In 953AD, Abu Tamim Ma’ad al-Mu’izz Li-Dinillah, caliph of the Fatimid caliphate in northern Africa, commissioned a very special object. What he wanted was a writing instrument that held all the ink it needed within its own body, and which could be carried around without staining its owner’s hands or clothes. The scribe who wrote down the request – no doubt using something inferior that had to be repeatedly dipped in an inkwell, and which spattered any parchment it touched – was shocked by such a novel suggestion. “Is this possible?” he cried. The caliph was unmoved. “If God so wills,” he replied.
Ten centuries on, God has willed much territory to upstarts such as the Biro, the typewriter and the computer; but the reign of the fountain pen is far from over. Stationery devotees moon over the soft, dry sound of a nib moving across paper, and sing the praises of different varieties of coloured inks with names such as “Bung Box Sapphire” and “Shin-Kai Iroshizuku”. Even the uninitiated can appreciate the respect demonstrated by a ceremonious, hand-written thank-you note. Or the refined swagger of signing something with an implement more substantial than a gnawed Bic.
The first thing to consider when buying a pen is your handwriting. Are your letters particularly small and neat? Then choose a fine or extra fine nib that won’t swamp your tiny print. Do you write at a headlong canter? If so you may want to consider a broader nib that will release more ink, allowing it to keep up without skipping. Most pens come with swappable nibs, but it’s worth making sure. Remember too that fountain pens do not reward brute-force writers. This is handy if you don’t want to end up with a shelf-like indent on your middle finger, such as the one your columnist has after years of note-taking with ballpoints and gel-pens. I now slip a tiny, brass-bodied Kaweco Liliput (from £63) with a medium nib into my bag instead: it takes up less space and loyally refuses to leak into the lining. If you write a lot, and are constantly running out of ink on the go, then consider a piston-filler pen: you stick the nib into a bottle of ink, twist the end of the barrel and the pen slurps up the liquid. The Lamy 2000 (£149), designed in 1966, is a futuristic-looking classic of the genre with a smooth-writing, 14ct gold nib and a textured fibreglass body housing all that precious writing-juice.
It is also worth thinking about whether your new purchase is destined to be a workhorse or a show-pony: will you be using it solemnly to sign important documents or will it be dashing down notes into the wee hours and getting bashed about in a rucksack? Whereas with the former you can focus on the look, the latter demands comfort and practicality. The Lamy Safari (c £14) is a cheap-as-chips plastic-cased design, as comfortable as a pair of well-worn slippers and with roughly the same level of chic. The Pelikan Souverän M1000 (£385) is a German-crafted thoroughbred with an 18ct gold nib and the option of a beautiful, gem-green finish on the barrel. But the Sonnet range from Parker (£90-320) comes in a range of finishes, from discreet to flashy, and would be equally at home in the show-ring as out on the range. I love the drama – a rare quality in a pen – of the Sonnet “Subtle Big Red” special edition (below, £201), in deep black with crimson trim. It’s on my wishlist; I feel sure Abu Tamim Ma’ad al-Mu’izz Li-Dinillah would approve.