On Boredom

Maybe nearly everything in my life is because I have a lower boredom threshold than most people.
I will not talk about the neurotransmitters norepinephrine or dopamine next, interesting though I find them. I will not talk about running around a classroom as a little girl because I didn’t do that. I sat quietly. Running about from boredom was for my twin brother and we divided roles up with an instinct for balance we wouldn’t be credited for.

When English lessons became the reading aloud of set texts and Cider With Rosie, Measure for Measure and Juno and the Paycock were rendered in a babel of uncertain voices, I read ahead to stave off the overwhelming feeling I would die if I had to hear words at this speed any more. This was fine until it was my turn, or I got more than a book ahead.

Me holding off a feeling of boredom similar to the relentless needling ache which made the hummingbird tattoo on my upper arm one November afternoon in Newcastle usually looks like me reading a book, or a phone screen. Sometimes it sounds like me talking very fast and interrupting my own thoughts to disagree with them. Sometimes it looks and sounds like me saying words under a spotlight with an energy that means dopamine and norepinephrine fire in other people’s brains and they think they like me.

Society seems to be worried that the internet means it’s attention span is too short, but it could reassure itself by hearing most people speak on a platform, or by standing in a post office queue and seeing how many people are not tapping their toes or each other.

In a college room that would look the same now, on a playback device that would look very different now, I heard a three minute BBC local radio news bulletin and a one minute commercial radio news bulletin. The BBC bulletin contained some unnecessary detail about a council bin collection problem. Time slowed down even more while I heard it, though perhaps I should reflect on the fact that I can’t remember anything that was in the commercial radio bulletin. I went to work for it anyway. Commercial radio. Even though the level of pay and job security was about half of that of the BBC. But I could read the news without tapping my toes impatient for my own voice to be over.

I went out into a new world in a succession of radio cars, mostly Audis and VWs, until they took them away from the news room and gave them to the advert people. So then I stopped going to press conferences and recording accents I didn’t grow up with and lived more for nights of poetry and interpersonal conflict and cigarette burns in the back of my wrap dresses before the smoking ban.

Sitting in a staffroom with trays of Cadburys Fingers and copies of the TES on low coffee tables I zoned out while I was telling a teacher about the poems I would get her Year 5s to write and woke myself up by suggesting instead that we get them to imagine they were in the “Poetry Idol House”. A couple of projects with loud and joyous finales and banners in the school hall later, I worked out how to get them to write poems about things other than the thrill of imagining we were in the Poetry Idol House.

I thought doing a PhD would be as boring as filling out a form or conjuring a date from infinite possibilities suggested in an email, but it was a succession of new tasks and ideas and reading. It was like swimming rather than running for two hours with only endorphins flooding in, and no joint pain afterwards. It was a shiny, slim-fit jacket round all the intense brain activity that would otherwise disappear into Thirsk’s mackerel sky and I am naked without it.

I told my husband that I think we’re mainly together because he’s not boring. Not because he runs restlessly round a field or gambles on dogs or reappears with hospital bracelets or bruises, but because his thoughts and words come from an alert brain and gut.

I am trying to do fewer things because I have been so very busy for years but my brain is buzzing like a trapped bluebottle and most options to keep it awake involve the short-term pain of more boredom. An email chain, a handbook, a contract. So, for now I’ll write things like this and add them to the world’s unsettling hum.

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