Five years ago, author and blogger James Ward started a conference in London that celebrates the things in life that are often overlooked. Speakers talk about things like the sounds a vending machine makes and text panels in museums. Year after year, it’s a sell-out. It’s called the Boring Conference. James Ward says the conference started by accident when an “Interesting Conference” in London failed to get off the ground.
“It seemed like the obvious thing to do is to hold a boring conference” Ward says, “I Tweeted about that half as a joke and people started replying saying that sounds good, I would like to go to that. It became this reality that has haunted me for the last five years."
Ward writes a blog called I Like Boring Things. He believes topics often considered trivial or pointless can actually be fascinating. His secret boring passion is stationery. He's written a book about it called The Perfection of the Paper Clip: Curious Tales of Invention, Accidental Genius, and Stationery Obsession. It’s that kind of obsession that can lead to a speaking engagement at the Boring Conference.
Each speaker at the Boring Conference is given about 10 minutes to discuss a topic and there are about 20 speakers at each conference. This year topics ranged from camping out on slip-road roundabouts to mountweazels, which are fictitious entries added to dictionaries and encyclopedias to trap anyone who tries to borrow the information.
“I always say the theme is boring but the content shouldn’t be. So hopefully people who come on the day aren’t actually bored. They should be interested by what people are talking about. The whole point is to show that nothing is actually really boring. However unpromising those topics might be, anything can be interesting."
Over the last five years Ward says there is one Boring with a capital “B” talk that stands out for him. It is the presentation given by Peter Fletcher who counts his sneezes.
“Every time for the last 7 years he’s written down in a notebook every sneeze, the time ,date where he was, what he was doing and a measure of strength." Ward says Fletcher has a theory that in our lives we all have a certain number of sneezes but you don’t know what that number is. “All you know is that each time you sneeze you are one step closer to that number. It’s such a beautiful idea and also completely stupid."
The idea that any and everything can be interesting is one that Ward has embraced since he was a child. “As I was growing up I was influenced by this French writer called George Perec, who wrote about this concept of the “infra-ordinary, which is the opposite of the extraordinary, the little things we take for granted every day." Ward makes a point not to overlook the little things in life.
One thing James Ward does not overlook is stationery. He says he is not alone in his obsession with paper and pencils, but some people are just too embarrassed to admit it. He thinks stationery appeals to people on a number of levels.
“One of them is a nostalgic element because it reminds you of when you went to school with all the new school gear; starting the year fresh with a new pencil case and life seemed less complicated and less terrifying." When Ward goes into a stationery shop or office supply store, he doesn’t just see pens and paper. He sees something else. “All of those items have this magical potential to change your life. There might be the notebook you’re finally going to write that novel you’ve always wanted to write or files and folders that mean you’ll finally get organized or the highlighters and post-it notes that mean you’re going to pass that exam” Ward says. And the act of buying the office supplies, Ward insists, puts you on the path to actually achieving goals.
Office supplies have even been used as a symbol of resistance. During the Second World War, Norwegians wore paper clips on their lapels. “It was intended as this subtle sign of resistance against the Nazi occupation” Ward says. “And it’s a symbol that we are all bound together. It was also easy to deny if a Nazi guard came up to you and asked why have you got this paper clip on your lapel, you can be like I was just doing some paperwork." Not so boring after all.
The threshold for what is considered boring is changing according to Ward. “Our attention spans seem to be decreasing. I remember growing up as a child and school summer holidays were a sort of six-week stretch of nothingness. Whereas now, kids and even adults, they demand constant stimulus. I find it quite horrific that even in the toilets people are using mobile phones while they’re on the toilet and there so unable to even have a 2 or 3 minute respite from constant updates and stimulus even in those quite moments” Ward laments.
He has his own collection of office supplies and says while no one is going to pay to see them, he enjoys them and that is enough.