What speaks to us, seemingly, is always the big event … Railway trains only begin to exist when they are derailed, and the more passengers that are killed, the more the trains exist. Aeroplanes achieve existence only when they are hijacked. The one and only destiny of motor-cars is to drive into plane trees. Behind the event there has to be a scandal, a fissure, a danger, as if life reveals itself only by way of the spectacular, as if what speaks, what is significant, is always abnormal.
Georges Perec, L’Infra-ordinaire (1989)
Sometimes when I’m in a quiet, stagnant space — like in front of a Powerpoint presentation, or inside somebody’s armpit on a crowded Tube — I think of what the philosopher and essayist Walter Benjamin said about boredom: ‘Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience.’ I then imagine the Roly-Poly Bird in Roald Dahl’s The Enormous Crocodile flying through the window and blustering around the room, confounding everyone. This probably isn’t what Benjamin wanted me to imagine. But the interrupting bird alleviates my boredom temporarily. I think Walter Benjamin would be pleased, though, to hear about the Boring Conference — a one-day event in London dedicated to ‘the boring and mundane, the obvious and the overlooked.’ The Boring Conference is a nesting place for dream birds.
As the conference approached that November, my apprehension grew. I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend a day in a gymnasium in Bethnal Green listening to people give PowerPoint presentations about vending machines and Greggs sandwiches. Mostly, I was worried about being in a large group of people who would go to something called the Boring Conference, ie. people like me. I wanted to experience it, but I was afraid to actively engage with it. Like poetry readings.
People were already queuing at the entrance of York Hall in East London when my friend Ivan and I arrived on a cold Saturday morning. A scan of the crowd revealed a majority of unshaven, cheerful-looking, text-happy 20-30-year-old Londoners. These were presumably some of the people who’d been talking about the event on Twitter for the last month or so, whom I’d been quietly following. The event had generated most of its publicity via Twitter, with tweets such as ‘Some supplies for Boring have arrived’ (with a photo of cardboard boxes) and ‘Do you like sitting down and listening to words being said by people?’
I liked the idea of exploring the concept of boring because I was increasingly aware that, compared to other people my age, I was more boring than I’d ever thought possible. It had been brewing for years, but it had got much worse since moving to London. It was as if the energy and diversity of the city caused the opposite reaction in me, a sudden fierce attachment to the domestic and comfortable. I lived in a small flat in Brixton next to a main road. I cycled to work and cycled home again. I burrowed into my books and my computer. I avoided crowds.
Inside York Hall, a projection screen flashed the words ‘THIS … IS … BORING’ in front of action scenes of stationery — pens, pencils, notepads — passing through a series of conveyer belts. Ambient music was soughing. ‘It kind of looks like Semi-Permanent,’ observed Ivan, who is a graphic designer. Semi-Permanent is a big annual design conference where famous designers talk about things.
The Boring Conference was in its second year running. In 2010, someone relatively unknown named James Ward had jokingly suggested the event — on Twitter, of course — as an antidote to a planned Interesting Conference, which had been cancelled that year due to lack of interest. The joke was taken seriously; people were enthusiastic, and Ward had found himself organising a one-day event dedicated to the dull. Two dozen speakers had ten minutes in which to discuss any outwardly boring subject of their choosing. Talks had ranged from ‘The Intangible Beauty of Car Park Roofs’ and ‘Personal Reflections on the English Breakfast’ to tie collections (with accompanying PowerPoint presentation) and bus routes. There was also a three-year sneeze count with graphs and charts; an apparent highlight of the talk was when the presenter reported that he had once sneezed while recording another sneeze. Over 400 people attended the Boring Conference 2010. The Wall Street Journal wrote about it. This success helped the event to secure a commercial sponsor for 2011: Hi-Cone, the packaging company that makes those plastic ring-shaped things that hold cans of drink together. (Corporate slogan: ‘We are all around’.)
Not long after Ivan and I took our seats in the hall, two guys with a microphone and a camera came over and started interviewing a group of people in the row in front of us. ‘How would you gauge the level of excitement here?’ I tried to hear the responses, but the room had reached an uncomfortable level of buzz.
