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From Issue #47 July 17, 2014

The Neverending Story

Four hundred people gather in London to talk of boring things.

By Chris Stokel-Walker Twitter icon 

George Egg unironically cooks not his namesake, but pancakes.

A half dozen people wearing sensible shoes and statement jewelry mill about in the late May sunshine on a Saturday morning. So far, so normal — which is exactly the point. Those forming an orderly queue that snakes around the outer wall of Conway Hall, a central London venue known for its illustrious history with the humanities, are on hand for an odd event that mixes the irreverent and the earnest, comedy and self-betterment.1

A Boring Conference is an annual event that attracts 400 or more people to listen for eight hours to sensibly dressed men and women wax poetical about topics such as ice cream vans, the literalism of German marketers advertising Hollywood blockbusters, and how 1960s children’s books co-opted modernist architecture and design principles in their illustrations.

It’s something peculiarly British, taking pride in the mundane obsessions that humans can have: we even coined a term for them, “anoraks,” based on the boring clothes worn by some of the most devoted obsessors.

“Everybody’s got some niche thing they know loads about that no one else does, and it’s good to share it,” explains Martin White, a musician and comedian who gave a talk this year on how German cinema releases butcher any element of suspense in their titles. Annie Hall, for example, becomes Urban Neurotic in Germany. Airplane! transmutates into The Unbelievable Trip in a Wacky Aeroplane, forgoing any intrigue a potential moviegoer may have. “That might not work as a standup set,” White says, squinting into the sun, “but James has created this platform for people to share their infatuations with a very indulgent audience.”

“James” is James Ward, the 33-year-old founder of the conference, and the reason people are queued up outside Conway Hall on a day when most are splayed out in London’s inner-city parks to soak up the sun.

In what is a particularly 21st-century foundation myth, the idea for a Boring Conference came from a tweet taken too seriously. Ward retweeted an announcement from Wired writer Russell Davies’s Interesting Conference that its 2010 iteration would not be going ahead. “It seemed like the obvious thing to do was to have a boring conference,” explains Ward. “So I tweeted, ‘Interesting is canceled, let’s all go to the Boring Conference,’ and I didn’t give it any more thought than that. It was just a single tweet.” Except it wasn’t.

“The moral of the story,” Ward says, “is never joke on the internet.”

People began replying to Ward, expressing an interest in the nascent Boring Conference. Some wanted to attend; others wanted to present. “Basically the whole thing came about by accident,” he admits.

Fascinatingly uninteresting

Dressed in a gray fitted suit, Ward appears comfortable on stage but less so off. When we talk in a bright white corridor just off the main conference room in Conway Hall, he is flustered and tense with a slight sheen of sweat on his brow. He asks more than once whether the event seems to be going well.

It is, not least because most of the topics being discussed, far from being boring, are hugely interesting — if a bit irreverent. Think of Boring Conference as the snarky, self-aware younger brother of TED talks — the one who does himself down and doesn’t crave the limelight. There were no headset mics on show at Conway Hall. Presentation decks were about as far away as you can get from the slick, minimalist, Helvetica-heavy slideshows you see at TED talks; rather, they were cluttered, slapdash, and crudely designed.

An unofficial motto of the Boring Conference has been adopted following audience feedback from a previous year; they’ve even printed it on buttons that are given to each attendee as part of a welcome pack. The phrase, meant as a criticism, has been taken on as a matter of pride. It suits the conference well: “an expensive shambles.”

If Ward is anxious now, he was even more so the first year of Boring. “When I realised I’d have to actually do it, I thought maybe 50 people would come and we’d do it in an upstairs room in a pub or something. But gradually, as more and more people started hearing about it, it seemed like more and more people wanted to come. So the first one we had 200 people, and then we have 400 people here today.”

We shall all bore together

Ward, who works in the advertising department of a UK high-street chain store, writes a blog on his Web site called I Like Boring Things. There, he details his fascination with the masochistic mundanity of Airfix models, or the tribulation of living with the English embarassment at a faulty debit card and the social implications inferred from declined transactions.

What he has, and what the whole conference is steeped in, is a keen eye for the absurdities of everyday life, and an appreciation of the work that many people do without plaudits or glamour. Someone, after all, needs to know the precise rate at which garbage composts in order to ensure decent disposal provisions for communities. That’s not glamorous, but it can be interesting science.

One perfect example of this was a talk by Ali Coote, a 20-something Web editor who worked for a few years as an ice-cream seller in a traveling van for one of the largest such independent retailers in the south of England. Coote’s talk — solicited from Twitter — was one of the most warmly received, as she talked about the ice-cream industry in general, its decline in the face of cheaper supermarket fare, and just how tedious a day stuck inside a van hawking soft-serve cornets can be.

“Sometimes you will get somebody sharing their hobby or job for the first time with anyone,” says White. “It’s nice, that; it’s a lovely thing. I guess it never occurred to her that anyone would find ice-cream vans interesting, yet here she is in a room full of people who are perfectly happy to listen to her talk about the air pumps that churn the cream and all the different buttons that play the vans’ signature tunes.”

I hadn’t known what to expect going in. A conference that self-identifies as boring already has one eyebrow raised; overhearing snatches of conversation in the line out front of the hall (mostly focused on how long people’s stays at the Edinburgh Fringe comedy festival later in the summer would last), I expected everything to be delivered with a knowing wink and a nudge. I was also worried people would dress up for the event, cosplaying nerdy chic. In fact, I was the only person I could see with elbow patches. There were young people, old people, loose T-shirts and snug woollen cardigans. (Thank heavens for geek couture: anorak-like tendencies have become modish at a time when teenage girls and celebrities wear the word emblazoned on T-shirts.)

Rather than a knowing series of presentations, everything was imbued with a strong kernel of earnestness. And that’s something it can be difficult to understand without attending the conference in person. Ward admits it can be awkward approaching prospective speakers, because at some point in the conversation he has to mention the name of the conference. The people in attendance know they’re odd, yes, but they’re happy with it.

“I think it wouldn’t work if it was just ironic,” Ward says, scratching his head. “If it was just one day-long in-joke, people would get fed up really quickly. There has to be a sincerity to it. But at the same time, I’m aware that there are 400 people who have paid money to give up their Saturday afternoon and come here, and that’s a bit odd.”

Egg pancake photo by Hamish Thompson. Other photos by the author.

  1. The Conway Hall Ethical Society, based in the building since 1929 and founded in the late 1700s, is the world’s oldest free-thought society still extant. 

Chris Stokel-Walker is a UK-based freelance writer for the Economist, the Sunday Times, the BBC, and BuzzFeed.

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