diamond geezer

 Sunday, May 10, 2015

Notes from Boring 2015
A conference at Conway Hall, Holborn, 9th May 2015

11.10 James Ward @iamjamesward: Top of the Tower
Conference organiser James explained his love for the Post Office Tower, initiated when he spotted an old postcard of 1965's most iconic building on eBay. His collection slowly grew, soon sufficient for a 2×3 array, then 3×5, and finally an entire framesworth. Inspired, James scanned each postcard and uploaded them to an album on Flickr, before taking the next obvious step and attempting to recreate them in person. In Fitzrovia he discovered that a bookmakers in Cleveland Street had survived, but that trees now obscured many of the postcard views. James's collection extends to other POT memorabilia, including a jigsaw and a wallet, plus a menu (in French) for the legendary revolving restaurant. This stopped serving Les fillets de Sole and Les Petit Pois in 1980, although non-dining access had ended in 1978. But it was the IRA bomb on 31st October 1971 which had James' conspiracy antennae twitching. A firm called Coventry Scaffolding had swept in to make the upper structure safe, and their website boasts of many other occasions in the 1970s when CS were first on the scene post-detonation. Was their presence purely coincidental, James mused, or were the Goodies (whose famous Twinkle sketch aired a fortnight later) possibly responsible? Today Britain's only revolving restaurant can be found at Center Parcs in Elveden Forest, and they only do breakfast, which is scant replacement for a magnificent central London vantage point which must one day be restored.

11.29 Eley Williams @GiantRatSumatra: Weazel Words
Eley introduced us to the uneasy proposition that dictionaries sometimes lie to us for copyright reasons. Webster’s Third New International, for example, included reference to the jungftak, a Persian bird with hooks for wings, to protect against the possibility any other publisher copying their collective work and passing it off as their own. A more celebrated example of deliberate spuriousness comes from the 1975 edition of the New Columbia Encyclopedia, which included a fictional mini-biography for a photographer called Lillian Virginia Mountweazel. Her alleged life story claimed a background in fountain design, a portfolio of photo essays of rural American mailboxes entitled Flags Up!, and an untimely demise in an explosion while on an assignment for Combustibles magazine. Eley's attempts at speculative philology perhaps slipped into over-analysis, but Ms Mountweazel opened our eyes to wilful lexicographical betrayal.

11.44 Alex Penman: The Elevator Pitch
In a fantastic Boring debut, seven year old Alex bounded onto the stage (watched from the wings by his proud mum) and proceeded to tell us why he likes lifts. They have different names, for a start, and a long history stretching back to 236BC. Alex may have been reading from his brief Powerpoint but he delivered his presentation with confidence and aplomb, grinning and giving a big thumbs up to the gallery whenever the slide needed to move on. A slight glitch playing the soundtrack of the Wallace and Gromit lift at Bristol Children's Hospital failed to throw him, and I quite agreed that the Otis 2000 at The Deep in Hull is something special. A name to watch.

11.50 Sarah O'Carroll @GasometerGal: My Year of the Gasometer
Sarah has a love for the gasometer, or gasholder as she acknowledges others often call them. These behemoths of industrial heritage were introduced by the Victorians as storage for town gas, and are now increasingly obsolete as the National Grid rationalises its property portfolio. Bitten by their ornate beauty, she compiled a map of all the gasometers within the M25 and set about visiting them, in most cases before they were dismantled. Battersea boasted a fine and varied cluster, now making way for housing, while Southall's lofty gasholder was painted with an arrow to guide Heathrow-bound pilots before the introduction of satellite navigation. Imperial number 2 at Fulham is the oldest still in existence, apparently, and Hornsey 1 remains a fine example of geodesic design. Sarah lifted the lid on what's to be found inside a gasometer (a huge pool of water surrounding a brickwork lump called the dumpling, on which the cover rests when the gas is all piped out), and suggested her collecting spree might spread further across the UK, from Norwich to Stornoway.

