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.
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.
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.