One Christmas, when I was seven, my mother handed me a fisherman’s tackle box made up of some two dozen compartments. Between each plastic partition were tiny, individually wrapped parcels and the rest of my day was spent slowly unpicking the Christmassy tissue, to reveal every conceivable item of mundane office stationery. There were candy-striped paperclips for grown-up documents I was powerless to sign, map pins for planning my global domination, ice-cream-coloured bulldog clips and A-Z indexers, blank name badges for the important conferences I would surely attend when I reached 10. For the next few years, I spent almost every free minute playing with it all, highlighting meaningful sentences from Bunty in fluorescent pink and orange, date-stamping papers like a time-pushed librarian, erasing deliberate mistakes with a squidgy rubber hamburger and decorating my Helix protractor with swirls of Tipp-Ex. I can’t recall a Christmas, nor any present since, that gave me more pleasure, satisfaction and joy.
Over three decades later, I’d still sooner spend half an hour in Paperchase than almost anywhere else. And this is why I always welcome National Stationery Week (running until April 30), a festival devoted to the accoutrements and artefacts of administration and correspondence, with childlike glee and insatiable hunger. Like practically all industry-backed national “days” or “weeks”, the clear purpose of this one is to flog products and increase profits. But, in a digital era, I can’t help but feel this made-up occasion carries a less cynical and more pertinent message. It reminds us of how irreplaceably lovely is the act of writing things down, and celebrates the comfort in ritual and tangible order, especially now, in such chaotic times. It also acknowledges and enables in many of us an almost pornographic appetite for paper, pens, clips and clamps.
What is it about brass split pins, treasury tags, sealing wax, hole punches and blotting paper that makes me and other papyrophiles feel breathless? Why can the sight of a rainbow-coloured Crayola line-up, or the opening click of a tin of Caran d’Ache pencils, turn me on as much as a delicious meal or great sex? It’s not a question of mere prettiness – I’m as drawn to an ugly envelope-moistening sponge as I am to a box of monogrammed Smythson notelets. What’s more seductive, I think, is stationery’s promise of increased creative output. We want the notebooks because we think we’ll then fill them. We hope to be the person so overburdened with brilliant ideas and original thoughts that a fat, cloth-spined tablet is required just to clear some vital mental real estate for new ones. Just the act of buying a sectioned spiral-bound notebook will cause a cast of characters and a gripping film plot to materialise within its pages. A virginal Moleskine places us in the ranks of Picasso and Hemingway, and all that stands between us and the future love of our lives is the optimal-weighted paper stock for long, impassioned declarations.
What’s more seductive, I think, is stationery’s promise of increased creative output. We want the notebooks because we think we’ll then fill them. We hope to be the person overburdened with brilliant ideas
But, more mundanely, stationery also promises organisation and the restoring of order to a messy life. And that can be every bit as exciting. With a fresh Pritt Stick, you are the kind of person who scrapbooks and collages photos and papers that would otherwise rot and fade in the attic. With an accordion document file, you’re a woman in command of her life’s affairs. There’s an air of delusion and the danger of displacement activity, certainly. Spending an hour testing for the smoothest pen and the loveliest new paper can create a passive and false reality of a novel you’ll never write or a journal you won’t keep past Tuesday. My eldest son, currently studying for stupid, pointless, anxiety-inducing exams (best not get me started), has averted a total freakout by designing an elaborate, colour-inked revision wallchart, taking several hours that could have been more usefully spent learning his algebra.
But this – albeit cosmetic – sense of order can be enormously comforting, and has been throughout my life. Staples firmly held together divorce paperwork when I was in hopeless disarray. Post-its on the kitchen window mapped out my books when my bereaved brain felt like a tangle of mucky rubber bands. My diary – neat, ordered and logical – convinced me that I could get on yet another long-distance train because, in three weeks’ time, there was a single, empty window containing nothing but a full moon and a pagan holiday not celebrated since the invention of the printing press. One can be exacting and logical about stationery in a way that is impossible to be in other areas of life. I must have a week-to-view, a grosgrain ribbon marker and featherweight paper, even though I’ve no desire to attend any of the engagements scrawled on to it. Having things look, if not be, the way I want them makes me feel happier and more in control.
I’m not sure that will ever go out of fashion, dedicated Stationery Weeks or none. We will always need to see our ducks in a row, not imagine them floating somewhere in the ether, in order to feel secure. Never mind that handwriting anything longer than “Happy birthday” now causes my wrist to seize and ache for the next three hours. Just doing it makes me feel I’m contributing something tangible to the world in the way firing out a last-minute Moonpig just can’t. No matter that even notes for the milkman (yes, I have one) are now typed via the dairy’s website – I still get a thrill when I receive his branded Christmas biro. There’s still no quicker way to brighten one’s day than with the purchase of a Muji pencil pot, and a single scribble with a new glitter pen is infinitely more gratifying than the typing of any social-media post. It makes me happy in a world of Minecraft and Xboxes that my sons never look more intrigued nor more hopeful than when I let them loose with a fiver in WHSmith. Which, incidentally, currently has a 3-for-2 on revision supplies. I may be 42 and have yet to sit a single exam, but I totally need to stock up.