Tuesday, 10 September 2013

"Is there anything left that can go wrong?"

I realised, when I took up blogging on behalf of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship, that there would be times when I was unable to keep to my schedule because of other commitments.  None of the hoped-for guest posts have turned up as yet to help me out, so I just had to take a break when I had two literary conferences to help organise on successive weekends.  There is almost nothing more time-consuming than trying to organise a literary conference, and this year's SSF annual conference has been no exception.  What's more, the SSF conference follows hot on the heels of the Barbara Pym Society's annual conference.  This year is the Pym centenary, so for two weekends in a row I was very tied up with organising events.  People keep telling me how tired I look.  Fortunately, they usually tell me, in the same breath, how much they have enjoyed themselves, and this just makes it all worth while.

Difficulties can often be anticipated and either avoided or mitigated when they do occur.  However, there is always something you just didn't think of or plan for, and these spanners seem to have a habit of throwing themselves into the works just as everything seems to be going really well.  I am never quite sure whether things go wrong because I expect them to go wrong or whether even worse things would happen if I didn't worry about it.  It certainly seems as though the things that go wrong are always the ones you never thought of, the possibilities you didn't even consider.

Take, for example, a boat trip up the River Thames.  You have hired the boat, you have a driver and a person to do the commentary and you have ordered the Pimm's.  You have even, after some coaxing and squashing up, managed to get all fifty people on board.  The engine starts up, the crew cast off, and you're away.

Then the driver says, "Is it actually important for us to get to Godstow?"

"Yes," I reply.  "That's the whole point of the trip."

"Ah," he says.  "There's a bit of a problem."

That's when I discovered that, because of low water levels in parts of the river after all the lovely dry and sunny weather we've been having, a barge had run aground, in the exact spot where we expected to unload our passengers!

Now, we had thought of going to Godstow by bus or car, but had dismissed the idea because we know what the traffic is like in Oxford on a Friday afternoon.  One doesn't expect a traffic jam to occur on the river.  Luckily, the passengers were so enchanted by the experience of drifting up the river on a sunny day, looking at the meadows on either bank and being told about the river's literary connections (especially "Alice in Wonderland"), that only one or two were dissatisfied with the trip, even though we never actually arrived at our intended destination.

Usually, members, particularly long-standing members, can be relied on to appreciate everything their organisers try to do to make events enjoyable, and rarely rebel.  The British tend to live up to their reputation for not complaining, or at least not complaining publicly.  In fact, we rather like it when things go wrong, provided that no one is hurt or upset, because it gives us amusing anecdotes to tell in later years.  "Do you remember the time when...?"  We seldom reminisce about the times when everything went like clockwork. Rather, we remember the time so-and-so dozed off during a lecture and fell off his chair, or when a bus broke down or someone got lost - you know the kind of thing.

This year's SSF conference was not short of such little incidents, but the one that caused the most hilarity (after the event, of course) was what happened at the beginning of the afternoon speaker sessions, when our President, Dennis Silk, and Chair, Meg Crane, were both trapped in a disabled lift in a conference room at Cardiff University. They didn't come to any harm, I hasten to add. They were, in fact, able to continue to participate in the conference despite their incarceration.  While awaiting the arrival of an engineer, chairs were passed into the lift to enable them to sit down, and they could see and hear everything that was going on at the front of the room.  Nevertheless, when the engineer arrived and rashly suggested they should "try to climb out", our Chair soon put him straight!

I won't continue.  Members of literary societies are prepared to make light of such little mishaps and, if one is lucky, they return to base saying what a wonderful time they have had.  By the end of the river trip, only a handful of Pym members even remembered that they were supposed to be going to Godstow. Likewise, after the SSF trip to St Fagan's, no one even seemed to notice that the minibus driver hadn't a clue where he was going. The organiser, however, remained mortified.

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