The Definitive Two

iPhones are really nice, I love them, but they’re too much phone for me. A bit too nice. In my experience, mobile handsets frequently get lost, dropped, wet, beery, muddy, left in the gym or on a pub table, broken, accidentally pocketed during saunas, used in pouring rain, carelessly handled with filthy, gloved hands, covered with Peak District grit and ever so occasionally even stolen. I’m not sure then that I really want to have such a nice piece of kit in my pocket as an iPhone. They’re brilliant things, but for me they don’t really function as a phone because they’re too precious. Too good.

Likewise I’m a car lover, but why bother buying a nice posh car that will get crashed into, pranged, keyed, dirty and possibly stolen? It just seems like a waste of money. I want to be able to be able to park it up somewhere with broken glass on the floor and graffiti on the walls (ie the only place you can ever find a parking space in most cities) and not spend my time worrying about it. If I can’t do that then I can’t help but think it’s not really fit for purpose. If I have a car that I can’t leave out on the road, it’s not much good to me.

I don’t want to feel like I must mollycoddle my belongings – they exist to be used. It’s a quite irritating fact of life for those who don’t wish to step onto the treadmill of upgrade culture that the Western world is awash with products far, far better than they need to be. It’s why the only pen I ever buy is the Bic Cristal. It is as good as it needs to be and no more.

I love nice pens. I can happily spend an hour or twelve stripping, cleaning and rebuilding my posh draughtsman pens with the same care an assassin does his rifle, and when I’m at the stationers I always find myself uncapping the nice disposable German fine liners and scribbling things onto the little test sheets. I invariably used to come away with a couple, adding a tenner or so onto my bill when I’d only gone in for some paper or board. After all, if cake is removed from the equation, there are few things more rewarding than a nice quality pen. But one day I suddenly got annoyed with them. I realised I’d not ever seen a single one of them run out.

Now I know at this point you’re probably thinking “why would he be annoyed by pens that never run out? Surely he’s been lucky enough to find the holy grail of pens, not only once but with every single one he ever bought, so should at least be mildly pleased if not ecstatic at these repeated discoveries, particularly as he might just hold the key to solving perpetual motion and therefore the solution to all the world’s energy needs, making him the quite possibly the most powerful person in the history of humanity”.

Well I’m sorry to disappoint, but that’s not the case. I’ve never seen any of them run out because pens vanish long before they have a chance to do so. I don’t know where they go, but they vanish. You leave them on your desk and the next thing they’re gone. You put them in your bag and the next thing they’re gone. You lend them to people and the next thing, the thieving, filthy lying bastard has stolen it and is claiming he hasn’t.

Practically speaking, it’s not that much of a problem – you’ll still be able to write whatever you need, whenever you need as there’ll always be another pen kicking around somewhere nearby. You see pens are treat like oxygen, or music. They’re common property. Free for all, in the public realm. You don’t own a pen so much as use the one nearest to your hand whenever you need one. So we’re always able to write, just never with a pen you buy. Extremely annoying for those of us who buy and like to use nice pens. Because what actually happens is we buy nice pens and then end up using crap ones.

The most maddening thing for me (but mainly others) is that I’m just as guilty as everyone else. I might buy nice pens which I subsequently lose, but I also end up with other people’s nice pens. I’ve just had a quick dig through my pen drawer and found two pens that I know for sure clearly aren’t mine. One is of a sort I’d never buy and I’ve no idea of its origin, the other a nice 0.5 graphic pen scribed with the name of an old college mate.* I don’t remember stealing his pen, I’m not a filthy lying stationery snaffling thief. It’s just that somehow, inexplicably, I ended up with his pen.

My habit of buying nice pens ceased the moment I realised what was happening to them. Once I realised that the pen purchaser simply performs the task of adding to the world’s generic pen collection I decided enough was enough. I’m not the sort to be all protective over such inconsequential things, so I was never going to start wearing my precious writing implements on lanyards hidden under my T-Shirt or attach them to my person by way of a mitten retention string, but I am the sort to get annoyed by the whole subject. So it was decided from that point on I would buy only Bic Cristals.

Do you know what? I love them. They’re reliable, they always work and through the clear shaft you can see for how long. They’re cheap, disposable but perform well, they’re compact, they do their job just as well as is required. They’re a rare example of a product that is just as good is it needs to be and no more. While I can and do write and doodle with my Bic Cristal all day every day, if I should lose track of its location I don’t really care; I paid something like 32p for a box of a thousand.

I don’t feel bitter about the thought of someone else using my Bic Cristal. I don’t care if it gets lost, stolen, dropped and stood on, snapped, chewed by some filthy idiot or used by a hateful, punchworthy** colleague to scrape chewing gum out of his shoe tread. I just forget about it, accept that it has become another pen of the public realm, get another one out of the box and continue with my life.

From my earlier paragraphs I might sound like I treat my phone and car, and therefore other property with disdain. I don’t, but I don’t mollycoddle things either. I like and buy nice products where necessary. I generally hate cheap tat, and avoid bargains like the plague. “Buy cheap, buy twice” is a motto I agree with. But sometimes you can’t win – for some products that disposability is a key part of their function.

That’s when you need the perfect balance of quality and disposability. The Bic Cristal has just that. Where posh pens are a joy to use and a killer to lose, the lowly Bic Cristal has mediocrity in spades and is far superior as a result. It is therefore, in my humble yet often and loudly voiced opinion a true design classic. But even better than that, it is a truly definitive product. Think pen, think Bic Biro. The best and the worst. As likely to be found on the desks of the local comprehensive school as on the table of the Prime Minister. In fact it could even be the very same one, when you wonder how long some could have been in the system and how far they might have travelled.

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*I say mate, but I didn’t ever particularly consider him one. He was just another student at college, and in the 8 years since graduation we’ve had zero contact. My only real memory involving him was twice kindly obliging his request to go out into the car park to push start his rusty heap of a hatchback, and each time watching as it fired into life and he proceeded to simply drive away into the dark, leaving me standing their alone in the pissing rain, grubby handed and incredulous at what a sodding ingrate he was. What was I, his starter motor?  College mate my ass, I’m glad I stole his pen. I’d do it again, the unappreciative twat.

** Okay, maybe I care a little bit.