Saturday, 4 September 2010

Slide rules rule OK

I wrote this piece for the Guardian last week about my love of stationery and slide rules. Bonne rentree, everyone ...

“It is typical of Oxford,” says Charles Ryder after his return from an idyllic summer at Brideshead, “to start the new year in autumn.” Evelyn Waugh presumably meant to suggest that this was a characteristically perverse thing for an ancient university to do. It has never seemed perverse to me. Granted, I was the sort of studious child who was secretly pleased by the sight of the “back to school” displays in the shops. But I always liked the idea of starting the new year in September when, instead of that post-Christmas fagend feeling, you got the excitement of stocking up on new stationery.

The contents of a pencil case were my first encounter with the aesthetics of material objects. For me the smell and feel of a new eraser are as evocative of autumn as falling leaves. Stationery was also my understated introduction to the idea of utopia, the triumph of hope over experience. Forgetting all the false dawns of autumns past, I believed that if I could just find a pen with the right nib or highlighters in ideal colour combinations, I would at last have the tools to accomplish great deeds.

My affection for stationery even extends to those mathematical instruments, like set squares and protractors, whose purposes remained obscure throughout my school career but whose uniformity and symmetry I enjoyed. So I was puzzled recently when Melvyn Bragg, in the middle of complaining that his former employee, ITV, was obsessed with audience ratings, said that it had been “taken over by slide rules and suits” – in other words, overrun by sharply dressed, number-crunching managers going on about focus groups and audience share. I associate the slide rule, by contrast, with gentle, tweed-jacketed, pipe-smoking engineers, calculating formulae for jet engines in sheds.

You never see anyone using a slide rule in a film. Matinee idol scientists always work out algorithms unaided in their brilliant minds, or scrawl them manically in chalk on giant blackboards. By the same token that unfairly condemns people with colour-coded ring binders as the owners of overly tidy minds, slide rules are supposed to belong only to the pedantic foot soldiers of science, the plodders who have to show us their workings out. But slide rules are lovely things: pleasingly solid, elegantly mysterious in their markings, the perfect marriage of form and function. Since scientific calculators rendered them obsolete in about 1980, some people (not me) even collect them.

I worry that today’s schoolchildren are being deprived of these tactile pleasures. Isabel Nisbet, chief executive of Ofqual, has questioned the future of paper exams because, she claims, pupils are no longer used to writing by hand. Hoping this isn’t true, I go to the “back to school” section of my local supermarket for reassurance. And there they all are - pencils with rubbers on the end, felt tips, even Tippex – just as they have appeared in late summer since time immemorial. I am happy to report that the death of the analogue classroom implement has been exaggerated.

Indeed, I can foresee a renaissance for these objects for the same reason that knitting and embroidery are again in vogue. People are embracing the texture and solidity of material things as a rearguard action against the growing touchlessness of the world, the tendency for our jobs to become an endless cycle of virtual exercises, an eternal exchange of emails and other digital surrogates. Not all of us know how to knit, but we can all buy something from the “back to school” displays, whether we are going back to school or not. We can sharpen our pencils, open a crisp new exercise book and create the world anew. Once a year, at least, we can imagine ourselves as noble artisans, transforming our little part of the universe with ink, graphite and paper. What we need, in these uncertain times, is some pencil case therapy.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘The miner finds understandable pleasure in sending his pigeons winging afar off through the blue to distance places. There is Viking blood in English veins, so to me it is a pathetic sight to see those grown men sailing model boats on the Round Pond in Kensington Gardens on a Sunday morning. Once we were a nation of sailors, not – as we are today – of civil servants. Their blood is the bacteria-free plasma from the cold deep-freeze stores in Whitehall.’ - Gilbert Harding, Master of None (1958)


  1. I love a nice folder. I am an obsessive filer and without my large and old fashioned filing cabinet, I would be dribbling in a corner. Everything is neatly filed, with sub-folders and the plastic tabs range evenly from left to right, with neatly printed tabs for ease of reading.

    And I absolutely adore coloured pencils and as a child I craved a tin of pencils more than anything else. I went to work for an oil company in London in the late 80s and they gave me a giant tin of 48 Derwent Coloured Crayons and I wept with joy. I kept them in spectrum order and they were always sharpend (but not too sharp).

    I'm not mental though. No, really I'm not.

  2. Thank you! All the years I have hidden my excitement when starting a new notebook!! I always hoped that the feeling of novelty would last long enough for me to start organising my notes and improve my handwriting.This still hasn't happened but I do still have my final year at University left.

    Funnily enough, I actually started knitting last nite. I thought it was an act of ironic feminism, but after my E-mail account has just broken down I now also have the argument of 'a rearguard action against the growing touchlessness of the world'.Perfect.

    This made my day.However, a trip to Wilkinson's is needed so there is stationery-shaped competition.
    Elena De Sacco

  3. Thank you both for these. There is a stationery group on Twitter that I've just joined.

  4. Wasn't Gilbert Harding rather a dreary old blowhard on the Brains' Trust? Anyway, my grandfather used to build and race his own model yachts on various ponds along the south coast. This was a relaxation from his somewhat riskier trade between the wars as a furrier (now completely de trop), which involved much travel into frozen wastelands. Anyway, my main comment is one of gratitude for being reminded of the slide rule, from which my engineer father was never separated. It's just possible there are several still idly calculating in his old workshop. The autobiography of the engineer and novelist Nevil Shute was of course "Slide Rule".

  5. 'You never see anybody using a slide-rule in a film'? Have a look at:

    Mind you, there probably hasn't been one in a film since 1968 or so.


  6. I completely agree. Though I am 16 and am currently a junior in high school, I enjoy using pencils and paper, as well as my grandfather's old slide rule. It had that relaxing feeling that just calms me, free for a moment from the digital world.

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