The delegate's tale

Christopher Bigsby on conferences’ picaresque perils and delights

April 26, 2012

As birds fly south in the winter, so academics feel an irrational urge to go to conferences where they can exchange knowledge, along with the latest virus to have leapt from chickens to man. Global warming scientists fly around the world to warn others against doing so. Literature professors cross frontiers to talk about trans-nationalism and visit former colonies to discourse on post-colonialism as their rooms are cleaned by low-paid women working for distant corporations.

Young American PhDs talk of hegemonic patriarchalism and go to sleep muttering the names of French theoreticians. Germans lie awake waiting for the verb. Others spring into consciousness, paradoxically remembering that they had forgotten their memory sticks - and this in a country where computer keyboards know nothing of QWERTY, so that urgent messages home arrive as though fresh from an Enigma machine.

Conferences bring people together, but not always for the reasons you might suspect. At one, I saw a group of women from different countries engaged in conversation.

“You seem to get on well,” I observed. “Yes,” said one of them, “we’ve got something in common.” “What?” I asked. “We’ve all got cystitis,” she explained.

On another occasion, in India, my host took me to the roof of his house. “Do you see the tree across the road?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“The English hanged my grandfather from that tree,” he declared. Being English, however, I knew what to say. “I’m terribly sorry,” I said.

“No,” he replied, “it is things like that which bring us together.”

David Lodge has suggested that conference-going can be likened to medieval pilgrimages, except that the latter were designed to absolve sin while the former existed to commit them. In academe, though, sin stopped with the arrival of the research assessment exercise.

Many of these conferences take place in countries whose language seems oversupplied with consonants and where menus appear to be written in Klingon, and not entirely without justification. To reach them, academics find themselves confined to airlines with names such as Icarus, not only a low-cost but a low-altitude airline, on which the cabin crew, indicating what to do in case of an emergency, are liable to include the sign of the cross. On one airline, and I swear this is true, the safety card had a pictogram of an aircraft flying into the side of a mountain.

A friend and his wife had to sprint across an airport as a result of the fictional nature of airline schedules. They arrived out of breath at the gate to be met by a helpful stewardess who seized their belongings as they boarded. The plane taxied to the end of the runway and the engines began to surge, at which point the wife turned to the husband and asked, “Where’s the baby?” The baby had been in a carrycot on which they had draped their coats and which, thanks to the helpful stewardess, was now in the unpressurised hold. The plane, you will be glad to know, returned to the gate.

Another friend, who suffered from narcolepsy, nonetheless persisted in chairing sessions. He would introduce the speaker, return to his seat and fall asleep, the only person not realising this being the speaker. When the applause woke him he would ask an all-purpose question that never failed: “I wonder if you put sufficient emphasis on women?” Even if the woman was a feminist she would be overcome with guilt.

I once chaired an international panel in which a speaker from somewhere deep in Asia went on beyond his time. I was about to pass him a note saying “One more minute” when I realised that I couldn’t remember whether the word “minute”, meaning a unit of time, was spelled in the same way as the word “minute”, meaning extremely small. What would happen if I passed it to him and he said, “one more minute (as in very small) what?” Would he take it as a comment on his size, and he was on the short side, or as something worse? So I never passed it to him and he went on for another 20 minutes (“units of time”, not “very small”).

On yet another occasion the woman delivering her lecture collapsed in my arms, me being in the front row. She then refused to leave the stage until I had finished her lecture. So, with increasing dread (it was not an overwhelmingly good lecture), I read on as she sat beside me with her head between her legs.

Nor are hotels the haven of comfort they are presented as being. On one occasion in the US, a fire alarm went off at 3am, quickly followed by a recorded message that began: “Do not be alarmed. A fire has been detected. The fire brigade has been notified. Do not leave your room. Place a damp towel along the bottom of the door.” How the first sentence could be said to relate to the others was beyond me. And how damp does a towel have to be to defeat a towering inferno? And why was this a recording?

Nor are conferences without their danger. In Moscow I had a bowl of generic soup. I spent the next 24 hours projectile vomiting, and that was literally the half of it. Later, I went down to the hotel coffee bar. The week after I left it was machine-gunned by the Russian mafia.

So, as with a pilgrimage, we travel in the face of adversity in the hope of enlightenment, and return home, Icarus Airlines permitting, having earned air miles if not absolution, the only problem being that the air miles can be spent only on Icarus Airlines.

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