12.09 Rachel Souhami @rachelsouhami: An Insider's Guide to Exhibition Text
Dr Rachel, once a museum curator, guided us through some of the general issues behind the panels that accompany an exhibition. These are often the last thing to be added to an exhibition before it opens, but are crucial in presenting a context for the exhibits on show. Around 70-80 words is optimal, but even so only 30% of visitors ever read the text, research has shown. As an example she compared the current exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, which is unnervingly text-free, with a lengthy trek along a series of text panels at the National Museum of Denmark, which is more like reading a book.

12.21 Eleanor Curry @Eleanor_Curry: 12th century French Love Poetry
Scheduled presenter Joanna Biggs had to withdraw due to illness, so Eleanor was one of two comedians drafted in at the last minute to fill the gap. She recounted the peculiar tales behind two of her favourite poems by late 12th century poet Marie de France. In the runner-up a visual affair between a wife and her neighbour ended with the slaughter of garden nightingales, while the winner used lycanthrophy as a metaphor for syphilis. A woman accidentally marries a werewolf, like you do, then banishes him to the forest by stealing his clothes. Here he is discovered by the king who takes him home as 'court wolf', whereupon the wife is exiled and her female descendants cursed to be eternally nose-less. It was funnier the way Eleanor told it, indeed pitch-perfect.

12.30 Matt Highton @matthighton: Good Bad Films
In a second stand-in appointment, Matt riffed his favourite films that are so bad they're good. Occasionally (and particularly pre-millennium) a film's budget, characters and dialogue combined to create a cinematographic disaster encouraging endless repeat viewings. Anaconda (1997) is one such gobsmacker, its stars J-Lo and Jon Voight unable to cover up ghastly CGI lapses including reversed footage showing a waterfall that flows upwards. King of Matt's pile however is Jaws The Revenge (1987), the fourth film in the series, in which Chief Brodie's widow and the great white's offspring engage in a blood feud off the Bahamas, and whose fees helped lead actor Michael Caine to buy a new house.

12.44 Irving Finkel: The Great Diary Project
Dr Finkel is another museum curator, this time the Assistant Keeper of Ancient Mesopotamian script at the British Museum, and boasts a bushy white beard any Santa would be hugely proud of. Inspired by the Imperial War Museum's selective rejection of a soldier's 76 volume diary, he joined together with the librarian at the Bishopsgate Institute to set up a permanent repository for all things diaroid. Irving posits that diaries are the sole form of literature in which the author always tells the truth, and as such they form an invaluable record of the zeitgeist. And yet relatives often discard diaries after the writer's death, perhaps for fear of reading what's written within, so many are now enormously grateful that The Great Diary Project exists to give them somewhere to go. The Institute now holds 6000 diaries, signed over with copyright permission, and much in demand from a range of researchers. How marvellous it is when writing survives from one age to another, Irving says, and imagine the repository we'd have now if something similar had been done in the 18th century. As a diary writer myself, currently with 38 complete volumes, it's reassuring to know that they need not all end up in a binbag.

Lunch: An hour and ten minutes provided sufficient time for food, and to explore the contents of the Boring goodie envelope.

14.13 Louise Ashcroft @LouiseAshcroft1: The Stratford Centre
Louise is a subversive artist, for example buying ethnic fruit in street markets and taking it to Tesco to see what the cashiers make of it. For her talk she discussed the Stratford Centre, Newham's antithesis to Westfield, whose footfall accidentally totals 21 million visitors a year. The Centre makes Louise nostalgic for the concrete shopping centres of her youth, and she has great respect for its manager Andrew Norton. As a local resident I know the place well, and I can vouch for its evening transformation into a skateboarding haven where the local youth flip and and wheel to pumped-out music. Nevertheless I felt slightly uncomfortable as Boring's generally middle class audience appeared to laugh at, rather than with, the shops and shoppers of E15, the biggest guffaw being for a bag of bacon mis-shapes. Louise stuck up for the place, however, deftly applying the Centre's marketing philosophy of "taking something negative about yourself and owning it" to a variety of London-wide interventions.

