me feel a dreadful phoney, but then I think of Evelyn Waugh, a class-conscious hero of mine: when he was drafting his novels he used felt-tip; at first sight of a photographer in search of a literary-genius-at-work shot, however . . . out came the gilded fountain pen.

This article first appeared in the 29 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An explosion of puffery