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Celebrating the Ordinary - The Advantages of Being Dull

Leland Carlson, Dull Men of Great Britain: Celebrating the Ordinary, Ebury Press

Roman and Maz Piekarski collect cuckoo clocks. In Cuckooland, their museum and repair business in Tabley, near Knutsford Cheshire in the UK, they keep more than 700 cuckoo clocks. The horologist brothers reckon that the beginning and the ending of daylight saving are the busiest working days in their year. That’s because at least 250 of their display clocks are running continuously. The resetting of the cuckoos takes two full days twice a year. It sounds mind freezingly dull work to me, but Roman and Maz insist on the contrary: "It is a ritual … we enjoy spending time on the clocks. They're a pleasure."

The Piekarski brothers are just two examples of the nearly fifty shades of grey, the dull

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men that that populate Leland Carlson’s new book entitled simply Dull Men of Great Britain. There are lots of intriguing dullards in here. In addition to the Piekarskis there is Keith Jackson, a paint drying expert (‘a job that dull men everywhere would love to have’), a beer can collector (Nick West, who has 7522 cans all carefully displayed, speaks of ‘that special buzz I get whenever I find a new can’), a drainspotter (Archie Workman and his ‘life in the gutter’ – Archie collects cast iron drain covers), a golf ball collector (Martyn Vallance has ‘more than 70,000 golf balls tucked away in his garden shed and attic’), a milk bottle collector (‘I don’t even like milk’, says Steve Wheeler of his 20,000 bottle collection), a traffic cone collector (‘nothing warms David [Morgan’s] heart more than a traffic cone’), and a vacuum cleaner collector (‘James [Brown] was a child prodigy in vacuuming’ explains Leland Carlson. ‘He started the activity aged four, and had his own vacuum cleaner by the age of eight’).

The remainder of Carlson’s dull men are all described and photographed with affection, and understated humor. This is a very amusing book. It’s ‘safe excitement’ as Leland Carlson’s associate, Grover Click (who runs the Park Bench Appreciation Society Facebook group), would say. I suspect that if you pressed Click to defend his enthusiasm for the ordinary, he’d say – after some resistance, for when did self-funded safe excitement ever need defence? – that you never know when the ordinary can unexpectedly turn into something extraordinary. Look at David Grisenthwaite from Kirkcaldy, Scotland. David ‘has kept a diary of each time he has mown his lawn since 1984.’ The diary’s entries have turned out to be important for research into global warming being carried out by the Royal Meteorological Society. ‘Although the time spent mowing varies year by year,’ Leland Carlson explains, `the diary clearly shows that the average annual lawn-mowing period has increased by 1.5 months in the 31 years of recorded mowings’.

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Leland Carlson
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Leland Carlson’s book grew out of a club that he and seventeen of his friends established within the New York Athletic Club. He explains: `the Dull Men’s Club began in New York when Grover Click was sitting with friends at the Long Bar … reading about the clubs-within-the-club — clubs for squash, sailing, skiing, judo — in the club’s monthly magazine, The Winged Foot. “We don’t do any of those things,” one of them said. “That’s right, we are rather dull, wouldn’t you say?” said another. “Let’s start a club-within-the-club for dull men,” said Grover.’ The idea was a club that would be ‘free from glitz and glam, free from pressures to be in and trendy — free instead to enjoy simple, ordinary things.’ The DMC website (click here) followed with its bans on exclamations points, its preference for ‘dull-lights’ over highlights and it’s refusal to allow any office member to rank higher that Assistant Vice President. What can I say? How attractive would be a world without Presidents. There is, in all of this, a sort of a curmudgeonly, humorous, and attractive humility.

Leland Carlson’s celebration of the ordinary is not as singular or as unusual as you might think. Maybe he’s part of a new wave. There’s also James Ward who founded an annual Boring Conference in London: ‘a one-day celebration of the … ordinary and the overlooked – subjects which are often considered trivial and pointless.’ To make his pointless point more firmly James Ward published a well received book last year entitled Adventures in Stationary: A Journey Through Your Pencil Case which was even reviewed in, I'm glad to say, the dull pages of the Times Literary Supplement. Ink, paper, pens, rulers, erasers, nothing escapes Ward’s benign gaze. James Ward explains that he is, and his book shows it, a devotee of the infra-ordinary. That is a version of the ordinary that might test the patience even of cuckoo clock winder or a vacuum cleaner collector.

And there’s Pieter Hoexum. His most recent book shares the enthusiasm for the ordinary of Leland Carlson and James Ward. The book, A Small Philosophy of the Row House (so far only available in Dutch as Kleine filosofie van het rijtjeshuis, Atlas 2015), is, in its way, another example of the archaeology of the ordinary. Hoexum lives in a terraced house (a rijtjeshus) in a suburb of Purmerend in the Netherlands. He writes with feeling about mundane everyday little things: ‘the garden gate, the meaning of the sidewalk, the difference between an avenue and a street and their relationship to the row house.’

But let’s get back to Leland Carlson. Why not finish with one last dull man? This is Kevin Beresford. Known to fellow enthusiasts as ‘Lord of the Rings’ Kevin is president of the UK Roundabout Appreciation Society (UKRAS). He’s written two books on the subject, Roundabouts of Great Britain and Roundabouts from the Air. (The closest you can get to a roundabout in North America is the four-way stop sign – a subject that an American dull man really ought to tackle.) Boring work on an even more boring subject you might say? That’s not how Beresford sees it: ‘UKRAS members see a roundabout as an oasis on a sea of asphalt … [they] lift sagging spirits on long, tiresome journeys.’

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