Fancy Paper: A Survivor’s Memoir…

Oh, you hateful, lily-scented bastards...

Something dark and subversive was going on in the suburbs of Limerick in the 1980’s. It was taking over the lives of young vulnerable girls who had no idea of the edge of the dark precipice on which they stood. It began as all habits and addictions do, on a small scale, just experimenting; alone, with friends, in their bedrooms and eventually spilling out onto the streets. In time it made its way to that most precious of all childhood havens – the school-yard. If you were transported back in time to a typical Eighties Irish school-yard, in the heady days of Fancy Paper swapping, you could be forgiven for thinking you had inadvertently stumbled onto the set of The Wire. Little cliques of wild-eyed girls huddled in corners bartering their wares and negotiating prices, debating whether they were getting their money’s worth for their product. The phenomenon? Fancy Paper…and I was involved up to my neck in it. This is my addiction story, triggered by Aoife Barry’s reminiscing of pre-internet Irish childhoods here. I write this post not to inspire sympathy for my plight, but to raise awareness in future generations. Wake up and smell the rose-scented stationery, people. If Fancy Paper had a chance, it would consume you and everyone you love.

Like most addictions, mine was a gradual one. My strongest memory of being addicted to stationery is still The Summer of the Pencil Case. Having come back from a foreign holiday (Santa Ponsa was the venue of choice circa 1987) just before the start of the school year, and my birthday being the first week in September, my parents had bought some of my mini presents out there just for a little something different. I don’t even remember what my main present was that year, but I still remember the pink art deco wonderland box of miracles that was a brand new pencil case staring back at me. Built in compartments housing an eraser and a pencil sharpener that popped out at the simple touch of a button, along with a false bottom under where the pencils were stored so you could house little notes declaring ‘I Heart Michael Jackson’ and various other imperative factoids. It was the Swiss Army Knife of school stationery. I imagined that some genius like Q had a wife that left the house every morning at the same time as him; and while he went into MI6 to make weapons for James Bond, she went to work designing multi-compartment stationery for the discerning girly school nerd. That little drawer for paper became the most exciting little mini universe for me that school year; for it was there that I first began to store my fledgling Fancy Paper collection.

Take this beautiful horror from mine eyes...

Everywhere you looked in newsagents and bookshops, there seemed to be a magical array of Fancy Paper delights of all shapes and sizes. Their value was arbitrary, depending on your neck of the woods and personal taste. The most common were those small printed paper pads with a wonderful design or pattern on the front which then revealed the same pattern in watermark form on each sheet underneath. You wanted to get a good selection of them under your belt to really start trading. Next up from those were papers of the same size and style, but scented. Lightly fragranced notepapers with the watermark were highly sought after, mostly because your entire fancy paper collection would undoubtedly gain some form of olfactory benefit from having a few odd rose or lily-scented sheets scattered amongst the regular ones. The bartering process was a long arduous one. I learned a lot about supply and demand back then. One girl had the most awesome Japanese-style scented pad, brought back as a present from her Dad while on a business trip. For an entire week this girl called all the shots. She was charging upwards of four to five sheets for a single one of hers – and like fools, we paid it. But it was worth it just to have one of those precious leaves with the geisha girl design and powdery fake Jasmine scent infiltrating our collection.

The storage of your assets was also a serious issue. Most of us graduated from giant birthday card envelopes to shoe boxes, which were nigh on impossible to carry on our underground dealings in school. We would need to recall the envelope as a form of travel luggage if we wanted to get any business at all done during Big Lunch. Because of the volume and weight restriction, you had to choose what went into the envelope carefully. The photographic memory of those involved in the swapping and dealing of Fancy Paper was terrifying. Wanting to swap for a sheet you had your eye on, but being told it would be considered only if you brought in that birthday invitation notepaper that was in the shape of a vinyl record with the matching envelope that you hadn’t shown anyone in five months was a sharp wake-up call that this could get very messy very fast.

This is all too much temptation. I have to go to Eason's now. Don't try and stop me.

Sleep was lost, as were friends and colleagues in the field of battle. The Parental Task Force was drafted in to quell the rising violence and so-called ‘bad’ paper that saturated the market; soon you weren’t sure whether the quality and standard of the paper you were swapping was top notch any more. The buzz just wasn’t the same. People were starting to care less about quality product in the face of ever-increasing demand. There was nearly a Fancy Paper civil war in our school one day when a girl was caught spraying perfume onto previously unscented paper to raise its value on the open market. Caused ructions. Plus the paper was stained something terrible after it. What an eejit. She broke the cardinal rule…try scented talc powder first (so I heard).

