The digital age was meant to put an end to paper – but we still can’t get enough of pens, notebooks and, erm, fancy rubber band holders. One fan thinks she knows why.
Memo to self: Lucy Mangan shows her love of stationery by being covered in Post-it Notes. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian
Exercise and memo books, writing sets and endless rubbers, coloured pens and propelling pencils, Post-it Notes and fountain pens, highlighters in different hues, markers – great, galumphing things – and tiny fibre-tips, envelopes all shapes and sizes, notebooks stapled (spiral-bound or sewn-spined) – I own and love them all.
I am not alone, of course. John Lewis saw a 177% rise last year in its sales of premium stationery lines. Liberty opened a new stationery hall a year ago in response to demand and is already set to expand (though who wrote in explaining their unmet need for a magnetic mini-ocean liner on which to keep their paperclips I have been unable to determine at time of going to press). Smythson reported a 400% increase in profits – to £2.4m – from 2010 to 2011. The staider, heavier side of this old guard is being leavened by products from the smaller design companies that have also sprung up to cater for our desire for fun as well as form and function: Suck UK; J-me (seeing online its pen-holders that look exactly like Bic lids with pens in them baffled me for several minutes until I realised they were GIANT REPRODUCTIONS); Rob Ryan, whose pretty notebooks I covet ceaselessly; Luckies (home of the magnetic Doorganizer, which I am convinced would change my life, and theGeppeto pencil sharpener, which has not done so but which makes me laugh every time I see it on my desk).
Shops visited by mere mortals are also holding up well. WH Smith attributed its better-than-expected post-Christmas figures to a tighter focus on selling books and stationery, and Paperchase opened 14 new shops on the otherwise beleaguered high street last year (I think my gift-box habit was responsible for only three of them), with more planned for 2012.
We all love stationery (some more moderately and tastefully than others). But why? It seems to me to offer two great and seductive promises. The first is that it will unleash your creative potential. The unsullied page, the pristine pen offer limitless possibilities (also, on a bad day, unlimited fear). “My grey goose quill,” wrote Byron, “Slave of my thoughts, obedient to my will/Torn from thy parent bird to form a pen/That mighty instrument of little men.” And look how well he got on. Imagine what he would have been able to do with a Mont Blanc and special-edition Moleskine.
The right pen and the right paper brought into conjunction, runs the unspoken thought, cannot help but result in a sudden influx of bold, brilliant and original ideas, the germ of a bestselling novel that will in its turn be inscribed in another, perhaps larger notebook more worthy of the task, in sentences as creamy and beautiful as the pages on which they are written. I am always on the hunt for the perfect notebook. Muji (the brown paperbacked ones), Field Notes (the three-packs), the ubiquitous Moleskine and, in more whimsical moments, Cavallini & Co have all come close. Which is to say, close to being the one that will become the perfect commonplace book, in which I will continue that proud Renaissance tradition of recording useful quotations, inspiring stories and intriguing snippets, but which will eventually, in a surprising modern twist and via a complicated but plausible chain of events involving bestsellerdom, successful film adaptation and a meeting of minds with the star during an on-set visit, end in a long and happy marriage to Jake Gyllenhaal. Is it any wonder I keep buying, when only an unlined leather notebook stands between me and all this?
The second promise is baser but, I find as I get older, even more attractive than bestsellerdom, or hot monkey sex with Jake G. It is the promise of organisation. I remember at university one friend coming out of his bedroom after a seven-hour revision stint bearing a trayful of differently coloured index cards and four full lever arch files with sections neatly marked by cardboard dividers down the side and subdivided by coloured tags along the top like a stickleback’s spines. “OK,” he said with relief. “I may not know everything yet. But I know where it all is.” I wake every morning in the hope that today I may purchase the concertina file, ring binder, set of folders or box of plastic wallets that will finally enable me to live that dream.
Though our fondness remains, we no longer depend on stationery as we used to. Once upon a time, paper and ink were the quintessence of utility. Things existed, systems worked, money was made because pen was put to paper. Banks had ledgers and filled them in with differently coloured inks. When they told you you were in the black or in the red, they meant it literally. From the late 17th century, when a semi-reliable postal service began to emerge, letters were the lifeblood of business and of social life. In the Victorian era, etiquette books containing advice and templates for every possible permutation of correspondence between friends, lovers, professional associates and all points in between proliferated.
The protocol surrounding calling cards alone is enough to exhaust the modern mind. You turned down different corners or folded the card in a certain way to convey wordless sympathy, congratulations or simple affection to the lady of the house if she was not at home when you called. Of course, if she was at home but simply not at home to you, that changed things slightly. If a servant provided you with her card, you could try again. If she didn’t – well, consider yourself snubbed and think yourself lucky there was no tweeny with a smartphone to record your embarrassment and post it on youzoetrope.com later (OK, I made that one up).
The utilitarian aspect of stationery has eroded steadily over the years, but never more quickly or apparently irrevocably as in the last few decades with the rise of digital communication. Now all is email and electrons and whereas once it would have taken an internationally synchronised effort by an unprecedentedly dedicated band of arsonists to destroy enough records to disrupt the smooth running of the empire upon which the sun never set, we are now but one solar flare away from personal, professional and fiscal Armageddon.
On the upside, calling cards are making a comeback. No, really. Twitter told me, and then I saw some in Bromley high street. Once something has come that far south of the river you know it’s really happening. They look like prettier business cards, for those who prefer something a little less vulgar than scrawling on someone’s hand with a Biro (superb and timeless piece of design and engineering though it is) or trying to put your number into someone’s BlackBerry with a drunken thumb.
After all, stationery still makes us feel better. In a recession, you can still find something to suit your pocket and cheer you up. A notebook still carries the promise that you will one day make your mark literally and metaphorically. And nostalgia too has us ever in its grip. Whenever I write in longhand these days I increasingly feel like I am helping to preserve an ancient skill. By the time I retire, I shall be able to appear on the mid-21st century’s equivalent of The Victorian Farm – Modest Catford Semi – showing viewers how we used to do it in the olden days. I will use words such as “foolscap”, “deckle-edged” and refer to my uncapped fountain pen as “posted” just to watch their brows furrow. I will tell them of writing thank-you letters as a child with my Victoria Plum writing set and obliterating my mistakes with a lipstick-shaped rubber I could twist up from the bottom like the real thing (“Even the gender conditioning was better back then!”), of drafting essays in pencil and then writing them up in pen while the Amstrad CPC was just a pixellated gleam in Suralan’s eye. I will tell them that I remember both the invention of the glitter pen, worshipped as a scribal godhead on its mid-80s arrival into our hitherto matt and colourless lives, and of the Post-it Note (“No, you have to understand – paper just couldn’t be sticky like that! It peeled away and left no trace! We thought it was witchcraft”). If I had been born just five years earlier, I would be as old as Pritt Stick.
I thought I was exaggerating when I wrote the paragraph above. Then I went online to check the spelling of the Silvine brand of orange-covered exercise and memo books I remember discovering in the local newsagent at the same time as orange Space Dust (and not knowing which to slaver over more). They call those orange-covered books their Heritage Range now.
I’ll put it in my commonplace book. Maybe it will come in handy one day.