As I may have mentioned once or twice before, earlier this summer, I won a trip to New York with Virgin Atlantic’s vtravelled site. I wrote this piece for their blog.

In many ways, the cities of London and New York are very similar. They both have lots of buildings. The names of both cities contain letters. Men and women walk freely in the streets, occasionally crossing roads or getting the bus. There are shops.

And yet, the cities of London and New York are also very different. One (New York) is in the United States, the other (London) is in the United Kingdom. In London, people say “pavement” and “lift” and pluralise the word “math”. In New York, they say “Eh, I’m walkin’ ‘ere!” and “Are you talkin’ to me?” and “Later that night I got to thinking that maybe Miranda was mistaken”.

But, perhaps the clearest way to illustrate the many and varied differences between London and New York is by studying the souvenir pens on offer in the two cities.

As any connoisseur would know, there are essentially three main genres of souvenir pens, all of which deserve their own consideration, examination and celebration. At the most basic level, you have the “pictorial” pen. Beyond that you have the “floaty” pen. Finally, the most elaborate of all souvenir pens – the “sculptural” pen.

Pictorial pens represent souvenir pens at their most basic form. Essentially, they are nothing more than a pen with something (usually a picture) printed on the body.

Interestingly, the actual physical form of the “pictorial” pens available in both New York and London is identical, all that differs is the imagery printed on the pens themselves. This chosen imagery illustrates the different ways in which the two cities view themselves. New York souvenirism is very confident – it is aware of the city’s own iconic status and celebrates itself (pens dressed as yellow taxis, dollar bills, the Statue of Liberty, insanity workout etc). Where nostalgia is allowed to creep in, it is only in the most heroic of circumstances – the Twin Towers still thrust themselves into the skyline in the world of souvenir penship.

On the other hand, London souvenir pens desperately grab on to any idea of history in an attempt to justify their own existence, regardless of how valid that claim may or may not be. Consequently, one pen I bought in Bloomsbury celebrates “Historical London” on the lid, yet alongside images of St Paul’s, the Houses of Parliament and Tower Bridge the pen also includes pictures of the London Eye and the Gherkin (buildings which can’t be much older than the pen itself). One area in which London obviously trumps New York is with regard to royalty (I am in no way ignorant of global affairs but I genuinely struggle to think of the name of the King Of America). Even in this obviously anachronistic field, the souvenir shops of London specialise in a desperate kind of historicalism – the Queen Mother and Princess Diana dominate the scene.

Probably the most famous example of the floaty pen is that which in one orientation features a bikini clad lady, and as it is upturned reveals her full and exciting nakedness (“You know who would like these pens?” Homer Simpson once asked Apu. “Men”.)

Beyond allowing stationery-obsessed men a brief but exhilarating glimpse at female nudity, the floaty pen is also a way in which geographical realities can be represented in pen form.

Consequently, the visitor to New York can buy a pen which, as it is slowly upturned, recreates with astonishing accuracy that time when King Kong climbed up the Empire State Building by showing a small plastic gorilla slowly gliding up the side of a skyscraper. I was impressed by the historical accuracy of this pen, but hoped to see more up to date versions. Unfortunately, I was unable to find any pen, which when turned on its side, showed a small plastic plane slowly glide into the Twin Towers.

It would be unfair to suggest this illustrates any kind of particular squeamishness on the part of Americans. In just the same way, our own 9/11 – the death of Diana – has largely been overlooked by the manufacturers of floaty pens (as far as I am aware, you cannot get a pen in which a small plastic Mercedes crashes into the wall of a tunnel as it is turned on its side. Having said that, I haven’t been to Paris since before 1997, so who knows what is on offer).

The London floaty features a small plastic boat gliding along the Thames. Slowly. The reverse of the pen is labelled “Glorious Britain”, but I am not impressed. There seems very little which could be considered “glorious” about this pen.

In terms of spectacle, I would rather watch King Kong climbing up the Empire State Building than see a boat sail along the Thames (perhaps I am an unfair judge, I have seen boats on the Thames many times before. I have never seen a giant gorilla scale the Empire State Building).

The sculptural pen is defined by the inclusion of a local landmark or figure recreated in molded plastic perched on top of the pen. Ideally, it helps if the chosen landmark is quite linear in form so as to continue the line of the pen. For this reason, towers and statues are ideal. Beaches or lakes are not really suitable.

New York, of course, has the perfect sculptural pen icon in the form of the Statue of Liberty. It’s almost as if it had been DESIGNED to appear on the top of a souvenir pen (it wasn’t – the injection molding process used to produce the pens hadn’t been invented in 1886 when the statue was presented to America by the people of France). However, there is one flaw in the design of the Statue of Liberty which impacts on its suitability for this type of pen: the torch. When cheaply produced in plastic, the upraised arm can be fragile. In fact, I bought two Statue of Liberty pens during my trip. The flame of the torch snapped off one. The poor lady’s hand snapped off the other.

London doesn’t really have anything like the Statue of Liberty which sits as well on the top of a pen. There’s Big Ben of course, but that looks a bit odd separated from the Houses of Parliament. Nelson’s Column isn’t iconic enough. The London Eye is too round. Tower Bridge is too wide. The Angus Steakhouse on Shaftesbury Avenue apparently isn’t important enough to justify a pen.

Instead, London is forced to rely on its more mundane features for sculptural pens – red telephone boxes (the sort which don’t really exist anymore) and policeman’s helmets. It is a sad state of affairs when, as a country, the best thing we have to celebrate in pen form is a phone box and a tall hat.

Using simple mental arithmetic (or, if you must, a calculator), we can see that London scores a very disappointing four out of fifteen. This is particularly poor when compared to New York, which scored an impressive eleven out of fifteen. New York is almost three times better at souvenir stationery than London. Our national pride is at stake here. Come on, Gordon Brown, do something about it – you’re the prime minister, it’s your job.


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