In the planning stages of the conference, someone on Twitter had accused James Ward of hipsterism. They said that his conference sounded ‘a bit Nathan Barley’. (Nathan Barley is the eponymous character of a TV series written by Charlie Brooker, who describes the character as a ‘meaningless, strutting, cadaver-in-waiting.’) ‘It’s not a hipster thing,’ Ward had responded. ‘I’m not really sure what hipsters are, but I don’t think they’d like it.’
I must admit that I had also wondered if the Boring Conference might qualify as a hipster thing — whatever that was — like it might be socially exclusive and self-consciously strange. Would it be like a model trains convention — compelling at first but gradually upsetting? And were people really interested in what boring was — or what I knew it well to be, with my early nights, meals on repeat, and enthusiasm for buying dishwashing liquid — or were they more interested in deviance from the mainstream?
Ward was the first person to appear on the stage. He was a thinnish guy with a floppy fringe, wearing a grey suit and a skinny tie, a bit like a banker from the 70s. In the Wall Street Journal article there was a detailed line-drawing of his face, and to me this immortalised him in some way. ‘Welcome to the Boring Conference,’ he said. ‘We’re here to look at the things that are so familiar to us that they become invisible. The point of this conference is to make them visible again.’ He launched into his own presentation, about the first ten years of the British consumer magazine Which?, founded in 1957 to test the safety of products, because ‘in the 1950s you could buy a kettle that could kill you.’ Ward showed us slides of kettles and pages from the old magazine. Some of the covers, illustrators unknown, were beautiful: they had plain typography, bold colours, and black-and-white images. ‘I’d like to frame some of these,’ Ward said, ‘but it seems like an act of vandalism.’
A strange thing began to happen. I was finding James Ward attractive. This was distracting. Was it because he was talking with such enthusiasm about such an apparently dull subject? Was it the absence of cynicism? I suppose, more than anything, I envied his passion for Which? magazine.
I was relieved when the second speaker arrived: a composer named Tim Steiner — an earnest, friend’s-dad-like figure. In a methodical manner, he described numerous hand dryer models, from the Mitsubishi Jet Towel to the Dolphin. But it was the Dyson Air Blade hand dryer that was ‘the jewel in the crown of the hand hygiene market’ — this is the dryer that strips water off your hands like gloves. He had installed one in his home. I glanced at Ivan. Sure enough, he looked a bit bored.
The Boring Conference was partly inspired by Georges Perec, a French novelist whose posthumous collection of esaays L’Infra-ordinaire (The Infra-ordinary, 1989) was particularly relevant. In his work1, as he stated in the essay ‘Approaches to What?’, he aimed to ‘take account of, question, describe what happens every day and recurs everyday: the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, the background noise, the habitual’. Perec had been a member of the still-existing Oulipo group, a spiritual precursor of the creative writing workshop. Oulipo’s central tenet is ‘potentiality’ through the use of literary constraints, with the aim of creating worlds within very close walls. Some of his ideas might have been taken from the whiteboard of an undergraduate Short Fiction workshop.
Describe your street. Describe another street. Compare.
Make an inventory of your pockets, of your bag. Ask yourself about the provenance, the use, what will become of each of the objects you take out.
Question your tea spoons.
What is there under your wallpaper?
True Oulipians are fierce and fanatical. One well-known Oulipian construct is the lipogram, a work that excludes one or more letters, usually one of the good ones like E or A. The former British MP Gyles Brandreth wrote some of Shakespeare’s works as lipograms: Othello without the O, Hamlet without the I (‘To be or not to be, that’s the query’). Another constraint is to omit particular words, as does a French novel by Michel Thaler, Le Train de Nulle Part (The Train from Nowhere, 2004), which has no verbs: ‘The verb is like a weed in a field of flowers.’2 I would argue that a verbless novel is like seedless jam. What is the point? It’s a construct that I can admire, in the way I can admire those portraits made out of toast, and at the same time have absolutely no interest in trying for myself.
