The write stuff: The renaissance of stationery
DESPITE the digital age, stationery is once again flying off the shelves in the UK. Ruby Millington looks at why the pen is mightier that the email...
On Valentine’s Day a few years ago my friend Sally received a card. She was pretty sure it was from the man she’d been dating for six months or so but she couldn’t be certain because, she realised, in all that time she’d never actually seen his handwriting.
Their communication had all been technological and, she now reflected, less than romantic on account of that. Instead of a bundle of love letters, she had nothing but an intangible collection of texts on her iPhone and a few (entirely lower case) emails. By sending the Valentine card the boyfriend confirmed how remiss he’d been.
Mind you, Sally wasn’t quite Virginia Woolf herself. Searching for writing implements at home she found just a stubby pencil that had fallen into her pocket on a trip to Ikea. “The only thing I actually write by hand now is my shopping list,” she lamented. “When I had to write a really long list at Christmas I practically got RSI from the strain of it.”
Sally resolved to re-engage with the joys of putting pen to paper instead of fingers to keypad. And she’s not alone. It’s a welcome irony of the digital age that as technology advances many seem to be reverting to more old-fashioned methods of communication and record-keeping.
We’re rediscovering the joys of stationery in particular – simple paper and writing products we can touch and smell and keep.
It’s also why Smythson has reported annual profits of almost £2.5 million. Even costing £200 a pop, that adds up to an awful lot of calf leather-bound Portobello diaries they’re selling.
The reason? Perhaps it’s relatively guilt-free retail therapy we get from buying things that are actually useful. Perhaps it’s the primitive sensory pleasure induced by choosing and using beautiful things. Or maybe it’s more the potential that new stationery seems to hold – the new Moleskine notebook, which promises to inspire the great novel within us, the empty box files that we tell ourselves will turn us into an organisational genius, the deckle-edged writing paper that will make our letters read more like poetry.
The power we invest in these creative tools can border on the superstitious. “For some reason, I much prefer writing with a black pen than a blue one, and in a perfect world I’d always use ‘narrow feint’ writing paper,” says JK Rowling.
And let’s face it, it seems to work for her.
Perhaps it’s also the fact that so much of our personal history is evident in our stationery. My father died 10 years ago but I still feel moved when I see his address book – the leather cover, pages filled with his backward-slanting italics and crossings out where friends predeceased him.
My introduction to correspondence was the thank-you letter. These were written on my mum’s watermarked Azure Basildon Bond. This came in A5 pads with a ruled sheet to place beneath each page as a guideline. The spacing of the lines was mercifully wide so it was easy to cover a couple of pages which, once folded into their matching envelopes, made a satisfyingly thick missive.
My career as a writer continued when I secured a couple of pen friends via the ads in magazines such as Jackie. Both of my pen friends lived within driving distance, but that wasn’t the point. I’d discovered a range of stationery called Hunkydory with paper in a mouthwatering range of suitably 70s colours – tangerine, crème de menthe, banana yellow – so vibrant that its brightness made up for what I wrote.
I remember the stationery at school better than most of what I learnt there. The shelves in the art room filled with sugar paper that set one’s teeth on edge and which we cut using the enormous guillotine. The ink station where the girls who used proper Parker fountain (as opposed to Paper Mate cartridge) pens filled them up with Quink.
Thirty years on I still receive Christmas cards from a particularly classy school friend, who still uses the latter. Her envelopes are immediately recognisable and it’s become a Christmas highlight when “Emma’s card” arrives. Which is what it’s all about, isn’t it? Being tweeted is never going to make us feel like a million dollars.
We’re unlikely ever to flick back through the pages of our online iCalendars and reminisce about years gone by. So maybe it’s time to invest in that personalised writing set. Smythson here I come.