A New Year party conversation.

Back in early January, I found myself in a party situation at a flat in London overlooking the River Thames, near Tower Bridge. It so happened that my wife was unable to make it and I went alone.

Like the hosts, many of the guests had six-year old children and so the general ambience was on the noisy side.

Seeing me on my own at one point, a young woman about half my age engaged me in conversation. Her name was Esther. Breaking the ice, she asked me if I had any hobbies. Caught off guard, I ‘fessed up to having a guilty pleasure, which was collecting fountain pens. I didn’t go into the distinction between collecting and accumulating but spared her this detail.

“Are those the pens with a separate capsule for the ink, that you puncture?” asked Esther, grimacing at the memory from her school days. “Yes, cartridges” I said, nerdishly adding that people generally refer to cartridge pens as fountain pens although technically a fountain pen is one which does not have a cartridge but has its own system of filling from an ink bottle, such as a piston, or lever or vac filling plunger.

“What is the attraction?” she asked. I tried to explain about finding the ideal combinations of pen, nib, ink and paper and the joy of effortless writing with no downward pressure and letting the words flow, with glistening wet ink and a comfortable pen. I babbled on about the joys of going back to analogue, like wearing a mechanical wristwatch instead of a battery one.

“So what do you write with these pens?” I said that I liked to keep a journal, a habit that I had continued for decades and also to write travelogues and to write letters. Also, I liked to write up memories. For example I had enjoyed reflecting on memories of my parents, listing key words as writing prompts and then going back to write up these memories in notebooks.

A vintage Parker 51 and bottle of Quink.

“But isn’t it easier to amend, edit and correct on a computer?” she asked, quite reasonably. Fair comment. “Yes it is” I replied. I said that perhaps writing with a pen made you more careful, rather like taking photographs on film, especially if you are shooting on medium format and have only 12 frames on a roll which makes you a better photographer. I thought back to letter writing sessions at boarding school when picking up a fountain pen and starting to write seemed to help ideas flow.

“What’s your favourite pen?” I said that many addicts would answer “My next one” which is only partly a joke. It seems that no matter how many fountain pens you have, you are always after the next one, a sign of obsession. I did then try to answer, but said it was difficult to say which was the favourite. I could perhaps try to list the favourite from each brand that I own, to narrow it down. I told Esther that lately I had discovered a pen called the Cross Bailey Light, which was inexpensive, comfortable and wrote well and had gone on to buy six of these, one in each of the available colours.

“Perhaps what you need to do is think which you like best and want to keep and then give all the rest to someone who will sell them for you on ebay.” I think I may have blacked out for a moment at this point as my mind digested this trauma. I might have said in my defence that most of my pens were not expensive ones and so it was not worth selling them. What’s more, I was rather attached to them (which is a bit silly if they are not being used regularly).

“What does your wife think about all this?” I had the answer to this one. “She thinks I am storing up problems for her for when I die.” I know that she is bothered about matching up pens with their boxes in the event of my untimely demise.

The moral of this little tale is that it can be difficult to describe and justify your hobby to a normal person. How do you explain that after a stressful day, you take pleasure in picking up a fountain pen and putting pen to paper, or even just thinking about which inks to try next in a certain pen? When fountain pen enthusiasts are together, all of this goes without saying.

The reality is that taking a disproportionate amount of pleasure from a pen, or any other day-to-day object is a bit of escapism. It is something that we do to make the bad stuff go away, to find happiness and which is cheaper than therapy.

On reflection, I did not handle the conversation with this charming young woman as well as I might. It is shameful that even on my chosen subject, when unprepared I led myself down a one way street, rather than perhaps winning another convert to join the pen club. Next time, I’ll say “I enjoy fountain pens. Now tell me about your hobbies, which no doubt will be far more interesting.” Another drink anyone?

Radley A5 notebook. A mini review.

As fountain pen users know, finding another dream combination of pen, ink and paper is one of life’s pleasures. And we could all use some of those now.

A month ago, whilst spending a weekend away in Cambridge my wife was browsing the sales in Radley, the handbag shop, when I came across a display of A5 notebooks. These were reduced from a rather ambitious £28.00, to £6.00 and so I cheerfully added a couple to our purchases.

It turned out that the notebook was remarkably good and I wished I had bought a few more to keep in stock. Many reading this post may not have access to a Radley shop, but nevertheless I hope some comments about my approach to notebooks may be of interest.


