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In praise of the pencil

In praise of the pencil

Three inches of graphite capture all manner of thoughts. Ann Wroe delves into her collection

Three inches of graphite capture all manner of thoughts. Ann Wroe delves into her collection

Ann Wroe | June/July 2019

It is lying in the scrubby little pocket of flowerbed by the bus stop, among the leaf-mould and sweet papers. Four inches long and striped black and yellow: wasp colours. It is a pencil, and I am going to have to rescue it.

Over the years I have built up a collection of these strays. Their very simplicity is delightful; a thin stick of wood around a vein of graphite. Warmth and cold are combined in them; precision, and a certain childish innocence. Some of these pencils evidently belonged to children: stout sticks with pink erasers at one end. Others were picked up on the local golf course, snapped (with frustration, I assume) into wounded halves. All are carefully sharpened, to make them presentable. I even have a spiral pencil shaving, picked up on Parliament Hill, because its glossy bright-blue edge against the paper-thin wood is beautiful. My latest rescue pencil will fit right in.

Pencils are discarded, as lighters and umbrellas are, because at some crucial moment they fail in their purpose. They refuse to ignite, quail before a shower, or simply snap. But pencils have merely suspended their usefulness. Their potential still lies within them. They can go on setting down by the thousand the words by which the world works. (Thomas Traherne talks of light as “God’s pencil”. He means a fine brush in 17th-century parlance, but pencils are worthy of that metaphor.) So though the point has broken off my wasp-casualty, that doesn’t deter me. I’m sure three inches of graphite remain to catch all manner of thoughts.

Or maybe to conjure them. Something about the way a pencil nestles in the hand, confiding, humble and powerful at the same time, seems to draw out ideas and words. It is never just a mere instrument. It has the feel of a master and teacher, as well as a friend. Knowledge and past felicities – that exact word found, that exact light caught – accumulate in it. Pencils often have a wise look, and seem to grow wiser with age.

My most venerable examples are the smallest. One, pale blue and sharpened with a penknife, belonged to my uncle and went with him on hurdle-making, building and thatching jobs, teetering over his ear and scratching measurements on barn walls. Another, red and slightly bitten in her anxious way, was my mother’s and travelled in her handbag, to make lists and cross lists off. There lies another virtue of the pencil: its strong evocation of those who have used it, living skin against warm wood.

Yet the pencil’s marks are worryingly fragile. I have worked on Percy Bysshe Shelley’s notebooks, 200 years old, where the pencil-scrawled originals are forbidden to all but the most careful hands. Shelley used pens and ink-bottles both at his desk and out of doors, but he preferred pencils in the open air, and perhaps not just for practical reasons. To look on his pencilled drafts is almost to see the graphite dust sifting away before your eyes – blown by the wild West Wind, perhaps.

When I write with a pencil, I too assume it won’t fix words as my faithful black Biros will; I transfer them to ink fairly fast. The pencil’s job is to snatch, make a first stab at creation, before the thought is set in stone. That ephemeral quality is another reason to treasure them, while they last.