Home life · Notes from West London


You know how to use a pencil. Most of the pencils that you have encountered were probably HB. They are most common type. You probably also know that the H and B indicate, respectively Hard and Black. 4H indicates a much harder drawing implement than HB (and it’s lighter in shade), and 4B is much softer and darker. Last month my daughter asked if we had any 2B pencils. She needed one for school. We do. 2B has been my pencil of choice for many years, since reading that it was also the preferred lyric-writing accessory for people like Mick Jagger and David Bowie. The words to “Gimme Shelter” and “Heroes” were first scribbled on yellow legal pads with 2B pencils.

When I first went looking for 2B rather than HB at our local branch of a well-known chain of stationery stores I found that the clusters of individual Staedtlers that they stock were not separated out as they should have been. There were placeholders for 2B, 3B, 4B and so on, and for 2H, 3H and the rest, but there was no order to them. It was as if someone had tipped the entire range, every combination of hardness and blackness, into a big pile on the floor and then inserted bundles of them at random into the helpfully-labelled placeholders. I went through five or more of these containers to find a couple of 2B pencils. I wanted more but had taken long enough to find these two. Every now and then in the intervening years I have repeated this process, sorting through incorrectly labelled bundles of everything from 6B to 6H to find what I was looking for. I have yet to encounter correctly sorted bundles of pencils in any stationers.

Having given my daughter two of my remaining 2Bs (not including the ones that have been used and sharpened down to the size of a bookie’s pencil) I tried to buy a few more. I visited the two nearest branches of the well-known stationers. As in previous years there were placeholders with scores of pencils ranging from 6B to 6H, arranged in no particular order. In the Hammersmith branch I went through every single one of them and discovered that they were out of 2Bs. A very helpful assistant went downstairs to see if she could find any. Nothing. I bought a few extra beginning-of-term items (discounted multi-packs of Pritt, highlighters, a 12” ruler), having spent at least five minutes trying to locate a 2B or two.

I tried the Chiswick branch and went through their stock of pencils, every single one of them, and again found that they were out of 2Bs. I felt rather self-conscious, and left without buying anything. I recalled two of the characters in “Clerks”, Kevin Smith’s classic indie film of the mid-1990s. There was the chap arranging all the milk cartons in some unexplained order, and another guy looking through all the egg-boxes, taking out and examining each egg. I was doing something similar with the pencils, examining them all in search of the required combination. Maybe I’ve been marked down in these local stores as “Weird Pencil Guy”, someone who sorts through their entire stock every now and then, and leaves without buying anything. It’s enough to make me shop online. I see that a 12-pack of 2B pencils is available for £5.99 and can be delivered for free collection at a local branch. I’ll replenish my stock of 2Bs that way. That should stop my “Weird Pencil Guy” antics for a year or two.



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