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This is Boring: Boring V at the Conway Hall

For the second year in a row, I went to the Boring conference:

Playing Guess Who? board game with audience as cards

Somewhat less boring than I had been led to believe.

The Boring Conference is a celebration of the minutiae of the mundane. Last year, speakers discussed things like why all national anthems sound the same, or the list of character names they collected for their potential novels when they were ten, or how paint actually dries on a molecular level.

I was supposed to meet my friends outside Conway Hall at ten for a 10:30 start, but after my astonishing incompetence negotiating my phone’s navigation ended up in the right place roughly half an hour late. Happily, they weren’t letting people into the building until half past. We all filed in and watched soothingly anodyne video of a street scene in the suburbs, which urged us, with charming and apologetic reluctance, to tweet using the hashtag #boringV.

The introduction by James Ward was pretty typical of the event, describing his obsession with the Post Office Tower and collecting postcards about it. These he then restaged as photographs (London has far more trees now than in the 70s, a fact he bitterly regretted).

Then it was Eley Williams talking about Mountweazels. Mountweazels are invented entries in dictionaries, encyclopaedias, etc which are inserted to detect plagiarism. We all loved this idea and kept talking about it all day. Sometimes I think the whole point of my life has been to be a Mountweazel in someone else’s reference work.

Alex Penman was a small child with a gigantic and infectious enthusiasm for lifts, which he shared with the room. Then Sarah O’Carroll discussed the strange and vanishing beauty of gasometers within the M25.

Rachel Souhami gave a fairly straight talk on the ins and outs of designing the information cards in museums, and as a heritage buff I did find it pretty interesting. There was some great How Not To Do It images.

Joanna Biggs was sick, and replaced by two people, so her planned talk must have been amazing – one, Eleanor Curry, a stand-up, shared her favourite 12th century medieval love poetry, which included nightingale slaughter and Marie de France’s unfortunate Lais of a woman who accidentally married a werewolf. To obtain a seperation, she stole his clothes so he had to stay in the woods, and bigamously married a non-lupine husband instead. Eventually, the werewolf inveigled his way into court as so often tends to happen, and ended up biting his wife’s nose off to teach her a lesson. It’s all about syphilis, apparently. Ah, l’amour.

Then Mark Highton talked about good bad movies, focussing particularly on Jaws 4: The Revenge (1987). Good choice, but personally, nothing will beat Battlefield: Earth (2000) for me. The bit with the gold bars is just genius. Also loved how you can leave a squadron of fighter planes just lying there for a thousand years and they will start first time. But I digress…

Irving Finkel was next. He works at the British Museum, I think, with cuneiform writing (which to me is just the epitome of cool) and is a striking figure with long white hair and glasses, like an Old Testament prophet on his way to a rock gig. He gave a fabulously opinionated speech about personal diaries.

His contention is that personal diaries are the only written form where people tell the absolute truth as they see it. Apparently diaries are usually never kept, which surprised me, but because of their potentially unpalatable contents are frequently sold or thrown away by family members after the author’s death. So he’s part of a scheme called The Great Diary Project to keep and house them. It sounded like the most fascinating thing. I could read people’s personal diaries all day. Maybe I should volunteer.

Then it was lunch and we ended up in a pub round the corner, eating fish finger sandwiches while shaking our heads and scowling over the election results. Fun fact: if you use deep-fried fish fingers for a fish finger sandwich the result is absolutely delicious.

Headed back to the building for Louise Ashcroft who talked about the tiny, low-key shopping centre joining Westfield to Shepherd’s Bush, called something like the Stretham Centre, and pictures of the fabulous products you can buy within, such as Dog Oil.

James Harkin, Andrew Murray, and Don Schrieber came on one after the other. They are all QI Elves, and each talked about their particular enthusiasm – there was a mathematical formula for how likely you are to find rude words in a dictionary – it’s this:

Formula for discovering rude words in a dictionary

The proper use for maths

Then the the joy of wheelbarrows (did you know Chinese wheelbarrows have the central wheel come up, providing more stability, and the guy that made Ballbarrows went on to invent the Dyson?),

Andrew Hunter Murray talked about the Casio F-91 W wristwatch, and got very animated about it. Turns out both Barack Obama and Osama bin Laden owned one. Terrorists are huge fans, apparently, and owning one used to be a justification for detaining you: “they like them because they are waterproof”. The Casio F-91 W was the only branded product bin Laden was ever seen wearing:

Osama bin Laden models his Casio F-91 W

Osama bin Laden models his Casio F-91 W

Andy Riley talked about the joy of camping on traffic roundabouts, which was just fascinating. I’d never heard of wild camping before. I loved the idea of it almost as much as I hate the idea of camping full stop. He told the story of a woman made homeless that set up a rather charming retreat in a roundabout in Derby one summer, including TV, and was only discovered when the leaves fell off the trees in Autumn.

Barbican (a film by Joe Gilbert) was a black and white film of the exterior of the Barbican, with voiceover commentary by residents. I didn’t really feel I knew much more about the Barbican by the end of it. It didn’t capture my personal experience of the whole whistling wind brutalism of the place. But then I have long suspected that the charm of the Barbican is lost on me.

Then we retired to the little pavilion teahouse in the park in Red Lion Square for tea and to dissect events so far. We agreed that the standard of speakers was far more consistent, but last year had had some very obvious fails but some hilarious successes.

The last session started strong as we all played a game of Guess Who? with real people instead of the red board, and that was pretty amusing.

Then Rhodri Marsden did a talk on a new scale of measurement for British earthquakes similar to the Richter scale, which was clearly too exotic for local events. It included such classifications as “right on the cusp of being felt” up to “like someone moving furniture”:

New British Earthquake classification based on how rubbish they are.

New British Earthquake classification based on how rubbish they are. Here’s one: “My fiancee was almost concerned.”

Kevin Kahn-Harris talked about the banality of evil, but also the level of organisation involved. He talked about Death Metal, and its manifesto of supporting the war against Christianity, killing all goodness, killing everyone else, and then yourself. There were some fab pictures and loved the names of the Death Metal guys.

He went on to contrast this self-defeating evil with that of that the Nazis or Josef Fritzl, who was required to go to enormous lengths of organisation to ensure his crimes remained undetected. Kahn-Harris’ contention was that evil pursued in the purest and most direct way was the the least efficient. However, moderate evil levels required an enormous amount of effort for a return. In short, evil is most effective when it is boring, and most exciting when it is ineffective. It was in some places a much darker tone than most Boring talks, but a very interesting subject nonetheless.

Richard DeDomenici did some comedy with “Invoices I Need To Send”. And finally James Miller, a senior lecturer in creative writing at Kingston, read out his short story. Then we staggered out into the sunlight, in search of a pub.

So I would definitely recommend Boring if you are interested in that kind of thing, whatever that kind of thing is, but if you do want to go you’ll have to be quick next year as it always sells out fast!

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