Adventures In Stationery: Author James Ward loves Post-it notes, paper clips and staplers so much he has written a whole book about them

It may be humble but, like all objects, stationery has a story and Ward's first book tells it with an understated flair. Rhodri Marsden gets down to brass tacks with him

"A few years ago, Tipp-Ex changed the applicator in its bottles of correction fluid from a brush to a kind of sponge tab," says James Ward, authoritatively, picking up a bottle from a nearby shelf. "A good thing?" I ask, hesitantly.

"Well, yes," Ward replies. "The brush used to go all crusty and hard, didn't it, and spike off in different directions. The tab made operation more precise." He's not wrong. I remember from school the pleasure associated with opening a new bottle of Tipp-Ex after having binned one because the old brush had become more of a nuisance than an administrative aid. But I suppose that I'd never really thought about it. In fact, I'd never spent much time considering stationery at all. From the Biro to the set square, from the pencil to the Post-it note, stationery was merely a passive player in the art of creativity or the act of learning. Humble, modest, true, stationery never demanded any attention. But like all objects, stationery has a story. And Ward, in his first book, Adventures In Stationery, tells it with an understated flair.

Browsing the Covent Garden branch of London Graphic Centre, a haven of neatness and order, with sufficient pens, paper and pencils to give your average stationery buff an adrenaline rush, I ask Ward if he's drawn towards any item in particular. "Well, the selection of office supplies here is quite poor, because this place is more about art," he says, pointing at one shelf. "I've found that I've become quite particular about this stuff. There's a stationery brand called Q-Connect who produced some paperclips mis-labelled "parerclips", and it made me have less faith in them. I doubted the quality control process. But I bought them anyway, in case they ended up being valuable – you know, like an old British stamp where the Queen's head is facing the wrong way." I start giggling, but Ward's expression is deadpan. Throughout our lunch hour together, I find his slightly mundane observations hilarious, but often I'm not sure why – or indeed whether there is a joke, and if so, whether it's on me, or on him.

This seems to be Ward's unique selling point. He is mainly known for being the founder and host of the annual Boring Conference, a celebration of "the ordinary, the obvious and the overlooked" that has attracted such notable speakers as Adam Curtis, Robin Ince, Jon Ronson and Josie Long, examining subjects as varied as sneezing, toast, IBM tills and the sounds made by vending machines. In the meantime, he has maintained a blog named after Warhol's famous quote, "I Like Boring Things", where his interests are probed in excruciating detail; relentless repetition goes hand in hand with an almost obnoxious obsession with minutiae, e.g. how many free pens Argos produces each year. Somehow, and I'm not sure how, it succeeds in being funny, charming and far more interesting than expected.

"There are people who are football obsessives," he says, "who can name teams going back years and remember what minute such-and-such a goal was scored. They're considered normal guys who like their football. And there are people who memorise endless Beatles facts, you know, who played what instrument on which album and so on, and that's also deemed cool. But if you apply that same interest to something like stationery, you're mocked, despite the motivation and impulse being exactly the same. We're only supposed to be interested in the big things that most people like, while the things we all deal with on a day-to-day basis are, for some reason, not meant to be given any thought. But someone, somewhere, has to know about that stuff. Otherwise nothing would ever get done."

Erasing the past: Tipp-Ex changed the applicator in its bottles of correction fluid from a brush to a sponge tab (Alamy) Erasing the past: Tipp-Ex changed the applicator in its bottles of correction fluid from a brush to a sponge tab (Alamy)
In 2010, Ward and fellow stationery enthusiast Ed Ross launched Stationery Club, a regular and wholly unironic pub meet-up for anyone who loved stationery. And yes, people showed up. "I think that the internet has allowed these supposedly 'boring' people to find each other," Ward says. "At work, my colleagues might notice that I bring in my own stationery rather than use the stationery in the office, but they probably wouldn't try to engage me in conversation about it. Online, it's completely different." At Stationery Club, a transatlantic Skype interview with the man who invented the Post-it note might be interspersed with pints of lager and a comparison of fibre-tipped pens.

The club demonstrated that while most people evidently walk past a branch of Ryman without a second thought, a significant minority experience something of a thrill as they walk through its doors, down the aisles and past the box files. "Without wishing to overstate it," says Ward, aware that he's overstating it, "stationery has created civilisation. Language is how we make sense of the world, and written language gives us an aggregated sense of knowledge. That only happens because of stationery." I point out that this has more to do with pens than, say, desk tidies. "Well, yes, I suppose there are less essential items," he says. "But if you've got pens, you need to put them somewhere, don't you? You can't just have them rolling around."

