We Won’t Rock You
James Ward interviewed by Charlotte Young.
James Ward is the organiser of Boring 2010, a conference dedicated to the everyday, the mundane, the obvious, the tedious, the predictable, the dull and the boring. He is also the man behind the London Twirls Project.
3:AM: Hello. Who are you?
JW: Hello. My name is James Ward.
3:AM: You’re organising the Boring 2010 Conference. What is it?
JW: There’s a guy called Russell Davies who organises a thing called “Interesting”. He’s done it for the last three years for reasons unknown to me. He’s cancelled it this year, so because I do a blog called I Like Boring Things I decided it would be a good idea. Well, I didn’t. I said on Twitter “Oh, Interesting’s been cancelled this year. Maybe I’ll organise a Boring conference”. That was just half a joke, really, I expected it to go away. But then quite a few people Tweeted back and said “Yeah, that sounds like a good idea. You should do that, I’d go”. Then it got to the sort of dangerous level where enough people said it that I began to think, “I should do this”. I decided that I would, and then I wrote a post about it on my blog without really giving it much thought, just to sort of then make sure I was committed. I deliberately trapped myself.
3:AM: And then The Independent did an article on it and you had no choice.
JW: Yeah. Things started getting sort of out of control.
JW: It started getting bigger and bigger. Originally I was just expecting it to be fifty people. But then, as I was asking people to speak, more or less everyone said yes [laughs]. I asked more people than necessary, I expected most of them to say no, so I asked lots of people, and then people like yourself approached me as well. So, now there’re about twenty-five people speaking, As a result, the venue’s going to be bigger, against my will.
3:AM: A lot of people have got in contact with you who want to do it, to your surprise. What do you think is the attraction of Boring? Or boredom?
JW: It’s one of those things that everyone’s actually interested in.
JW: Conversely, yeah, because it can be interpreted in so many different ways. The people who emailed me saying they would like to speak or that I’d written emails to ask if they would, I deliberately tried not to give them a brief or tell them what they should talk about. Everyone’s come up with different things which, if I had tried to prescribe what people should talk about, there’s no way it would have been as good.
3:AM: Or as interesting
JW: Exactly. Everyone has come up with a completely different thing, or a different angle or a different take on it, which I could never have predicted. So, it should be interesting.
3:AM: What kind of topics will people be talking about?
JW: Car park roofs. There’s a guy, Lewis Dryburgh. He eats his lunch at work on a car park roof every day. He’s talking about car park roofs and how they should be reclaimed as municipal parks. Peter Fletcher is going to be talking about his Sneezecount blog. He’s logged every single sneeze that he’s done since, I think, June 2007. He logs the time, the date, what he was doing and some sort of strength ratio, force. I think it’s Mild, Moderate, Strong, Very Strong. Naomi Alderman is going to be talking about growing up in a Jewish Orthodox household, where once a week, on the Sabbath, you’re basically not allowed to do anything. Anything that involves electricity, work. So you basically just sit. I think you might be allowed to read and weave, things like that, but you’re not allowed to do things like-
3:AM: Like turn the lights on.
JW: Yeah, I think very, very strict people don’t even open the fridge because, when you open the fridge door, the light comes on. There’s going to be someone who’s doing a performance poetry thing where he’s going to read out the list of paint names from a Dulux paint catalogue. So, all sorts of things.
3:AM: Are you going to be talking about anything?
JW: I’m probably going to do some short talks at the beginning of each session or segment of the day. I’ll probably do like a little filler thing. It will probably be something to do with my tie catalogue.
3:AM: And what’s that?
JW: It’s a spreadsheet I’ve created which includes details about all of the ties that I own [laughs] in terms of colour, fabric, pattern, thickness. I’m going to add a new column, which is like a function index for it, or a smartness index, which will be whether they will be suitable to wear, y’know, in a work environment…
3:AM: A reverse catalogue
JW: Basically, yes. I’ve got all the categories to put them in and then I’ll use that catalogue to try to determine trends and see if it reveals anything about the collection of ties that I wouldn’t have known otherwise.
3:AM: That’s reminds me of your London Twirls Project from which I see the Boring conference as a natural progression. Could you talk a bit about that?
JW: It’s kind of slowed down now, for a couple of reasons. Basically, I spent most of last year going around convenience stores, newsagents, supermarkets throughout Central London and noted the price, availability and storage conditions of Cadbury Twirls. There would be all of that information and then additional comments about each individual shop, whether or not the staff were friendly, anything else I noticed about that shop.
3:AM: Were there are any significant trends or patterns that you noticed?