A bear-like folk musician named Chris T. T. gave an intense presentation, with slides, about his favourite toilets from 2010 and 2011. Since January 2010 he had taken photos of loos he’d been in and posted them to Twitter. The toilets ranged from those in heavy metal pubs — ‘What I particularly like about this one is how neatly the loo rolls are stacked up on the wall. It’s quite nice’ — to the mismatched seats and covers of loos in cafes. ‘The thing I hate most about loos is when they don’t match. It actually makes you feel sick.’ Chris T. T. was strangely childlike. His intense interest in loos made him seem vulnerable. But he was so unconcerned, so sweet, that it would have been deeply wrong to attack him for such a thing.
People seemed to be enjoying the presentations. There was smiling and nodding. It felt like a good-hearted audience, an audience that wanted the event to succeed. The comedian Matthew Crosby gave an immaculate PowerPoint presentation on eating at Nando’s. Someone else had written down everything he’d eaten and drunk in one year (in homage to Georges Perec himself, who’d kept an inventory of his alimentary intake in 1974). A dentist talked about the square root of two. A sonic artist gave a talk called ‘Vending Machines of the British Isles’; the audience sat in silence as the sounds of a Coca Cola machine, a Mini Cheddars vendor, and a vitamin water dispenser washed through the hall.
So far, the Boring Conference was simply people talking about things they loved; it just happened that their interests weren’t deemed sufficiently interesting for the world at large to share. And their interests weren’t motivated by any particular benefit to society or any desire to belong to a community. It was a form of Outsider Art. I felt that the presentations were giving a quiet permission: it’s fine to record the sounds of vending machines, it’s okay to take photos of loos. For too long we have discriminated against people for their interests. Where is the line, though, between an amusing interest and one that is a sign of genuine eccentricity? (I am thinking of my Great Uncle James who also carried a tape recorder with him, with which he’d make impromptu field recordings — just like the sonic artist. But in other ways he crossed a line. He would wear a large, bulbous motorcycle helmet in the movies. He would pick up ‘condemned meat’ from the abattoir. Once, he just abandoned his car after it seized up — he’d forgotten to put any oil in it — in the middle of Auckland’s Queen Street, causing chaos.)
There was another subtle thread running through these presentations, and I realised what it was when the writer and ‘community skeptic’ Leila Johnston took to the stage. She talked about the locations in About a Boy — a film, as she described it, about ‘being bored in London’. Her talk was astonishing in its detail. She hadn’t actually looked up the film locations. She’d memorised the film and traipsed around London with her camera, finding them for herself. She photographed each location to match, as precisely as possible, a screen shot from the film. Her talk was brisk, wobbly-voiced, with nervous laughter, but it was matter-of-fact: there was no concession to oddness, no self-deprecation. All of the speakers shared this unapologetic approach. It was that which was unusual. It drew attention to how much we’ve come to expect people to laugh at, or make apologies for, or claim to pity themselves.
Not all of the talks were crowd pleasers. A talk called ‘Budgens: The Re-organisation of a Supermarket’, given by a quiet-voiced doctor, was lecture-like, and, touchingly, quite boring. People really did shift audibly in their seats. But for this reason, I felt determined to find the talk interesting, to listen as carefully as possible to generate curiosity. Of all the talks, this was the one that got the closest to the essence of boredom, I think — it made us slightly uncomfortable, it asked us to look at things we barely knew how to see: the marks on the floor where shelves used to be, survey transcripts from customers angry that they could no longer find the curry sauce or the falafel.
But then: a talk about cynicism by the writer Mark Stevenson turned into a venomous rant with grandiose arm-waving — at one point he challenged anyone who disagreed with him to ‘go and fucking kill yourself, seriously, fucking kill yourself’. Everything about it was staggeringly off-key, and when I checked Twitter I noticed that — apart from the unusual sight of ‘Boring’ trending in London — many audience members were tweeting their bewilderment: ‘WHY IS THE ANGRY MAN ANGRY?’
