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Wild boar, talk of war and a reawakened interest in pencils

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One evening many years ago I had dinner with Count Faber-Castell, the pencil magnate, at his hunting lodge outside Nuremberg in Bavaria. In a pot on my desk I still have the brushed aluminium ballpoint pen engraved with my name that was given me to mark the occasion. It was part of a lavish soft sell of Faber-Castell pencils and drawing pens; boxed presentation sets of the latter - the then new model TG1 - were showered upon me also.

To the best of my recollection there were half a dozen people at that dinner, with a preponderance of those charming Curt Jurgens-type Germans who were such an ornament to what was then West Germany. They were circumspect men of a certain age, but well able to take a lively professional interest in the progress of the Falklands War, which was raging in the South Atlantic at the time.

So much did this accord with my own interest that it seems to me now that talk of the war must have entirely dominated the dinner table that night, except when the distraction offered by fine wine, a large helping of truffles, and a thick rasher of wild boar had me slavering in ecstasies of gustatory lust.

During these moments my genial host did occasionally try to turn the conversation round to pencils but the task was impossible and he always gave in with good grace.

In those days drinking was encouraged, smoking was universal and only maniacs said they were vegetarians. This was a good thing, because by the time we got to brandy and cigars I distinctly remember urging the Germans to have one final shot at conquering the world; but after that I remember nothing else until I woke up in a room in the Hotel Steichele in Nuremberg.

In the morning things were very different. The Count had left early and two of his minions took me on a lengthy visit to the Nuremberg Faber-Castell factory, followed by a quick snack before spiriting me to the airport and back to England where my interest in pencils dwindled to nothing for 20 years.

It rose again by chance just recently when I was served a newspaper in an American hotel and found in it a feature on pencils written by someone else who had been to dinner with Count FaberCastell.

Fascinated, I read it from beginning to end and the years slipped away. Everything was there. The truffles and wild boar, the Curt Jurgens Germans, the monogrammed pen, the gift set - this time of a Grip 2001 pencil - and the trip round the Nuremberg factory.

Even a war must almost have been there, in the shape of the brewing Iraq crisis. But better still, there was a brief biography of the Count - once an investment banker, he had reluctantly taken over the family pencil business in 1978, a time when everyone was convinced the pencil was heading for the dustbin of history. How wrong they were! Last year the Count's 15 factories all over the world turned out 1.8 billion pencils, including 99 presentation sets of diamond-studded, gold-plated, limited-edition cedarwood pencils that sold out at more than £6,000.

Oddly enough, despite the inroads paperlessness has made into industry, commerce and modern life, the last time the company made a loss was in the 1970s, when the pocket calculator was blamed as being the culprit. Now the PC, with world sales of 140 million, trails behind the humble pencil's billions of units, and clubs of pencil enthusiasts compete to track down discontinued models.

The ecology movement helped save the wooden pencil, Count Faber-Castell is quoted as saying.Wild boar played a part, I should say.

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