I don't remember exactly when I started using fountain pens; I was still in primary school at the time, at any rate. I started out with cheap no-name fountain pens, but was given what was supposedly a decent Parker when I started secondary school. It served its purpose, I suppose, but it left me stuck using Parker cartridges (it couldn't take an adapter).

After suffering a particularly bad (even by Parker standards) batch of cartridges, I went out and bought a nice heavy Waterman Expert. At first I just used Waterman Florida Blue ink from a bottle, because Waterman Black is really an annoying medium grey. Later, thanks to everyone and their dog setting up an e-commerce website, I managed to get various Private Reserve, J. Herbin and Diamine inks to play with.

I would occasionally get landed using a ballpoint pen, but every time I tried to write with one I would remember just why I hated them so much. They're slow to write with, produce ugly uneven lines on the page and require far more pressure than a fountain pen. With a ballpoint, one has to press down to write; a fountain pen merely needs to be pulled lightly across the page to make a mark. Roller balls are marginally better, but they're still so much more effort than a good fountain pen.

Today, two things happened which made me wonder just how few people still use good pens.

The first was a peculiar compliment I received. I've had people notice the fountain pens I use fairly frequently — these days I have several, including a really elegant Chinese pen with incredibly ornate artwork on the barrel. Comments on the ink colours I use are common too — by using bottled ink I can choose between all kinds of vibrant colours and am not limited to "nasty oily ballpoint blue" and "nasty smeary ballpoint black" (students are encouraged not to use "nasty uneven ballpoint red", that being the weapon of choice of those who do the marking).

This time, though, someone said that they really liked the paper I was using.

I hadn't really given any thought to this. I've been buying 100gsm lightly tinted paper from various art shops for years. It turns out that everyone else in the lecture theatre was using lined refill pads. I always tried to avoid those because of the lines — I can write in a straight line anyway, and the lines get in the way when doing quick diagrams or when laying out equations. What I hadn't noticed was just how bad the paper was becoming. Some of it was as thin as 50gsm.

I tried to write on some of it as an experiment. I was expecting the ink to soak right through and make the other side of the page unusable, which it did. I was not expecting the paper to be torn to shreds. If the exam booklets are ever changed to use cheaper paper, I'm screwed...

The second was far more annoying. My passport is coming close to its expiry date, so a month or so ago I went through the long and painful process of filling in a filing cabinet's worth of paperwork and providing all the necessary bodily fluids to get it renewed. Today the form was returned to me with a letter explaining that I had not filled it in correctly. See, passport forms must be filled in "with a blue or black ballpoint pen". I had used a fountain pen with Herbin black ink.

Now, had I used Private Reserve Shoreline Gold or something similarly outrageous, I could understand there being a problem. Herbin black, though, is a smooth, clean, very fast drying black ink.

Apparently, the problem is that it's too good. So good that some snotty little minimum wage oik at the passport office had decided that my signature must be a photocopy or printout — being used to nasty scratchings, they simply did not believe that it was possible for humans to write smooth lines.

I will be very very annoyed if I end up having to fill in another form using a ballpoint pen. I would write to my local member of parliament, except that he signs his name using a Biro. Maybe I'll have to settle for an angry letter to the Times.