January, 2022. A bistro in Lichfield, England

The friend I’d met for lunch stopped mid-sandwich and frowned across the table. ‘Why are you making that face?’ The answer was what lay beneath my slice of quiche, which had tasted fine at first then took on a rather strange texture. Which turned out to be a napkin stuck unseen on the pastry’s soggy bottom…..The manager apologised ‘unreservedly’, like a politician, but didn’t offer the free coffee we expected.

I may have a mild case of papyrophilia, a passion for all things paper – but it doesn’t extend to actually eating it. So, no nibbling on a notepad or snacking on junk mail – though there are apparently people with a condition called xylophagia, an overwhelming desire to consume the most common plant-based man-made material in the world.

And even in the digital era of the device, the global appetite for paper is keen and growing. China and America make and sell most of it. Especially products like packaging, for all the stuff we buy online.

The word itself comes from the ancient plant that grows along the banks of the Nile: papyrus. From its stalk, strips could be pressed then joined together to form the first book: a scroll. But paper as we know it now began in a palace in 2nd century China, where a court eunuch combined ingredients like hemp, tree bark and old fishing nets, to make a light fibrous mat that could be soaked in water, then drained to dry off in the sun. The result: thin, flexible sheets, that could be produced in bulk. So much nicer, easier and cheaper to write on than stone or tablets or clay or the stretched skin of an animal. The use of paper soon spread far and wide…..and as it met with different pens and ink and later, the printing press, ideas, images and news could travel too – and open the mind to new ways of thinking. And of recording history and trade, mapping the world, making your mark…… Cai Lun’s recipe was a Cultural Revolution.

And now it’s handled in some form or other every day. A book, a receipt, a ticket, towel or tissue. Plates, napkins and knickers. Miles and miles of loo and wrapping paper. It also pops up in surprising places – like chewing gum, bandages, nappies and toothpaste….

Plastic, soul-less, shiny and clever, may be eco-enemy no.1 – but all this paper also comes of course with a price paid in trees. According to Google, it takes around 24 trees to make a ton of standard office paper. In the home, its presence can lead to a common domestic affliction: Clutter Creep.

My life’s been measured out not in coffee spoons, but in reams of paper…. Certificates of birth, death and divorce; all the bills, forms and statements that used to come in the post before the internet stemmed the flood. Calendars, passports – and when a teacher, piles of exercise books waiting to be marked, reports to be written. Not to mention years of the personal diaries that kept me reasonably sane and still do.

It must be a generational thing, this need to write things down. I’m a note-taker, list-maker, just can’t help myself. I also like printing things off, making copies and cutting out articles of interest from newspapers or magazines to store in files according to subject. I’m a chronic keeper of greetings cards too, especially if the words inside appeal or the pictures – or the sensuous, subtle grain or the paper, the layered ‘fabric’ of the stuff, akin to skin….

My late partner, the professor. found this strange and sentimental. To my horror, cards were disposed of soon after he’d read them. ‘They’d served their purpose’, he said. To be fair, he loved his library, but any unwanted, ‘waste’ paper went straight into one of his favourite toys – a shredding machine.

Paper’s great virtue, to me, is its recyclability. The blank backs of business letters, envelopes and circulars are perfect for shopping lists or word puzzles or memos to self. My old newspapers have a second life – as energy-saving chopping or draining boards… It all ends up in the bin eventually. But I knew someone once who lived surrounded by the stuff she couldn’t throw away, who had a hoarding disorder long before there was a name for it.

1970. Archway, London

The house was divided into flats and I was one of four girls in the one upstairs. An old lady had lived on the ground floor for a long time. On the rare, brief occasions when her front door was left open, we’d get a glimpse of stacks of newspapers lining the walls, from floor to ceiling. Our offers to have a chat or help tidy up a bit were always refused, until one day in December when I knocked and the door opened wide enough to hand her a Christmas card and she let me in. The furniture was barely visible under heaps of jumble but I cleared a space on a chair to perch on. Other piles of paper -probably unpaid bills or unanswered letters – lay on the carpet. Between them, a narrow pathway led to the kitchen. Her money, I suspected, was kept in cash under the bed.

I must have asked a few questions, because at some point, she told me her fiancé had died in 1917 and she’d never looked at anyone else. The yellowing ‘wallpaper’ dated from the Great War and all the years thereafter. I imagined a heroic death over the top, but no, he’d died of measles in Lewisham.

I don’t remember her name and left the house the following year so never knew what happened to the tenant who lived in the past. Maybe one day all that paper met its natural enemy and like Miss Havisham, she died in the fire.

It is the more everyday fate of most pieces of paper just to fade or be scrunched up and thrown away, like so much confetti blowing in the wind. Others, like love letters, lie for generations in a drawer…and some, stored in archives, belong to history. Like the Agreement signed in Munich in 1938 by Britain and Germany – later dismissed by Hitler as a ‘scrap of paper’. The document held aloft at an airport that promised ‘peace in our time.’ Words not worth the paper they were written on.

Perhaps it’s the wordless surface – unruled, unfolded – that can hold the most promise for the future. Not the intricate art of origami, but something simpler, something primal. And here the trail pauses again, in a council flat on the 8th floor, where a very small boy made a big discovery…

1988, Central London

He hadn’t had a very good day so far, because his mother was very angry with him because he’d scrawled all over the bathroom wall with a soft red stick – her favourite lipstick. But when she calmed down, she gave him a large sheet of paper and some crayons in a lot of colours and seemed to want him to make mess on it! So he did and she smiled and when more paper appeared, he made another mess, then several more…. and as he got bigger, figures and shapes began to emerge and make pictures of the world around him.

Some I still have and cherish and there are times when I feel something akin to my infant son’s delight that day. A certain sense of possibility. Freedom, even.

It’s not when I start typing on the desktop keyboard, editing the last draft of a new post. It’s before that, at the beginning, when an idea’s taken hold and a sheet of A4 sits in front of me, soon to become a page – but for now just an empty, open space. A virgin plain of paper, waiting in its own time for words to arrive.

10 thoughts on “Paper

  1. Brilliant! Well worth waiting for. I absolutely love the way you take a subject and expertly weave together so many different aspects in such an informative, interesting and humorous way.


  2. Your writing is hugely enjoyable, Tess! Not only are the words perfectly crafted, but I learn so much from your compositions. This piece, focussing on the subject of paper, was absolutely fascinating.


    1. Dear Carol,
      Thank you for the comment.. Will try to return to a more regular posting of these story-essays, perhaps shorter ones. My elder son helps with the illustration.


  3. dear tessa i love these essays you share with your readership time by time…..

    you effortlessly interweave the personal and the subjects under scrutiny…..and make them entertaining and so informative…..a rare feat👏👏

    please consider in future doing the series as podcasts…. seriously think on that🙏🙏


  4. Once again you have made your essay subject fascinating.
    The history,it’s purpose,it’s emotional impact.
    You have a unique style of writing which I thoroughly enjoy. I also loved the pictures.
    Thank you, I look forward to your next piece.


  5. So interesting and informative. I am regarding paper with a new respect especially all the junk mail I receive which makes a brief journey from my mail box to my local council recycling bin!


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