So, it happened.
I won’t say much about my own talk (“Clement Freud Goes Through Customs: The First Ten Years
Of Which Magazine”) except that I messed up the introduction, forgot to mention the fact I’d brought with me a copy of the first issue of Which? Magazine (actually a reprint from 1958 rather than a 1957 original) and missed the final slide, so the punchline was even weaker than it would have been otherwise.
Anyway, here are the other people who spoke, with links to where to find them. I am extremely grateful to them all for making it the day that it was.
A while ago, Rhodri said to me “Oh, I’ve got this friend who loves hand dryers. He’s got a Dyson Airblade installed in his house. Do you want him to talk at Boring?”. I said “Yes, of course”. And so it came to be. I love the fact that it’s possible to get someone to talk about a subject like electric hand dryers in front of a roomful of people and then for the Sun to write about it approvingly, saying:
His interest and enthusiasm were genuine. The audience sat gripped by details of the Mitsubushi Jet Towel. Far from being a snore-fest, Steiner’s speech was actually very interesting.
Tim was on Sky News talking about the conference too. They were going to interview me at lunchtime, but Saif Gadaffi got arrested and Boring got bumped off the news agenda. Damn you, Gadaffi.
Chris was meant to go on before Tim, but I forgot to tell him what time he was on, and also he got stuck in traffic, so we switched the two talks around. I don’t think anyone noticed though. Like most musicians, Chris has an enormous collection of photographs of public toilets, and he wanted to share this collection with the Boring audience. A lovely talk.
As Matthew mentioned during his talk, he’d originally wanted to talk about hand dryers. Unfortunately, that subject was taken, and so Matthew talked about his love of Nandos. But there was also a warning. Sometimes an obsession can take over. A pleasure can turn into a chore. A treat becomes a duty. I know exactly what he means.
At no point do I ever tell people what they should talk about. All people know is that the event is called Boring. They are then free to interpret that however they want. When Galit asked if she could talk, she sent through a couple of different ideas she had. One was “Budgens – Reorganisation Of A Supermarket”. That was all I needed. I didn’t know quite what to expect, but it was great. My favourite bit was this conversation with one customer:
Ruth108: I went in about six weeks ago looking for Thai Red Curry Sauce, and it wasn’t near the noodles. Why don’t they put the Thai Red Curry Sauce near the fucking noodles? For fuck’s sake. For fuck’s SAKE.
Interviewer: Did the Thai Red Curry Sauce used to be near the noodles?
Ruth108: I don’t know. I don’t think so.
Jon played a clip from Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes, the film he made in 2008 about Stanley Kubrick’s boxes. It’s possibly my favourite out of all of Jon’s documentaries (although I still think the best thing he ever did was For The Love Of…. The clip Jon played related to Kubrick’s nephew, who was asked by his uncle to photograph thousands of doorways, gates, shop fronts, hotel rooms and bedside tables as location research for Eyes Wide Shut. This accidentally formed a neat parallel with Leila’s talk in the second session about the locations used in About A Boy (and also with the competition I ran during the day, asking people to identify the locations of four cash machines I had photographed and made into postcards).
Peter had come to the Edinburgh show I did this year with Fletcher and Dryburgh. I didn’t get the chance to speak to him in Edinburgh, but he gave Lewis a couple of copies of his book, which I read on the train on the way home. After listening to his talk about crisps, I thought he’d be perfect for Boring and was thrilled when he said he’d come down to London to speak. Peter also made the first of two references to Species Of Spaces by Georges Perec.
Toby contacted me on Twitter asking if he could talk about the square root of two. He explained the basics and I didn’t understand it so I though it would be a good talk, and it was. He’s a dentist in real life. I didn’t realise.
Another speaker proved the square root of two cannot be expressed as a fraction — something discovered by philosopher Hippasus in the 5th century BC. It was such a breakthrough Hippasus was sentenced to death — hardly mundane, then.
That is probably the first time Hippasus has ever been mentioned in The Sun.
Leila’s talk dealt with the idea of boredom in two different ways. First she looked at the film About A Boy, which is essentially a film about being bored in London. Next, she talked about her own attempt to identify and map the locations featured in the film. I’m not sure if Leila actually likes About A Boy – she seems quite ambivalent about it – but it’s not really about that. She’s written a blog post with her thoughts about the day:
If you want to take a photo of an IBM till when you’re in Gap (or Paul, or H&M) you have to do it covertly. It’s not illegal, but everyone knows you’re noticing the wrong things. And why not just write directly to IBM? So that’s the thing. The world is boring. I’m not interested in a quick way to find out which companies use IBM tills or getting a location list off the About a Boy director. I’m interested in the long, drawn-out challenge of discovery. The world is boring, you have to make up your challenges, colour it in yourself and find your own patterns.
