Writers of Note – An Irishman’s Diary on the romance of pocket notebooks

In a bookshop some years ago, on a whim, I bought one of those expensive pocket notebooks that tend to be strategically placed at the counter to tempt you.

It was a lovely thing in its own right: handsomely bound, with high-quality paper, and a stitched-in page-marker. But of course it also came with the promise of a better life. I imagined myself henceforth bringing it with me everywhere, and using it to record the countless interesting sights and thoughts I was almost guaranteed to have.

In practice, alas, I never did acquire the habit of carrying it around. On journalistic assignments, now as then, I still use boring shorthand notebooks instead, or the backs of press releases.

Elsewhere, I have come to depend on something that really does accompany me everywhere these days, a smartphone. If I see or read something interesting, I take a picture of it. On the tragically rare occasions when an inspiring thought crosses my mind, I send myself a text.

The handsome notebook comes with me only on holidays. In between such events, it resides mainly in the suitcase, alongside the travel adapter and other things you don’t need in real life. Embarrassingly, almost a decade later, it’s still nowhere near full.

I see that Moleskine, the company that helped make these old-world notebooks fashionable again, is turning 20 this year. And if it hasn't optimised its potential earnings from me, that clearly hasn't held it back. Millions of people buy the notebooks every year, and a surprising number fill them, although merely collecting different editions is popular too.

The company owes its name, and some of its mythology, to the late Bruce Chatwin, a travel writer who really did use such notebooks all the time.

In his 1986 book Songlines, he paid a passing (in more ways than one) tribute to his regular supplier, a family-owned company from the city of Tours.

For reasons now obscure, their notebooks were called “moleskine”. Or at least that’s what Chatwin’s stationery shop in Paris called them.

But one day, Chatwin dropped into the shop on the rue de l'Ancienne-Comédie to be told that the Tours company had gone out of business: "Le vrai Moleskine n'est plus". So, before leaving for Australia, he bought as many of the notebooks as he still could. And his mention of their extinction in Songlines eventually inspired an Italian publisher to reinvent the brand.

The late 1990s should have been very bad timing for a new three-dimensional product based on paper. But au contraire; 20 years later, the notebooks thrive as if the digital revolution never happened.

They’re like those old Japanese soldiers holding out in the jungle, decades after the war, except that vinyl records are still out there too, and a surprising number of hard-copy newspapers and magazines. Maybe if they all join forces, the enemy may yet be repelled.

In the meantime, even my underused notebook has had moments when it came into its own. Several were in Paris, naturally. And one of the finer ones happened just around the corner from the rue de l'Ancienne-Comédie.

Chatwin's stationery shop aside, the area is also home to many restaurants. And it was thanks to one of these that, out for a stroll one evening, I witnessed a comédie both ancienne and moderne.

It started with a man running past me at high speed, pursued by a waiter, apron flapping. I guessed it was an attempted “dine-and-dash”.

But then a third man came sprinting along, apparently pursuing the second, until he too proved to be fleeing, in this case from a fourth man who, like the second, was wearing an apron.

How the two diners and their pursuing waiters had arranged themselves in this order was not clear.

Nor, it seemed, had it yet occurred to the second waiter that, by turning, he could make a sandwich of the third man, and force him to pick up both tabs.

Failing which, it looked like the diners would escape. And I guessed they had until, circumnavigating the block, I arrived back at the original crime scene, to see a police car pulled in and to be told by excited customers that the waiters had got their men, who were now being interviewed inside.

Chatwin would have made a whole chapter out of this. In his absence, I stopped in another cafe nearby and ordered a glass of something.

Then I fetched the handsome notebook out of my bag and, with all due solemnity, recorded the event.