When only a Derwent will do

Words can be both powerful and evocative.

Simply uttering these two words, Derwent pencils, to women of a certain age, is to unleash an avalanche of memories, threatening to bury even the most ardent of listeners. Mostly, the responses will come from baby boomers, but the pencils’ appeal has trickled down through the ages to infect even the millennials. The memories will be sharp, sometimes full of warmth and often as not also full of envy and viciousness directed at a well-remembered school friend.

What, you may ask, is so special about this brand of pencil? Back in the day, Derwents were expensive – the Rolls-Royce of pencils. And in an era of general hardship and lack of material things, they were seen as the height of luxury for girls in the classroom. They came in sets of 12, 24, 36 and even 72, either in a tin box with an idyllic picture of the Cumbrian landscape – verdant trees and bushes growing along a silver and blue winding river – or in a heavy cardboard arrangement that opened in a concertina fashion to display the wares. There was an array of colours to satisfy any budding artist – Russian Blue and Chinese White come to mind. Their texture was smooth, they rarely broke off as you sharpened them and somehow, whoever used them, produced splendid works of art, making the rest of the class’s attempts look feeble and childish.

There was a ritual attached to these pencils and their owner. The girl would usually, with a great flourish, pull her box out from her desk and display it for all to see. Every pencil would be in its correct spot and neatly sharpened. They had been looked after with loving care and rarely shared. Grovelling was the norm, and to be allowed to use one of these pencils was to feel as though you were offered the Holy Grail. Favours had to be exchanged, sweets and treats promised or provided in this hierarchy of early social currency. As often as not, we would be rebuked, told bluntly and forcibly that we could not share in their bounty. But we still coveted them.

The majority of us, who had neither excess treats nor valuable friendships, had to make do with Coles or Lakeland pencils, their colours faded and lacklustre in comparison. We became fully aware that our artistic endeavours would be second rate and lacking in a gold star.

Many girls would beg at home for these pencils to be a birthday or Christmas present, often to be left disappointed when they didn’t materialise. Others finally got their wish after years of nagging.

Even today I have met women, who as fully grown adults, have gone out and purchased their own set of Derwents. Some have never used them; they remain sitting in the cupboard as pristine as the day they were bought. They are treasures and talismans, reminders of a long-ago youth, of a time when envy reared its ugly head in the classroom and we began to know our place in the social pecking order.   

As to what was the equivalent for boys, I do not know. Meccano? A real leather football?

Did you covet Derwent pencils? What else was at the top of your Christmas wish list when you were a kid?

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Written by Dianne Motton

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