14.33 James Harkin @eggshaped: Rude Words
James is QI's lead elf (who you may have seen on Only Connect last season), and mused how Quite Boring a researcher from a quiz show like Quite Interesting could be. His career trajectory as a scientist began when caught at school scouring a dictionary for rude words, a subject to which he has more recently applied proper statistical methods. For this purpose he has devised a somewhat suspect integral, which utilises a 'coefficient of childishness' calculated with reference to a short list of base words. James explained that our alphabet allows for approximately 17500 possible 3-letter words, and that any dataset of sufficient words will always contain some deemed either rude or interesting. To this effect he rifled through a complete list of Catholic bishops to find Bishop Assman, and a list of British birds to find the Elegant Tit and Mrs Benson's Brush Wobbler. Perhaps more importantly he wondered why poopoo is a far more popular password than weewee, and similarly why Liverpoo outranks Liverpool.

14.47 Andrew Hunter Murray @andrewhunterm: The Casio F-91W - A design classic
Andrew is another QI elf, and delighted in giving us a full contextual history of Casio's most enduring digital watch. The F-91W is a black-strapped three-button lozenge, first manufactured in 1991 but still available in Argos (rrp £8.99) to this day. This retro-wearable runs on a CR2016 battery which lasts 7 years if used responsibly - this equating to 20 seconds of alarm beep daily plus one second using the internal light. Although functionality is minimal by modern standards, users can still enjoy playing with the stopwatch, and enjoy the Easter Egg 'Casio' displayed on screen by pressing down the right-hand button for three seconds. As the proud owner of its silver sister the A158-W, which I've been wearing since the 90s, I attempted Andrew's trick but succeeded only in accidentally setting the hourly beep, which was then a nightmare to turn off. I'm in good company, seemingly, with Barack Obama a former F-91W wearer, but also Osama Bin Laden, the cheap mechanism ideal as a terrorist's countdown timer.

15.04 Dan Schreiber @Schreiberland: Wheelbarrows
Dan is yet another QI elf, completing a trio of non-pointy-eared BBC2 researchers, and spoke of his Theroux-inspired passion for wheelbarrows. In particular he delved into their origination, this the subject of hotly-debated academic warfare over whether the first was in Ancient Greece or China. The former sometimes ferried women around in wheelbarrows, and occasionally their bellies too if they were fat enough. The Chinese however made the wheelbarrow their own, with large central-wheeled barrows for transporting people and possessions, even wind-assisted barrows with sails. Although modern barrows are loved by some, the wheelbarrow is by far the least popular item in a Monopoly set (but is thankfully yet to be replaced).

15.15 Andy Riley @AndyRileyish: Roundabouts
Andy, the author of those cartoon books of Bunny Suicides, came to talk about experiencing the great outdoors in unusual wild places. The modern wi-fi-enabled campsite no longer provides an appropriate environment for raw outdoor activity, so Andy (and others) instead indulge in 'Wild camping' in prohibited locations, for example Boddington Hill near Wendover or the coastline of the Isle of Grain. Andy's gyratory revelation came in a Badtime Bedtime Book feature in the Monster Fun Annual 1978 which told the Louis Stevenson-inspired story of Traffic Island. He camped overnight on the Pyebush roundabout near Beaconsfield, a wooded circle almost one hectare in extent, setting up tent and campfire and foraging for blackberries and hawthorn berries for sustenance. As we enjoyed his tales, Andy reminded us that some camp out on roundabouts not for "knobby psychogeographical reasons" but out of necessity, these being some of the last unfenced unobserved public spaces. But beware of autumn, as Sharon Simpson learned while camping out on Derby's Pentagon roundabout, because falling leaves inevitably reveal your presence to the authorities.