JW: The average price for 2009 was 60p across London. There’s been roughly a 5p increase across the board, so that’s kind of why I’m slightly faltering with continuing it because basically all of the information on the blog is already out of date. That’s why I’ve stopped doing it. The whole thing started because I used to buy a Twirl every day when I was having my lunch, so I did all of the shops that were near to where I worked. That was the first core. And then I’d start doing it whenever I went to somewhere, and I’d do a few there, so places like Notting Hill, Hackney, places where I’d go normally, at a weekend or whatever. Once I’d exhausted everywhere near where I work and the places that I naturally go to, I found myself making trips to parts of London specifically to log Cadbury Twirls information. And then that was when I started to think “This is getting out of hand”. I think there was one day where I did thirty-six shops.
JW: I didn’t buy Twirls in all of them because some of them didn’t have Twirls, some of them — if the price is on the shelf, then–
3:AM: Your work is done for you.
JW: Yeah. Because, originally I had a rule that, if there was a Twirl I had to buy that Twirl, otherwise it kind of felt disingenuous, in the same way that I had a rule that I had to take the photo [of the shop, etc] myself. I couldn’t just look one up on some website; I had to actually take it. And then people started sending in information. I started including that and relaxed the rules a bit. I also did a couple when I went to New York earlier this year. I did a couple in Sheffield as well. The reason it’s stopped as well is because I had about two months’ worth of photos and notes on my old phone and then it got smashed. I had never got round to uploading all the photos and then I lost all of this information. It was so disheartening that it’s made me slightly resentful towards the whole project [laughs]. It’s like “All that hard work for nothing”, but then “Well, all of it was for nothing!” It’s all completely pointless. It seemed even more pointless that the information that I once had in my hand was lost.
3:AM: Last time I spoke to you, you were talking about how you would like to have an iPhone app that had all this information on it and other people would gather other information regarding other products or things…
JW: I did a presentation about the findings from 2009 — “The Year in Twirls” — at Ignite, and one of the other people speaking, well, basically all of the other people speaking were kind of techy, nerdy-type people, and someone did contact me about turning it into some sort of app, but it never really happened. I would quite like to do that. Then anyone could upload their own information, and that way I wouldn’t have to do as much.
3:AM: It would be like Wikipedia….
JW: Yeah. But, with Cadbury Twirls.
JW: If you could get enough people to do it, it could be extended to everything. If everyone in London took it upon themselves to map the price, availability, storage conditions of a different consumer product, and if each person then spent £200 on developing an app, no one would ever be able to rip anyone else off.
3:AM: Hasn’t Rhodri Marsden started doing lime and sodas in pubs?
JW: He has. I don’t know if he’s doing it formally, but he is quite an expert on what is a good price.
3:AM: You used the words “techy” and “nerdy” to describe the type of people that were at Ignite and I assume they’re the same kind of people — myself included — who are doing a talk at the Boring conference. Is there some kind of Venn diagram of “boring” and “obsessive knowledge”? Because the London Twirls Project was quite an obsessive thing and has no…
3:AM: Yeah, there’s no purpose to it. It has no cultural value in the sense that it’s been done for no other reason than your own indulgence.
JW: What I’m interested in is the way that — and I’m slightly not answering the question, but — the way that obsessions begin and develop, because when what becomes an obsession, when you first start it, it seems really worth it. I’m really, really fascinated by the Sneeze Count because if you say to someone “I’m logging every time I sneeze” and they say “So, how many times have you sneezed since you’ve started logging it?” and you say “Three,” that’s rubbish. You have to have critical mass. You have to have enough stuff for it to actually seem to have any value.
Robert Opie is the founder of the Museum of Brands in Notting Hill. When he was 16 or 17 he realised that packaging and all this leftover stuff that’s around us every day — but that we take for granted — we just throw away. So he started collecting crisp packets and cornflake boxes. I find it really amazing that, for one thing he must have had very tolerant parents, but, to have that kind of vision — because now he’s got a whole museum — but, for the first few years, he must have just been a weirdo who was hoarding stuff in his bedroom. There’s a point where once you have enough stuff, it actually become really, really fascinating and I think that that’s probably going back to the techy, obsession type thing. I guess if you’re learning any new skill or you’re learning how to code or programme or whatever, it’s probably the same thing. To begin with, you don’t know anything. You have to have that sort of large vision that, this is really rubbish now, but in ten or three years’ time I’ll be a bit better at it. It’s impressive to have that dedication, which I don’t. I don’t like learning. If I’m not good at something, forgive me.
3:AM: You’re really good at researching Twirls
JW: But that was a natural gift.
3:AM: You’ve got a lot of interesting or, rather, exciting people talking at Boring. You’ve got comedians doing it.
JW: Yeah. Robin Ince is going to be doing it. I think he’s going to be talking about boring books.
3:AM: An expert on boring books. And he is a self-confessed nerd.
JW: Geoff Lloyd, from Absolute Radio, he’s going to be doing it.
3:AM: It’s interesting you say that because I know Geoff Lloyd is a friend of Dave Gorman, and Dave Gorman’s show Are You Dave Gorman? is reminiscent of your London Twirls Project, in the way he presented the information.
JW: He’s got a mathematical background. His early stuff was very mathematical.
3:AM: There are similarities in the way you present information in graphs and charts.
