“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.