This is an A5, soft cover journal, with 160 ruled pages (80 sheets). The pages provide 21 rows at 8mm line spacing, which I find ideal. The lines are dotted, in grey, on a cream paper and so not obtrusive. Each page features the little Radley dog logo at the foot of the page, which is not in the way.

Radley A5, 160 page notebook. With Cross Bailey Light fountain pen.

The cover is a vibrant red with rounded corners and a pleasing texture that feels like leather but is not. “Radley, London” is stamped elegantly in gold letters on the front. The cover can be flexed although it offers some support and protection. Of particular benefit, the pages are stitched, so that the book can be opened flat without risk of pages popping out. There are two page markers, in matching red ribbon. However there is no elastic band or expandable pocket that you would find with a Leuchtturm notebook.

Neatly sewn pages with lined, cream paper.

Paper quality.

Trying a different notebook can be a risk, if you intend to use a fountain pen. Those first few strokes will tell you whether the paper is “fountain pen friendly” or not. Does the ink bleed through? Is there feathering? Is there show-through at levels which mean you can use only one side of the paper? How does the pen feel on the paper surface? Is it too rough, or too smooth, or is there a squeaky coating and feeling of resistance?

Happily, I was delighted with the paper in all of these respects. I tried first with my recently bought Platinum Curidas, with a Japanese medium nib and Platinum blue black ink. The paper surface felt silky smooth. There was no feathering, no bleed through and although some show-through, this was perfectly acceptable. The nib is on the fine side for a medium.

The one point to note however, was that the line width was slightly wider on the Radley paper, than with the same nib on my customary Leuchtturm journal paper. This implies that the paper is perhaps more absorbent, or less or differently coated than Leuchtturm. Yet when I looked with the loupe, there was no feathering to give the tell-tale woolly edges as if writing on blotting paper.

Saturday morning activity.

I do enjoy buying a new notebook. For the last few years I have been using Leuchtturm journals a lot, which are paginated and available with plain paper, ruled (rather too narrow for me) or dotted or square grid. For unpaginated notebooks, I often paginate them, measure the line spacing, and test out the paper on the back page with a variety of inks and pens from my “currently inked” pen cups to see what works and what does not.

I tried the Radley notebook paper with various other pen and ink combinations. There was no bleedthrough with Waterman Serenity blue. Monblack Irish Green did bleed through quite badly in places where pressure was applied. Some roller-ball pens also did not do so well: the Uniball Air micro black ink did bleed through, whereas the Uniball Signo 307 retractable gel pen did not.

Rohrer & Klingner, Salix iron gall blue black ink.

So, what was that dream team combination that I mentioned? I recently discovered Rohrer & Klingner’s Salix, an iron gall blue black ink, sold in London at Choosing Keeping, in Covent Garden. I have been using it at work recently, in one of my Cross Bailey Light cartridge pens. (Ahem, confession: I bought six of these pens, a few months ago as soon as I heard about them!)

The Cross Bailey Light is a fairly humble entry level Cross cartridge- converter fountain pen with a steel medium nib. I have been careful to check the nibs on all those I bought and they have all been smooth, wet writers. This works particularly nicely with Rohrer & Klingner’s Salix ink, a classic blue-black which darkens as it oxidises, as the blue turns to a grey-blue black.

Random poem selection, from William Wordworth. Cross Bailey Light with Rohrer & Klingner Salix, iron gall blue black in.

The Salix ink is also water resistant, a useful quality when addressing envelopes but also giving some protection against spills or other liquid related incidents.

A water resistant ink will often perform well on papers which at first do not seem fountain pen friendly due to bleedthrough and so it is worth trying this before giving up on the notebook for fountain pen use. Another advantage of R&K Salix is that you can go over it with a highlighter pen, which is great for study notes. It also flows well, looks nice and gives a lovely shading and performs well on the Radley notebook paper.

Discovering that you can go over R&K Salix ink with a Sharpie highlighter, without smudging.

Finally, I went back to the Cambridge Radley shop another day but they were out of these notebooks. But then I later came across another Radley store in London’s O2 Arena shopping centre (a brand outlet mall) where, not only did they have plenty in stock but they were discounted even further to £4.00. Let’s just say I bought a reasonable number.