Matt got in contact asking if he could speak about concrete overpasses. Unfortunately, I didn’t get back to him in time (I’d been a bit busy) and he wasn’t able to prepare his overpass talk. Instead, he gave a talk about barcodes, which included perhaps the nerdiest party trick you could possibly imagine – working out the check digit for a barcode read out by a member of the audience:
Greg has two main interests in life – the London Underground, and hassling celebrities on Twitter. He managed to combine these two interests by talking about each of the different lines on the Underground, and finding a celebrity advocate for each line (except for the Hammersmith & City line, which doesn’t have any celebrity fans. The Waterloo & City line doesn’t have any either – in fact, I was the closest thing to a celebrity fan of the Waterloo & City line Greg could find, a sorry state of affairs).
During Helen’s Spacetacular show in Edinburgh this year, a mad scientist created a rocket on stage using a 7-Up bottle and fired it into the air. However, because we were in a basement, it ricocheted off the ceiling and flew directly at my head. Fortunately, I have razor-sharp reflexes and managed to punch the missile out of the way. It was amazing. I have never felt so cool. Helen’s talk was about the sinister, satanic and slightly sexy history of the American space programme.
Between each speaker, Will and Tom had been performing very short, conversational micro-plays. These conversations were taken from the Loebner Prize, which is an attempt to create a chatbot realistic enough to fool people into thinking it is human (based on the Turing test). The conversations which were most “human” were also those which were the most meaningless and banal:
- How’d you find the weather today?
- That’s interesting.
- Why is it interesting?
- It’s not, but I was hoping you’d say something interesting if I sounded interested.
- Can you explain what you mean?
- Not usually
(Will helped an enormous amount in organising Boring this year. I am immensely grateful to him. I’m going to buy him some flowers to say thanks)
Continuing the theme of banal conversation, Rhodri spoke about polite small talk. His talk was prompted by the memory of a date which was going so badly that out of desperation, Rhodri said “So, what’s Wigan like then?” (this memory, tweeted late one night on his way home, has led to a book which will be coming out early next year, and already has one rave review on Amazon:
Rhodri and Greg both spoke last year. I might get them to speak every year. I haven’t mentioned this to them yet.
Josie is quite possibly one of the loveliest people in the world. She talked about the Alternative Reality Tour she organised earlier this year. This involved visiting some of the most deprived and over-looked places in the country and re-appropriating elements of neglected urban infrastructure, transforming them into performance spaces. There are many places in this country where boredom is not a self-imposed escape from cultural overload, but a direct consequence of the decisions of our government. She hired a van and got some mates together and tried to make a difference to the lives of those affected. She also did some jokes about banging, to lighten the mood.
Mark spoke quite powerfully about the importance of optimism and the destructive nature of cynicism and how it leads to a world which is more boring. His talk provoked quite a strong reaction, and I will be honest and say I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the way he called anyone who disagreed with him a “cunt” and furthermore, that you should “go and fucking kill yourself, seriously, fucking kill yourself”. A few people afterwards did say his message was quite inspirational and positive, and I’m fairly sure his advocacy of suicide was just a rhetorical flourish and wasn’t to be taken literally. I’d feel awful if anyone did commit suicide as a consequence of listening to his talk. Sorry if he caused any offence. He realises he misjudged the event. I don’t think he swears quite so much in his book.
Richard was quite a late addition to the line-up. He emailed me saying he was friends with Rhodri and asking if he could give a talk on health and safety. I emailed Rhodri to check and he replied saying “He is brilliant and funny and lovely. Book him”, so I did and he was.
This was one of my personal highlights. Felicity got in touch shortly after Boring last year and said she’d be interested in speaking if I organised another Boring conference. She is involved in the Sound Diaries project and had been recording the sounds of various vending machines around the country. This is exactly what Boring is about. Four hundred people sitting in a room listening to someone play a recording of the sound of a vending machine. Sorry I slightly messed up the other sound clips. You can listen to a vending machine here.
Adam Curtis came to our conference! The actual Adam Curtis! The man responsible for some of the most thought-provoking, visually stunning and easily parodied documentaries of recent years: The Power Of Nightmares, The Trap, The Century Of The Self, Pandora’s Box, All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace. As a researcher for That’s Life, he was also responsible for finding that dog that said “Rossidges”. And he came to our conference! His talk consisted of two parts; the first celebrated the work of one man at the BBC who has painstakingly logged every continuity announcement on BBC television in extraordinary detail (he is only up to 1984 – he still has to deal with twenty-four hour broadcasting and the explosion of channels following the advent of digital television). He played a fantastic selection of these announcements, and, then with typical Curtis flair, moved from those cosy archive clips, to a stark warning that we are sleepwalking into a new age of boredom. One which has parallels with life under the Soviet regime, where cultural richness is replaced by cold, technocratic logic. Suddenly, those twee archive clips didn’t seem so cosy. It was brilliant and terrifying. I was stunned. It was a perfect end to an imperfect day.
Thank you all.
So, see you again next year?