It all started with a total computer meltdown, when the shiny supercool digital machine that’s supposed to “just work”, according to the late Steve Jobs, suddenly seemed as creaky and unreliable as the old banger I drove back in the 1970s.
I began to curse computers and chunter about the microchip being responsible for many woes in modern life, and in my frustration I picked up a pencil to at least stay productive until my new laptop arrived. But guess what? Words began to flow out faster than you can say hard disk crash, and a writing instrument that was invented back in 1662 came to the rescue.
I’d begun to lose the habit of handwriting. It had become a scribble that even I found hard to decipher thanks to 30 years of using a computer that had started out as a typewriter replacement, then became my primary way of connecting with the outside world. Using a pencil made me take more care over not just choosing words but forming them on the page. Perhaps in the back of my head I could hear Miss Duff’s scolding voice in primary school.
Since then I’ve discovered there are lots of pencil users out there. Some of them have even given up computers and swear pencils are the only way to write. They’re not luddites, exactly, more like leadites.
Okay, some of them take things too far. Their reviews of pencils like the Caran d’Ache Swiss Wood 348 HB read more like those of a fine wine, comparing the smell of its shavings to an alpine forest in autumn and rating its “toothiness” – the amount of resistance the point meets on paper. It seems the very best pencils are judged to be “buttery”. To give you some idea of their obsession, one user I came across on Facebook described the local stationery shop as his “pusher”.
The thing is, it’s easy to poke fun at pencil aficionados – and to some extent I count myself among them – but it seems to me pencils are part of an interesting reaction going on against technology. There is a growing awareness that all things digital are not necessarily good.
Analogue is now a lifestyle choice, and not just for hipsters. To give one example, vinyl music continues to make a huge comeback as people realise the quality of CDs and MP3s is inferior. It is similar to the reversion to old ways of doing things that made the Campaign for Real Ale so popular.
Back in the 1980s there was a more upmarket hipster known as the Young Fogey, usually Oxbridge graduates in their early twenties who wore tweed jackets and serious brogues, and wrote with pencils and fountain pens rather than computers. One of the more prominent Young Fogeys, I recall, was the Private Eye editor and Have I Got News For You panelist Ian Hislop.
I won’t be taking the analogue lifestyle too far and joining those who insist that saliva is the best toothpaste, but it strikes me there’s some satisfaction to be had from using pencils, or buying newspapers and books instead of reading everything on a screen, and rather than scratching the social media itch or checking for emails every five minutes just picking up the phone and talking to friends.
Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe