I am not sure when I first came across Jemima Terry's account Paperyness'; I do sometimes do deep dives into followers on Instagram. Which now I write it down sounds slightly creepy, maybe very creepy. But it is how I have found several great makers, Knock Knocks, and, in this case, the terrific - 'Paperyness'. Having spent all the lockdowns in London, I, too, was finding ways to pass the time while pacing the same patch of pavement. Sadly, I did not have the imagination or the keen eyes for picking up on these wonderful discarded paper tokens. To the owner, they would feel redundant once the mission was complete. But with the help of Jemima's excellently curated Instagram, they feel like snippets of the private life of others, similar to our own but with the oddities that make humankind so fascinating. If I write any more, I will start to plagiarise Jemima, so I will let her take you on from here.
Underlying my interest in the paper object is the tactile appeal of the exclusively papery properties of folding, unfolding, creasing, scrunching, tearing and peeling. Paper is materially unstable, absorbs, rips and whiteness renders it useful, obviously, for bearing inscription, but consequently leaves it susceptible to marking, staining, and accidents. Merely finding these scraps in one piece evokes a marvellous sense of chance.
Indeed, studying art history, it was always paper fragments, the canonically discarded castaways of an artist’s practice, that I was drawn to. Notebooks, lists, letters, doodles, annotations and inscriptions, whose importance is largely overlooked due to their presumed menial or mindless execution, if not denigrated as ‘secondary’ or ‘exogenous’ because of their cheap and low-grade paper material. These ‘things’ that fall under the loose taxonomy of ‘ephemera’.
Yet this very air of the accidental, the trace, the quotidian mark-making of a city’s inhabitants, was unsurprisingly very interesting to the Surrealists, whose attention to the marvellous, uncanny, or psychological implications of the objet trouvé characterises much of their art and literature.
André Breton writes of perusing the local Parisian flea markets in his novel Nadja, 1928. Rummaging around in great bins of worthless books, Breton unearths a copy of Rimbaud’s Complete Works. Leafing through the volume, he becomes distracted by a discovery of two loose sheets of paper caught between its inner pages, one a ‘type-writer copy of a poem in free verse, the other a pencilled series of reflections on Nietzsche’. Significantly, Breton leaves the market not with the book itself but the scraps of text which had accumulated within its pages. The book serves as a repository of multiple texts, an object that comes to bear the traces of its own provenance and genealogy, its human handling and touch.
In another favourite passage from Breton’s Poisson Soluble, 1924, he writes vividly of his fantasy of walking through Paris, the city streets unfolding under his feet like huge sheets of paper:
‘The ground beneath my feet is nothing but an enormous unfolded newspaper. Sometimes a photograph comes by; it is a nondescript curiosity, and from the flowers there uniformly rises the smell, the good smell, of printers’ ink’.
The surrealistic exploration of a city is elided with some sort of reading. The topography of the street is navigated in much the same way as that of the inscribed page. The individual follows passages, lines, is abruptly confronted by dead-ends, caesuras and empty spaces. The reader can lose themselves in their movement in perhaps that same mindless way as the ambling pedestrian, finding themself suddenly in a foreign and unfamiliar place without quite realising how they had got there. Just like a newspaper, the city unfolds into great spreads to reveal its intricate interior contents.
Over the last year, fugitive paper scraps have been my source of this surrealistic chance. Like the book’s page, the street pavement accrues and accumulates its own traces and marks, a sort of human sediment. Handwritten notes, shopping lists, to-do lists, and private letters, bearing the handwritten scribbles of things. Once attached to people, to the body, these paper artefacts were held in hands, between fingers, or perhaps folded safely into squares and kept close in jean and coat pockets. In the mundane and complicated landscape of COVID national lockdowns in London, where the daily walk meekly promised both psychological preservation and mind-numbing monotony, I began to observe and trace these accidentally dropped, discarded, and lost things on the city floor.
The very first, written neatly and compactly onto an orange sticky note, Chestnut mushrooms, parsley, 4 lemons, M&S loose tea…promised an evening of French flavour, though further down the list, D-Mannose, a UTI tablet. Surprised by the accidental divulging of this anonymous author’s intimate concerns, I began to look more attentively for paper.
The combinations of items are sometimes questionable, Ice coffee, mango juice, bounty bar, beer or strikingly bland, Chicken, soup, salad, celery.
One felt manic, EGGS – loads. Cream – extra thick. ASPARAGUS!
Another was suffused with the hungover anxiety of a heavy night before, Be Calm tabs, paracetamol, ibuprofen, cleansing pads, coffee
Or, fungal fix, vitamin D spray, 1 bluetooth speaker, shoes
Some are playful, Sausages, bacon, milk, and Wootsits! revealing an author who deems it worthy to indulge in an inside joke though it will only be read by themselves. One revealed an unusually acute interest in the macronutrient breakdown of their food items, Carbs: 120g of cooked pasta – 41g, strawberries/blueberries (in the fridge) – 6g. Cookie – 12g.
In this genre of the more systematic list-makers, I found someone’s Budapest packing list last week which, sub-categorising items under Daywear, Nightwear and Other, listed not only a purple fleece, and purple sweater, but an additional, nuanced, burgundy fleece, and light purple puffa…
Recently, abruptly, Henry desperate to go toilet. 2pm. was found having been torn fiercely, hastily, or perhaps ashamedly in half.
One of my favourites was a shopping-list that seemed to betray its writer’s own reticence and indecision, a sort of chronic existential ambivalence towards the self-declaration of their needs, Beers? Cider? Chickpeas? Pasta & rice? Sunflower oil? Tonic water? Wine? Gin? Rob insurance?
Some are ripped and scrunched so heavily they are barely legible. Reorganising the fragments of one into an incomplete mosaic, an irate, stuttering voice was revealed, YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO PA- EVERYONE IS SICK O- -LY DON’T YOU BUY- -P ABUSING – OF THIS FIRM/ GOOD RELATIONSHIP – WITH THE RESIDENTS. YOU DON’T – HERE – WORSE TO COME IF NOT… ABSOLUTELY HAD ENOUGH-
Another favourite scrap with thick sprawled pencil read: Toilet paper. HARPIC FOR inside THE TOILET. The concision of the list surprised me. To take the care to write down just two items, as well as justify the intended function of the Harpic seemed to suggest to me a superfluous diligence given the apparent urgency of this individual’s bathroom situation.
These papery notations offered once-removed glimpses into the lives of strangers when the city was locked down. Like a skin-shedding snake leaving behind disembodied fragments of itself, these scraps can be equally encountered as papery peels of identity. As I continue to find and document these things, it seems to me that the intimately woven gestures of reading and walking are closer tied by their shared material makeup: this encountering, handling, and unfolding of paper.
A joy to read, thank you, Jemima, please click here to continue the Paperyness!