If we accept this noble purpose for stationery, that doesn't quite explain the fetish that many people evidently have for it. Perhaps these everyday objects are reassuring, introducing as they do a kind of order in a chaotic world. Perhaps they're aspirational. After all, they facilitate creativity and progress; the purchase of a Moleskine notebook represents a small first step towards writing a novel, or planning a round-the-world trip. And they're certainly tools of procrastination. "When you want to get organised," says Ward, "the first thing you do is come into a shop like this and buy all the stuff that helps you get organised. It's a way of assuaging your guilt over your own inactivity. It makes you feel like you've done something, when all you've actually done is buy a pack of Post-it notes."

Mr Clippy: Ward indulges his passion for paperclips at the London Graphic Centre in Covent Garden (David Sandison) Mr Clippy: Ward indulges his passion for paperclips at the London Graphic Centre in Covent Garden (David Sandison)
"But there's also inherent beauty in this stuff," he adds. "A simplicity of design, a pristine quality. When you buy a new pack of Blu-Tack and open it, there's that perfect blue slab, and it's a rare moment because one pack of Blu-Tack generally lasts ages. But once the first lump has been pulled off, one stretched corner that you have to fold back in on itself, it's not the same.

"So, in the same way as you have toy collectors who buy one toy to play with and an identical one to keep in its box, I'm the same with Blu-Tack. Buy one to use, and one to admire." I'm laughing, but once again, I have a suspicion that Ward may be serious.

His book certainly is serious, while frequently frivolous; it's a fascinating history of some of our most beloved items of stationery, including drawing pins, highlighter pens and staples. It dispels the myths about the role of the ballpoint pen in the Space Race and queries the "thousands of uses" claimed by the aforementioned Blu-Tack on its packaging. "There's a timeless quality to a lot of stationery," says Ward, "something like the paper clip, or the pencil. There have been tweaks along the way, but these things provide a connection between the ages."

But what about today's paperless office? Ward harrumphs slightly. "It doesn't exist, does it? However paperless your office is, you've still got paper. And the act of writing things down will always be important. It stores information more deeply in your mind than if you just press a button."

Ward's preoccupations and interests aren't for everyone, of course. Many view his and others' interest in a subject such as stationery as indicative of some kind of dysfunction, a fact that he readily acknowledges while also questioning the integrity of their reasoning. "I've had three types of interviews while organising the Boring Conference," he says. "There are the people who buy into it and understand this idea of focusing on the overlooked. Then there are the people who think 'Hey! Let's get this wacky guy on to talk about his wacky interests!' and I usually fail to fulfil their expectations. But then there are the ones who just want to take the piss out of me. I did one radio interview where the guy was particularly obnoxious, saying things like 'What? And you've got a girlfriend? Seriously?' And to me that's just a kind of lazy thinking. It's forming the most superficial reaction to something without interrogating any further."

Sticking point: Ward is fascinated by Blu-Tack (Alamy) Sticking point: Ward is fascinated by Blu-Tack (Alamy)
You could argue that Ward, in his grey suit and his lapel badge with the word "Boring" on it in a particularly dull font, is almost asking for it. "To be honest, I'm kind of past worrying about what people think," he says. "I guess what I've done – rather cleverly, if I say so myself – is to pre-empt the accusation of being boring by using that word a lot. So if people do call me boring, I can say 'Well, yes, exactly,' and not worry about having any feelings about it." But what if your book is described as "boring" when it's reviewed? Did you find yourself reining in the minutiae in order to appeal to a wider public?

"I did spend a lot of time writing detailed sections about the patents of various types of stapler," he says, "but it was quite therapeutic to go back through it, literally with a red pen, cross out huge sections that didn't need to be there and make it interesting. The aim of everything I do is not to be boring, it's to point out that things are more interesting than they appear at first glance."

The publication of the book almost marks the recognition of Ward's "slow information" movement by the establishment; while his other projects have all been self-financed, a publisher came on board for Adventures In Stationery, and in doing so has somehow validated the subject. An interest in stationery need no longer be embarrassing.

"There's a stationery trade show in London every year," says Ward. "It's industry only, but in the past I've always just sneaked in. They don't really expect people to be interested, so they don't check credentials. I just register online, make up a company name and a job title and go along. Wander around. Pick up some free samples, check out what's happening. But now I guess I'm part of the stationery establishment. I've moved from amateur to professional…" he pauses for a second, shifting nervously and emitting a muffled laugh. "Professional… whatever this is." Dullard? Nah. Entertainer? Might be pushing it. Beguiling storyteller? Definitely.

James Ward's book, 'Adventures In Stationery – A Journey Through Your Pencil Case' is published by Profile Books on 11 September

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...