It’s been over twenty years, and I still get a hankering to start ‘collecting’ once again. But I need to start thinking of the consequences. Soon I may choose to marry, have a family. Nobody needs to be brought into this seedy world without a choice. Being a primary teacher, some would say I have channelled my love of stationery into a career that can benefit society and feed my habit in some roundabout way, and they would be right. But until school inspectors start accepting lesson plans and monthly schemes on 10th Birthday invitation paper in the shape of a vinyl record with a matching envelope, my habit will have to remain firmly printed on my memory – with a Chinese-style pattern watermark and, of course, a light powdery freesia scent.

(by JayRow)

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10 thoughts on “Fancy Paper: A Survivor’s Memoir…

  1. EleventyFour says:

    As a fellow survivor, I’d like to thank the author for her candour and bravery in tackling this thorny issue. We called it Fancy Notepaper in Cork but Satan has many names and the important thing is that we overcame this crippling addiction and have lived to tell the tale. Bravo Jay Row. Bravo.

  2. Tupp_ed says:

    “Girls like Fancy Paper”
    – the conclusion of an in-depth, baffled examination of the evidence of our own eyes reached by three 8 year old boys, Dublin circa 1984

  3. fústar says:

    Remember being on holiday in Kerry (circa 1984) and watching a gang of girls standing outside a caravan waiting for the emergence of one of their kind who (the rumour said) had recently been on a family holiday to France. They knew she’d have fresh/exotic goods for trade. Their faces betrayed no joy. This was an eerily serious and arcane (to us) business. When the girl with the goods finally emerged she looked both drunk on power and terrified.

  4. Boodlesy says:

    This was the scourge of my early teenage years. There was always one girl who was spoiled, got all the fancy paper she wanted and used it to put us down. I put the fact that she went blind for six months (she got shingles) as God’s way of her punishing her for being mean to us poor girls. Her fancy paper served no purpose in the dark.

  5. Aaron Geary says:

    It wasn’t just girls.

    I was a male victim of this scourge. And, no, I didn’t grow up gay!*

    *(Actually, I did, but that’s besides the point.)

  6. fústar says:

    Aaron – I actually wanted “in”. It all looked so thrillingly black market-like. But I could never, er, penetrate that closed circle. Was left outside with 35 spare Mike Duxberry football stickers I could never get rid of.

  7. HollyP says:

    I’m nearly 36 and I still have a box of my original fancy paper from the mid to late 80’s. It will never be thrown out!

  8. JayRow says:

    Holly I am so jealous of you right now I can’t even see what I’m typing through my tears of envy…I think if I found any of my fancy paper form back in the day I’d be hysterical with excitement. I don’t remember any boys indulging in the habit at our school, but I would have welcomed it, at least then you’d have a far more diverse collection going around! I really really want to start collecting again. That sweet-scented paper monkey is never far from my back…

    • HollyP says:

      To be honest I still cry myself about amazing fancy paper I remember having but don’t have anymore. That feeling when someone got a new scented notebook or a new Pierrot clown notepad and envelope set and would do a swapsie with you…oh it was bliss. I can remember getting a single page and envelope out of a Holly Hobby set from the girl across the road and all she asked for in trade was the packet of Burger Bites my Nanny had just sent up to me as an after-school treat. Bargain! One of my best friends went to Malaysia on holidays when we were in 5th class (she had family there and her folks god bless them had saved for years to go on a 2 week visit). Anyhoo my pal brought each of our little gang back some amazing fancy paper/stationery that I think was mainly Japanese but was totally unique and immediately became hard currency in the fancy paper trades after school.

      I still buy far to much stationery than I actually need and physically get an ache when I’m in Easons or one of those Bookstation shops. Paperchase causes hives. I have a stash of notebooks with attractive covers and am a sucker for a nice pen, particularly with exotic coloured ink like purple, silver, gold (oooooh). Did I mention I’m nearly 36…

  9. Lex says:

    Where can one buy it today? Does anyone have a link to an image of some even. I remember it looking sort of japanese/anime

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