COLUMN: March 22, 2012

I WAS sharpening a pencil at the weekend when it occurred to me that I complete that task successfully on at best 30% of attempts.

And, as this devastating realisation struck me, I heard a soft crack, and I sighed. I pulled the pencil out of the chamber and examined it.

It was almost textbook, the red paint undulating around the smooth grain of the exposed cedar wood, which tapered into a perfect cone. And there, where the pointed graphite core theoretically should have been, was a void. I had failed. This was an unleaded pencil.

I looked for a safety pin, found one, pricked myself – because the safety of safety pins is a relative concept – and cleared the broken lead from the blade. That was almost textbook too, long and sharp as a safety pin, only its lack of actually being attached to a pencil letting it down.

One quarter-turn, I realised. That was what stood between this broken pencil and the Platonic ideal of a sharpened pencil.

Ten years from now, BBC4 would have commissioned a prestigious drama-documentary around this moment, starring Rafe Spall as me. They would have had to use a computer-generated image of the pencil, though, because there is no way they would have been able to replicate it. That is how good it would have been.

I sighed again, and shoved the pencil back into the chamber. I was going to give it another go. Perhaps this would be the only pencil lead in existence which was broken in one place. You never know. Maybe it was my turn to win the lottery of life.

I gave it two more goes before flinging the pencil in the bin, and finding another.

Right now, some of you are sitting reading this and thinking: “Look at the big fool with his pencil sharpener. Everybody knows the best way to sharpen a pencil is to get a Stanley knife and shave away the wood to make the best and most durable point.”

And I say to you people this: the fact is I have tried sharpening a pencil with a knife, and only managed to hack rough chunks out of it.

For I am from the city. I am not an Appalachian mountain man. I do not play the banjo. I am only related to my wife by marriage. I am as likely to be adept at whittling as I am to catch one of the grey squirrels which caper around my garden, skin it, roast it on an open fire and have it for my tea with hominy grits, whatever they are.

All pencils are rubbish, though. Mechanical pencils are just as bad. There is an optimal click with mechanical pencils, one which delivers just the right amount of lead. But most of the time the lead is too long, in which case it breaks, or too short, in which case the lead runs out and the metal casing gouges a hole in the piece of paper.

In fairness, I did do the optimal click once in 1993 and the pencil worked quite well for a couple of minutes.

Pencils with rubbers stuck on the end are equally annoying. I think we know each other well enough now for me to state uncontroversially that I have made more than two mistakes in my life.

However, the erasers on the end of pencils only allow for the user to make a maximum of two mistakes. After that, the rubber perishes and the incredibly and inappropriately sharp metal cylinder which holds the rubber vaguely in place tears the page to confetti. It is a clever idea, utterly ruined by its execution. Like Lib Dems in government.

There’s a story about the space race which says that the Americans spent millions on developing a pen which would work in a weightless environment, of which there is loads in space. The Russians, however, used a pencil.

At this point, we’re meant to chuckle at the decadent Yanks, but I bet their pen worked, while the Russian cosmonauts spent their time dodging clouds of graphite dust and wood shavings. And cursing their pencil sharpeners. And wondering what squirrel tastes like.

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