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A cracked pencil on Tolbooth Wynd


Glints of yellow and speckled purple drew my thirsty eyes. Soon I was stooping down and fishing the slim object out of the gutter. While it was bloated by rainwater and cracked by muddied soles, it was what I initially thought it was; a pencil. It was the fourth abandoned one I had come across that day, not including a stub on Ferry Road and dismal shards on the corner of Bernard Street.

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy Douglas Adams suggested that ‘unattended ballpoints’ slipped away ‘quietly through wormholes in space to a world where they knew they could enjoy a uniquely ballpointoid lifestyle’. From my experience misplaced pencils have a more mundane fate, ending up in the back of fusty drawers or in muddy gutters. The creative potential they manifest surely makes them worthy of rescue.

Wooden pencils have a special life. They come into our lives, show their lives easily as they wear - and slowly leave. They need special care and at the same time can be completely neglected (for decades) and still be completely reliable at a moment’s notice.

They are literally made of earth. Though most of them are whittled away they can leave a permanent lasting effect. A company online offers pencils made from the carbon of human remains; about 240 pencils can be made from an average body of ash – is that a lifetime supply?

The pencil is basic. It takes us back to our school days. Lollipop men, dollops of custard, and Panini stickers, were part of my daily routine the last time I used a pencil as my writing implement of choice. Usually pencils are forgotten by the time you reach High School. Old school.

I began seeking out pencils in search of simplicity. I’d already caught the journaling bug and found myself watching a YouTuber extolling the benefits of using that most basic of writing implements. A digital route to the deeply analogue. Pencils offer a distinct and immediate tactile response and something that won’t distort, run, or fade.

The world of journaling is full of “equipment junkies” eulogising their favoured fountain pen and the very best Japanese paper with ‘minimal bleed through’. The humble pencil offers an antidote. With a pencil I don’t need to worry about paper quality. I don’t need to worry about ink spilling. I don’t need to worry about losing my writing instrument - it’s a pencil. An easy route to peace of mind.

However, 20 minutes after deciding to give them a go, I found myself down a YouTube wormhole; the subculture of premium pencils.

Notably, videos devoted to the legendary Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602, apparently used by Steinbeck and various other cultural titans. Some of the world’s most legendary Grammy, Emmy, and Pulitzer Award winners have created with Blackwing pencils. Soft but durable: ‘half the pressure twice the speed’. Simplicity is more complicated than you might think.

On further delving, I discovered that the contemporary Blackwing is a mere reproduction of the original, discontinued in 1998. The dwindling supply turned these pencils into almost mythical objects, going for exorbitant prices online; bought by avid users and ‘analogue devotees’. Not collectors.

When the original trademark expired in 2010, the CalCedars company released their own Palomino Blackwing 602, as a tribute and ‘for those seeking a more natural existence’. With its uniquely shaped ferrules and detachable erasers, the Blackwing 602 is not just a superior writing instrument but provides access to ‘a culture that’s all about living mindfully and finding balance in our fast-paced lives’.

In a charity shop I came across a completely unused Blacksun 1771 from Czechoslovakia, a country that no longer exists. It was made in the 1960s by Koh-i-Noor Hardtmuth, one of the oldest stationery companies in the world. I’m hoping that the force of placebo will carry my writing to new heights.

I’ve pencilled this one in to use for a serious piece of writing; something transcendent that would ‘see the big in the small’. An essay that would succinctly say something profound about contemporary society and its contradictions.

A week after finding that cracked pencil in the gutter, it had revived. First it had been slowly dried and the peeling paint sanded off. Next, I spread glue into the cracks, clamping the pencil overnight in clothes pegs. The next morning, excess glue was removed and the whole barrel smoothed - and then given a coat of linseed oil, deepening the shade of the wood. That cracked and muddied pencil from Tolbooth Wynd had been resurrected, ready to fulfil its potential.

Into the Rapesco 64 Sharpener it went. A few turns of the handle crank later, things were looking promising. The wood was firm and gave off that unmistakable scent; satisfyingly dry and woody, with the cedar punctuated by mandarin, pink pepper, rose, cypress.

I was back in Primary 5; Miss Cluny was telling us to open our jotters, write the date, and describe our summer holiday (was that the year we went to Eigg?).

A few cranks later, the truth started to emerge; the graphite and clay core was largely missing. What was left was hollow and brittle and soon the shattered remnants lay pitifully on the kitchen table. Not all it was cracked up to be. It wouldn’t have happened to a Blackwing.* ■

*Author’s Note: This piece was drafted with a STAEDTLER 110 Tradition (HB) found halfway along Pitt Street.

Charlie Ellis writes on culture, education, politics and sport. He thanks Eva Vaporidi and the SICK Writing Group for their comments on this piece.

Illustration: Eva Vaporidi


The dwindling supply of Blackwing pencils became mythical, going for exorbitant prices to avid users and analogue devotees


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