Parker 51: The Leica M3 of the Pen world offers a peerless writing experience
Just as my Apple Watch has banished the rather lovely IWC Pilot Chronograph from my wrist, the keyboard all but killed off my love of fine writing instruments. In the old days I kept handwritten journals, wrote letters in long-hand, filled dozens of notebooks, wrote cheques, and kept my accounts all in the italic hand I perfected during my school days. I had—and still have, for that matter—a love of fountain pens.
Yet all has not been lost. In the past couple of years I have been making fresh efforts to keep my handwriting up to speed. There’s no doubt that if you stop writing by hand for lengthy periods you lose the fluency and flourish that hallmarks a good hand. Instead, writing can become jerky and uneven, simply for want of practice.
The main architect of my new-found ability with fountain pens is the long-ignored Parker 51. I’ve written several times about the iconic (use of the dumbed-down adjective being fully justified in this instance) Parker 51. When I was young it was my greatest wish to own one. It looked so modern with its seductively hooded nib and simple, flowing lines that I imagined it was something completely revolutionary. I decided it must have been invented in 1951 although I later learned that it had appeared before the war on the 51st anniversary of the founding of the Parker Pen Company. It seems inconceivable that such a modern-looking device could have had its roots in the 1930s.
Fountain pens have come and gone since I bought my first Parker 51 (for six pounds six shillings at the age of 17). I’ve had Montblancs, Pelikans and a plethora of similar instruments. Somewhere along the way, though, I lost touch with the 51 and several Parkerless decades ensued. But I never lost my rose-tinted memories of writing with the smooth, stiff nib that characterises the 51. Many times I regretted losing my own pen. In many ways using a 51 is similar to writing with a ballpoint pen, quite unlike the feeling you get with most other fountain pens. For some reason, despite nagging nostalgia, I never got round to replacing my the Parker of my teenage years.
Then, last year, I discovered a plentiful supply of used Parkers at an intriguing stall in London’s Portobello Market operated by Henry Simpole, otherwise known as Henry the Penman. Here is an Aladdin’s cave of pens, not just Parkers but every conceivable fountain pen. Henry even manufactures his own exquisitely inlaid masterpieces for the well heeled.
For Parker 51s, though, Henry is unsurpassed and he is certainly cheaper than the posher vintage pen emporia in Mayfair. I ended up with a range of Parkers for every occasion.
Three fine examples sit before me on my desk as I type this article: A black-barrelled pen with a fine, smooth nib which is filled with Waterman’s Violet Tendresse, Tender Purple; a Teal Blue pen with a broad, rather squishy nib, offering a rather overpowering gush of Pelikan’s blue black ink; and, in a touch of pure 1960s luxury, a burgundy-barrelled pen with gold-plated cap producing a muted flow of Waterman’s Rouge Audace. These three are my normal stock in trade and I use them much as I would a trio of coloured bullpoints.
I practice every day, writing in a Moleskine or Rhodia notebook. It is nothing particularly important — all that vital stuff I still prefer to keep on the computer — but there is an endless pleasure to be had from scribbling away, just as I used to do for a living, rather than simply as a secret pleasure.
Pen of choice
Looking back, I now see clearly that the Parker 51 is the Leica M3 of the pen world. It was the mainstream pen of choice throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s. There are countless examples around for between £50 and £100, and all write just as they did when new. If you have used one in the past you will know what I mean; writing with the Parker 51 is a unique experience — neither typical fountain pen nor ballpen; it is something in between and quite bewitching.
If you love pens and some of the finer things in life, including Swiss watches, I can highly recommend subscribing to Ian Skellern and Elizabeth Doerr’s Swiss-based blog, Quill & Pad. Start with this article by Martin Green: My Quest for the Ultimate Fountain Pen and learn some more about the Parker 51.