olli thomson

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On Safari

My left hand doesn’t work as well as it should, which is unfortunate as I’m left handed. It’s a long story involving a metal gate, a torn ligament, hundreds of hours of physiotherapy, more injections than I can recall and two surgeries, which I won’t go into. Suffice it to say that my hand is ‘good enough’ though subject to aches and pains. About a year ago I started working full time after a gap of almost fifteen years (another long story). Since the job involved a lot of writing, and therefore typing, and since I’m old school and prefer to do a lot of actual pen and paper writing, I was concerned about how my hand would hold up.

A chunky pen with a squishy grip might be a good investment, I thought. At which point my simple quest turned into an epic exploration of the internet universe of pens. It turns out the Japanese are very good at pens as a result, it seems, of complex character sets and an emphasis on handwriting and calligraphy. I ended up with a collection of smooth writing, fine-nibbed mostly gel pens from Pentel, Pilot, Uni-ball and Zebra. I added a bunch of Muji pens, because you can never have enough stuff from Muji, and rounded my collection off with a couple of ingenious mechanical pencils.

I never even considered fountain pens, having bad childhood memories of scratchy, leaky pens and assuming as a lefty that they were were a recipe for smudgy pages and ink stained hands. It turned out that one of my new colleagues was a fountain pen user and out of curiosity I asked if I could try his pen. I wrote some random sentences. The nib glided smoothly over the paper, the ink flowed evenly to the nib and there was not a smudge to be seen. The real revelation was the ease of writing. I thought my gel pens were great writers requiring very little pressure and needing only a light grip, important when trying to take the strain off the hand when writing for extended periods, but this fountain pen was in another league. And so, I plunged back into the pen universe and headed straight for the black hole of fountain pens.

Initially overwhelmed, I eventually ordered a cheery yellow Lamy Safari. Since then I’ve ordered two more, one in ‘blue macaron’ and the most recent in ‘violet’. Lamy introduced the Safari in 1980 and the striking design caused quite a stir. The pen was oringally aimed at 10 to 15 year old schoolkids and the designer, Wolfgang Fabian, worked with psychologists to develop the pen, a process that took five years. The ‘Safari’ name and the initial colours of ‘savannah green’ and ‘terracotta red’ were also shaped by the psychologists’ suggestion that children were interested in travel and faraway places.

The general idea was that if Lamy could get kids using their pens then those kids might stick with the brand as adults. In the event the strategy, despite – or possibly because of – the psychological advice, was a failure. The kids weren’t impressed, but it turned out that some adults were so Lamy asked Fabian to come up with some new colour schemes that would appeal to a more mature audience.

Fabian said that his approach to designing the Safari was driven by his own childhood experience of awkward grips and inky fingers. As a young designer with no presuppositions about how a fountain pen should look he was free to take a different approach to achieve his goal – a fountain pen that would sit comfortably in the hand. That approach resulted in the most distinctive feature of the pen, the three sided, recessed grip designed to teach young people the ‘correct’ way to hold a pen.

Fabian’s work has stood the test of time with the Safari still in production after 40 years and now one of the world’s best selling pens, popular with kids and adults, casual users and collectors. Fabian modestly rejects the idea that the Safari’s longevity is down to his design, noting that the pen has received plenty of criticism alongside the praise. Instead, he attributes it to Lamy’s willingness to persevere with the pen in the early years when it was a lot less popular than today, and the marketing department’s decision to produce an annual special edition, usually in a new colour with matching ink. The first of these appeared in 2004 and this has now become an annual event, with multiple themed releases in more recent years. So every year with the special edition the Safari gets a big marketing push and the pens become collectors’ items for the enthusiasts in pursuit of a complete set. Two of my pens are special editions with my ‘blue macaron’ from 2019s ‘pastel’ range and the ‘violet’ from 2020s ‘candy’ range. You can, of course, get it in black if you want.

The pen itself is made from ABS plastic, the same material Lego is made from and if you have every stepped on Lego in your bare feet you will know how tough that stuff is. The design, though it has its critics, is very distinctive. Put it in a tray alongside a dozen other fountain pens that only an expert could tell apart and even a complete fountain pen novice could pick it out. The triangular grip does seem to get some people worked up but even as a lefty, writing at sometimes very odd angles I have never had a problem with it. Like most Lamy’s the nib is easily changed for any of the wide selection of widths and styles available. If you wish you can even mount one of the company’s gold nibs. Since I write small all my nibs are ‘extra fine’.

Many fountain pens take standard international cartridges giving you a wide range of ink options from multiple producers. Lamy, though, is one of the makers using proprietary cartridges so you colour options are a little limited. Alternatively install a converter and you can explore the thousands of ink options available. Right now my yellow and blue macaron pens are using converters with iroshizuku syo-ro ink in the former and shikiori shigure in the latter. The violet, my most recent purchase, is still using the blue cartridge that came with it.

Over time Lamy has produced several variants of the Safari, including the AL-star in aluminium, the transparent Vista, and the slightly more upmarket Lx. At some point I might acquire an AL-star. There is nothing about the Safari I dislike, which is probably why I have three of them. They are also, as fountain pens go, very cheap, typically around $25 in the US and £20 in the UK. This means you can collect them without breaking the bank and if you do happen to leave one behind somewhere its going to be a little less painful than if you left your $1,000 Montblanc.

Enough from me but if you would like to read more Lamy’s beautifully designed website has lots more information and great product photographs, while Swedish based German blogger Michael Waltinger at Scrively has an insightful interview with Wolfgang Fabian (from which I have borrowed) which includes pictures of the earliest Safari’s and their themed packaging. If you do take a notion to buy a fountain pen please shop at an independent retailer and give Amazon a miss. I have bought from Goulet Pens, JetPens and Endless Pens and had great service from them all.

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