It’s a strange thing to be part of a disgruntled audience. You can feel its collective effort, its struggle to understand and to appreciate. The audience wanted the angry man to become a good, wise man. It was trying so hard: its brows were furrowing, there were furtive lookings-around in the hope that someone else was getting it. Eventually you could feel people sinking into their seats. It was too hard. Having razed the audience’s hopes and dreams, Angry Man left the stage. I felt sorry for him. Soon, he would realise what he had done.
There was only one talk that made me feel truly melancholy. The documentary maker Jon Ronson spoke as if talking to a cat in his kitchen rather than on a stage in front of 400 people, and he told the story of Stanley Kubrick’s boxes. Kubrick died in 1999, and his widow invited Ronson to help sort through the cardboard boxes the great director had kept at his mansion near St. Albans. There were over a thousand of them. Inside were photographs of doorways and entrances, which Kubrick had taken to help him choose locations for his films, including his last, Eyes Wide Shut. There were audition tapes for Full Metal Jacket and photographs of hats for A Clockwork Orange. One box contained a stitched-together panorama of the lengthy Commercial Road in East London, photographed by Kubrick’s nephew from the top of a 12-foot ladder that he slowly, painfully, shifted along the entire length of the road. (I have cycled along that road and can confirm that it is very long.) ‘Well,’ Kubrick reportedly said, when presented with the 6-metre-long panorama, ‘it sure beats being there, doesn’t it?’ Then he announced that the relevant scene would be filmed on set.
Ronson made me think of my Granddad’s shed in Oamaru, which was cleared out after his death in 2008. It had been jammed with wooden crates and trunks, containing clothes and toys from his mother’s home, wartime logbooks, endless tools. Other things were stashed there, like prams, car parts, a propeller from a crashed Tiger Moth, posters of motorbikes. I don’t think these things revealed ‘the rhythms of genius’ that — as Ronson argued — Stanley Kubrick’s meticulously ordered boxes revealed about him. But perhaps the objects could have given more insight into the way a mind worked, if we had looked more closely and had not dreaded the process.
After the conference I caught the tube home to Brixton. I noticed my absolute dearth of anything interesting to say about my Tube experience. A bag trapped in a door. A girl staring at her phone. A man with colourless hair. I felt a flash of irritation at my own boring-ness. My brand of boring was not the kind that could be entertainingly rendered on slides and in soundbites; it was the kind that had undertones of slight panic at the slipping away of time. It was the kind that hissed, ‘What are you doing? What are you doing with your life?’
I guess we’ve all fantasised that one day, when we’re dead, someone will come across the detritus of our everyday lives — our correspondences, receipts, lists — and find it genuinely remarkable. But I think the Boring Conference gently prodded its audience to abandon that fantasy, to realise that much of our lived experience is already remarkable. It asked us to look fearlessly at what has become invisible to us, without fearing that we’ll realise that our lives are small. ‘Boring’ is a label, like ‘hipster’, that attempts to smother those experiences we don’t want to engage with. And it could be argued that we do not need to make ‘boring’ interesting; that in fact boredom is a primal response to situations that won’t make our lives any better. It steers us towards a richer life. But when I got home I caught myself, about to make a cup of tea, looking into the cutlery drawer, questioning my teaspoons. They belonged to a man who lived in Sweden. Later I made an inventory of my pockets. Keys, a pen, a twisted tissue, a receipt from the Ironmonger shop, several 2p coins, a euro, crumbs, lint. It was interesting.
1 Some Perec essay titles: ‘I Was Born’, ‘On the Difficulty of Imagining an Ideal City’, ‘Twelve Sidelong Glances’, ‘The Gnocchi of Autumn’, ‘Placid Small Thought no. 1’, ‘Placid Small Thought no. 2’.
2 In 2004 the author carried out a burying-the-verb ceremony at Sorbonne University, Paris. About 300 guests attended in mourning dress. (This reminds me of a ritual my grandfather once had my brother and I carry out: fed up with our halting speech, he wrote ‘um’ on a piece of paper and led us to the garden, where we buried it together: a well-intentioned, but ultimately futile, gesture.)