What no Parker?! – I know readers were expecting me to cover the pen that moved me on from that one manufacturer and kindled the start of my collecting, however as previously mentioned I had bought a Lamy as a second pen to use with red ink a few years before (and strictly speaking I had previously owned some cheap Reynolds pens bought from hypermarkets in France).
Now I am going to avoid the age old religious war, Safari v Al-Star (alas poor Vista left on the side lines). Needless to say I own both. For those who are not aware, the Safari came first and has a near indestructible polycarbonate body, and has a rubber o-ring fixed to the top of the threads on the grip section. The Al-Star is made of aluminium (aside from the grip section) and the o-ring is attached to the body. The net result is while the nibs can be switched between the two, the sections can not. Oh and on the Safari the section is a solid colour, the same as the body and cap, where as on the Al-Star it is a smoked clear polycarbonate unit.
While I do have spare Lamy converters, for this piece I have put a stock blue cartridge into the pen, after all virtually all Lamy pens come with this ubiquitous cart. Thinking back I can not remember if I bought a pack of red cartridges as I bought a bottle of Caran d’Ache Sunset at the same time, though this was for use with an existing Parker.
My purchase was an accident. I had wandered down from the Aldgate area of London, near Brick Lane and Petty Coat Lane (on Sundays, else it is Middlesex Street), to Leadenhall Market, which is by the London Stock Exchange and near The Bank of England. I was looking for red or burgundy ink, ideally in a bottle and knew there was a pen shop there, coincidentally a branch of The Pen Shop (now closed alas). This was back in the day when TPS employed fans and knowledgeable people. I had already been shown ink swabs for each red ink on sale at the store and had decided on my choice, with the clearance discount on the Cd’A being a decider. The salesman spotted me looking at the lines of expensive pens. You must bare in mind this store was in the centre of the ‘City’ and many of the customers and people passing by where the classical bankers who worked hard, played hard, drank hard, and spent money hard. I explained I was just window shopping though I was considering another pen at some point when I was promptly instructed to ignore the expensive stuff and instead look at a carousel hosting some real cheap items. Two similar types of pen in a multitude of colours. Some plastic, some metal. These were Lamy Safari and Al-Star. At the time I think they were just £8 and £12 each respectively (~$12/$18 with the exchange rate back then). His view was if I bought one and regretted it then there was little financial loss, after all in that area it was less than the cost of two pints of beer even back in 2006/7.
It feels a little odd, for while there is no need for me to describe the pen, after all virtually anyone who is involved with fountain pens will know what this seminal writer looks like, it is still worth remembering when it was launched back in 1980 the Lamy Safari was revolutionary. A cheap, very strong pen, obviously aimed at kids and students, with a grip that forced the user to hold it by the ‘correct’ traditional tripod grip, and which also had a pair of windows in the barrel to allow the ink level to be seen without disassembly.
Confession time. While I have bought a few limited edition Safari and Al-Star pens since, I’ve not actually used one in over a decade. Holding the pen has always been a marmite experience, and as I use a classical tripod grip, It works for me, unlike the taste of that yeast extract muck. Sure it now feels a little on the thin side for me, but with using this pen recently I’ve found it a comfortable and pleasurable experience. Will I carry on using it? Once the installed cartridge has been finished or run dry, probably not. I just have too many other pens which are nicer, and for tripod grips, the OMAS 360 Vintage is quite possibly my favourite pen for the actual writing experience.
The nib is wetter than I expected (as Lamy steel nibs tend to be slightly dry) but no so much as you’re going to be risking smudging your work. It is smooth with a hint of feedback, and all the flexibility as an overzealous tax inspector.
I’m not sure why I stopped using this pen, as I do remember carrying on being frustrated with my Parkers when I changed jobs again in 2011. Certainly after the purchase of my TWSBI Diamond 580, Waterman Carène and Pelikan M200 Cafe Creme the Al-Star ended up in a drawer and only those three pens were taken to work as my daily carry.
Coming back to the Al-Star after such a long gap would I recommend this pen? Certainly, I still think it is one of the best starter pens out there. Sure it is becoming a crowded market. The Pelikan Pelikano is a straight rival, there are a few low cost pens from Faber-Castell. The Pilot MR/Metropolitan and Platinum Preppy/Plaisir/Procyon/Prefounte are often also touted as direct rivals from Japan. Additionally for not much more money you can get a TWISBI Eco, the difference being less so if you add the cost of a converter to the Lamy. When it comes down to it, the low cost Lamy pens are reliable solid writers which can take a lot of abuse and I have previously recommended it’s even tougher variant, the ABC to friends who’ve wanted a first fountain pen foe young kids.
As I normally use a Lamy Safari/Al-Star for a sizing comparison, this time instead I’m showing it alongside a number of it’s rivals. From left to right – Jinhao 599 (blatant clone), Kaweco Sport, Lamy Al-Star, Pelikan Pelikano, Faber Castell WritINK, TWSBI ECO.