JW: Yeah. I like the idea of trying to turn subjective experiences into objective patterns and graphs. I don’t know how successful it is or how possible it is, that whole idea of actually quantifying things that can’t be quantified.
3:AM: It’s like when you see an advert for Dove Moisturising Cream on TV and the voiceover says “97% of women said this made their skin feel younger,” and then you see the statistic at the bottom of the screen that says “Based on a group of 200 women in Winchester” and it’s this sort of weird statistic.
JW: Definitely. A lot of the graphs and stuff that I did for my Ignite talk, in terms of methodology, it’s very, very weak [laughs]. Very flawed. I mean, I’ve never studied statistics or anything. It would not stand up to any kind of statistical analysis. There’s a quote in a book that I’m reading at the moment, The Individual in the Social World by Stanley Milgram. He says, in one section about the individual and the city: would it be possible to measure the ‘ambience’ of a city as we might measure temperature of the ocean with a thermometer? The purpose of such measurement is, first, to sift fact from prevailing fiction; second, to allow for more sensitive and valid comparison among different settings, and, finally, to stimulate us to explain such differences that we find. William H. White talks about how you can measure how happy a place makes people feel, a Delight Index, and Milgram tried to measure how friendly people are in places and see how you can objectify that, do experiments in the field and actually measure them.
3:AM: It’s reminiscent of the Channel 4 series about the worst places to live in the country. They try and quantify them with things that aren’t really quantifiable and make them out to be bad places to live, but that’s half based on your own experience. They were trying to universalise certain things…
JW: Yeah, that’s a really interesting area, and I don’t quite know why I find it so interesting. William H. White was an urban theorist; Milgram was a social psychologist and most famous for doing the Obedience Experiment. The experiment was to see how far participants would go and whether or not they’d continue to obey the instructor to the point where–
3:AM: They thought they were killing people
JW: Yeah. That has real implications in the real world. Milgram also invented the concept of people finding their six degrees of separation. He’s a fantastically important psychologist. In the book, he talks about one of the other things that he did about mental representation of cities, mental maps, and how people visualise the city. He did this as a psychology investigation in Paris, but when he came to deliver his results, some people got together to help him put on this show to explain himself. And it was actually put on in an art gallery. He says that what he believed was social psychology, was perceived by others to be some species of conceptual art.
3:AM: That reminds me of the Situationists, and la dérive, experiencing the city in different ways.
JW: Yeah, you’re not really sure if it is actually psychology or science or art. It’s going back to the Dave Gorman type thing, where there’s a maths element and a comedy element. It’s this area that’s the little bit in the middle.
3:AM: Boring 2010 is going to be held at the Dominion Theatre. How did that happen?
JW: I’d been looking at different venues I’d gone to, church halls and community centres, all sorts of places. I contacted the Drill Hall but they never emailed me back. I don’t know if it was because they thought that it was a tenuous pun, or that the whole thing was an elaborate joke: Drill Hall, boring. Then I found that there’s a studio above the Dominion Theatre. For one thing it’s really, really convenient. You just come out of Tottenham Court Road station and look for the giant sculpture of Freddie Mercury [laughs]. It’s very, very easy to find! I just like the idea of being above We Will Rock You, this musical written by Ben Elton that’s got this horrible plot, a dreadful satire set in some dystopian future, about how everyone’s conformist and they have to find the “real” music. There’s only one guitar or something…
3:AM: It’s like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
JW: Yeah, but without any of the charm.
3:AM: Or the jokes.
JW: Or the jokes! And the idea that the way out of this conformist future is through the music of Queen, who were one of the biggest rock bands in history. Freddie Mercury at Live Aid, it was a great performance, but he had the whole of Wembley Stadium all obeying him, basically. He even deliberately plays with that where he’s got this long call and response thing. But, the idea that they’ve used that music as some sort of….
3:AM: Call to arms.
JW: Yeah! It’s so offensive, and the fact that Ben Elton wrote it… I dislike Ben Elton.
3:AM: I saw someone reading Popcorn on the tube the other day and they didn’t smile once.
JW: They wouldn’t. Joyless man. When I was looking at the venue, they said it’s completely sound proof. And I said “Well, we’re not going to make much noise”. And then the woman said “No, it’s so you won’t hear We Will Rock You!”
3:AM: You wrote on your blog that “We Won’t Rock You”.
JW: Yeah, “We Won’t Rock You”: I think that will be the motto for the day.
3:AM: That’s quite a good way to end: “We Won’t Rock You”.
JW: We won’t.
Boring 2010 takes place on December 11th at the Dominion Theatre, London. Tickets are selling out fast.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Charlotte Young is an artist, writer and comedian. She has recently co-written a book with acclaimed artist and musician Billy Childish, which is published by the L-13 Light Industrial Workshop. In 2008 she received the Owen Rowley Award for Art (£600) but did not invest this money wisely and is now receiving benefits.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, November 30th, 2010.