15.34 Joe Gilbert @joegilbertt: Barbican
We enjoyed Joe's elegiac short film, subtitled Urban Poetry, which I'm delighted to say you can watch in full here.

Break: Followed by an audience participation game of Guess Who, led by Greg Stekelman, which would have worked better had more of us been wearing hats.

16.25 Rhodri Marsden @rhodri: A Proposal For A New Scale Of Measurement For British Earthquakes
Having apologised for the potentially inappropriate timing of his idea following the disaster in Nepal, Rhodri turned to the weighty issue of Britain's relatively feeble earthquakes. Deeming the Richter Scale inappropriate in a country that's suffered only eleven seismic fatalities since records began, he set out to use witness reports of twenty recent UK tremors to create his own more realistic index. His exposition was hindered somewhat by the dodgy Powerpoint clicker wielded by all the presenters, and more importantly by the fact the final page of his presentation hadn't printed out. But here are a selection of the descriptions on Rhodri's 20-point scale to give you a flavour of how useful it might be.
 2 Right on the cusp of being felt
 3 Like a cat falling off wardrobe
 7 Motorbikes topple over
10 Like the Hulk jumping about
12 Like a rhino had run into the house
16 Like a big invisible tractor
19 Mugs nearly falling off shelf
16.40 Keith Kahn Harris @KeithKahnHarris: The Logistics of Transgression
Subtitled 'Why the Dark Side is Hard Work', Keith's anthropological talk delved into some unusually uncomfortable subject areas. Kicking off with Black Metal, a trangressive form of heavy metal, he outlined some of the tedious procedures required to keep a malevolent music format commercially viable. He moved on to discuss kidnapper Josef Fritzl, who was only able to detain his daughter's incestuous family through a systematic programme of nappy-buying, and the Nazis' 'Banality of Evil' whereby a dull penpushing culture allowed the Holocaust to continue. Logistics and infrastructure are essential to experiencing the joys of transgression, he argued, leading to the inevitable conclusion that "evil is most effective when it is boring, and evil is most exciting when it is ineffective." With this in mind, Keith hopes that Islamic State will soon consume itself by failing to maintain an appropriately mundane bureaucratic system.

16.55 Richard DeDomenici @DeDomenici: Invoices I Have Yet To Send
Returning to the Boring Conference after a short break, performance artist Richard subverted expectations by sending several overdue invoices live from the stage. He's very bad at doing his paperwork in a timely manner, hence some quite sizeable invoices had piled up for a variety of past shows and projects. A first email for 4 t-shirts was fired off from his laptop while we watched, with a photo of the audience duly attached for comic effect. With time running out Richard rushed his next invoice for Tits and Tinsel 2014, and thus accidentally sent it to the wrong contractor who should instead have received the final bill for £1586. By utilising the pressure of live performance these normally boring tasks had been completed without procrastination, proving that the mundane can sometimes be both entertainingly inspiring and financially rewarding. You can watch Richard's performance, somewhat close up, here.

17.10 James Miller @jmlostboys: Quiet Evenings at the Moriglen Care Home
Author James chose to read us his e-book, or at least part of it, because time was pressing and his short story wasn't short enough. In it he imagined himself 50 years hence, elderly and immobile, resident in an American care home where the evening's entertainment is a Viagra-infused grannybang. Perhaps thankfully we never reached the octogenarian sex, instead restricted to James recounting his future bladder problems and frustrated post-erectile desires. As the conference organiser attempted to wind up the late-running show from the wings, James read on to leave us hanging after his grandson-to-be had delivered the pills and condoms, hoping that we'd then go away and purchase the remaining 4000 words. I'd be surprised if he succeeded, but then you never do know what you're going to get at the Boring Conference, and this year's offered the most eclectically satisfying box of audio-visual chocolates to date.

See also: Boring II, Boring III, Boring IV


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