Sunday, 29 January 2012

How it was for me

Various people have asked me what it's like doing an inaugural, and whether I enjoyed it. The second is very easy to answer: no, I didn't and no it didn't get better once I got started. It was terrifying the entire way through. The first part of the question takes a little longer, still, I thought I'd give it a try.

Walking over to the Gustave Tuck, with the DH team and Ray and Lynne: I'm still quite relaxed, walk through the door- and the nerves hit me. I start to set up presentations- all going well until... 'What does this mean? I can't see my notes? I have to see my notes! I won't remember what to say' Panic starts to nibble at the edges of my brain. I'm supposed to be a geek, but I can't work out what to do- my mind fuddled by fear. The tech support guys take over, fiddle about with my laptop and fix it. Panic recedes for now, but it's there ready to take over, if I let it.

There's nothing to do now, but watch the Lecture theatre fill up. I stand chatting to the Dean, people-spotting, pretend not to be nervous; I don't think he's fooled. Time to sit and listen to him and Melissa doing the intros. Strange calm descends- I find myself walking up to the front. I forget to turn the mic on then remember a few minutes into talk. Looking out on a room full of faces, most familiar, some not- this surprises me (who but a kindly friend or colleague would want to hear me talk after all?) I don't really know how to begin this talk, so I just do. I can't pick up the mood of the room. First few slides- no real feedback. Do they get this? Is it going to work? I hear myself speaking- watching for reactions, not getting much. Some people look pensive, friends look a bit confused, the Dean seems to be frowning. Oh well, never mind, forget it, move on.

Talking about DH and collaboration- smiles and nods from the DH people. Talking about ordeals and selfish professors: laughter, agreement from the Cambridge crowd who don't think much of profs. Another of the three Deans in the room is frowning. The VP research looks thoughtful- is that good or bad thoughtful? Never mind, forget, move on.

Talking about gender unfriendliness and outdated rituals: I dare not look at any of the Deans or the VP research. Other people seem to like it. I sense silent whoops and fist pumps and begin to notice fingers flying across screens as people tweet. This has to be better.

I suddenly realise that I can't remember what time it was when I started. How long have I been talking? I know I'm now half way through the slides, but have I said too little? Too much? Nothing to be done, but use the instinct for timing you get from hundreds of lectures and hope for the best. Still watching the faces. Another Dean frowns; in fact I fear they are all at it now. What did I expect? I knew this was going to be controversial. Too late to stop- anyway I believe what I'm saying. Forget, move on.

Faces light up with smiles as I mention a name, a joint project, something we care about. UCLDH colleagues are at the front, DIS at the back, others DH, and UCL around the room. I feel support, positivity, agreement come up like waves. Frowns are less noticeable now, but still worrying. Never mind, forget, move on.

Everything seems to go slowly- I check the notes. Did I say what I wanted to say? Have I said this before? Did I say too much about that? Too late- need to move on. Someone looks bored- oh no, the worst thing. Remember, it doesn't matter, they won't all like it, you can't be perfect (Frieda's advice comes back to me) Almost at the last slides. I try not to let myself feel relief- if I feel anything the fear could still come for me. I look up, feel lots of positive energy from the room- Deans perhaps frowning less noticeably. Don't care- time to stop. I expect to feel relief- don't. I still feel hyper-aware as I listen to Ray's conclusion. We crashed the live streaming server. I am delighted, amazed, incredulous. How many people were there out there listening? Did they like it?

End of the lecture: people come up to congratulate me, shake hands, smile, say well done. I feel as though I am talking through a glass wall- everything is slow, distant, a bit unreal.

I'm walking across to the Grant Museum, talking as we go. Still no relief, I'm still not elated. There is good reason, as it turns out. The catering has not arrived. I feel numb, shocked, disbelieving. It must be here- just let me look for it and it will appear. It doesn't. Two Deans, Henry and Stephen, now definitely frowning, look as shocked as I am. No time to wonder what's wrong- they start to deal with it. I am as stupid and useless with nerves as I was with the tech problem. Rapid conversations with a number of people, faces come and go, offering ideas, explanations, help: nobody knows what's wrong. Melissa is in crisis management mode- suggesting solutions, giving reassurance, staying cheerful. People offer to help; are sent, dashing about UCL to find out what's going on and get help. I want to join them, help sort it out, fade into the background, be anywhere but here. But no, it's my party. 'You go and talk to people- we will sort it out'. Bewildered and useless, I do.

Suddenly Henry appears, puts a glass of wine into my hand and disappears before I can ask what's happening. Nobody else has one. Where did it come from? This seems wrong, but before I can protest, others appear, and people do what they ought to and start to drink and talk. Most are still here- now smiling, laughing, making a joke of it. But the Dean and most of the UCLDH team have disappeared. I am trying to talk to so many people at once I don't have time to wonder where they have gone. Now everything speeds up- I want to talk to everyone, but keep missing people. Short, fractured conversations get left mid sentence as I flit about from one group to another, always missing someone, never talking for long enough. People congratulate me, tell me what a great lecture it was. I still feel numb: I'm pleased, but I can't really take this in. Half my mind is still on the wine- where did it come from? Where are the others?

I escape and find Jack, manager of the Grant serving wine with Claire, heroically pouring drinks one-handed, her other arm still in its sling. Suddenly the others arrive, laden with bags full of drinks. Melissa, Tim, Henry, Simon, Andy, Steve are opening boxes, unscrewing bottles, smiling, talking, pleased to have effected a miracle. They have been out to buy all this, while Jack's stop-gap stash from the Grant Museum was being drunk. I am relieved, grateful, delighted, don't know how to thank them for what they have done. This is proof if it were ever needed of all I have been saying about UCLDH and what a wonderful team of people I work with. We smile at each other, overwhelmed by relief at the saving of the party. I try to find the right words to tell them how happy and thankful I feel, but nothing can express it adequately. I hope they know. We'll never forget it; we'll laugh about it soon, but for now, people are recovering, congratulating each other, faces alive with pleasure, beginning to relax, war stories already being told. I have no idea how long all this took- time seemed to stand still, but now accelerates.

There isn't enough time to talk to everyone- people leave, say goodbye and thank you, and I feel I barely had chance to say hello. Then we are shooing people out, collecting glasses, thanking Jack for all he's done, collecting people to go to dinner, wondering where to go (impossible to predict times or numbers for a booking). Finally luck chooses to favour us, and we find a table at Paradiso, and have a wonderful, happy, relaxed dinner, and which nothing goes wrong, and nobody even looks pensive, or frowns. At last we walk back down Gower street, people going off to Tubes and hotels. It's over. I'm glad. It takes a long time to get to sleep that night.


  1. Wow. You are the proverbial swan - i had no idea that paddling was going on under water!

    i thought you'd be checking the twitter hashtag for feedback but thinking about it that would be too much multitasking even for a DHer.

    Well done and never again!

  2. It was the most awesome Inaugaral I have ever been to. I am glad i came over from that unmentionable institution on the Strand to hear you and I thank Ernesto for inviting me and getting me a ticket.

    I would go as far as saying that along with a dose of UCL envy I certainly have a new academic inspiration.

  3. This is such a brilliant post; you get us there in your stream of consciousness, thank you.

    It was an amazing lecture and I don't think anyone realised you were nervous (as in that nervous) at all. I'm so embarrassed now I didn't even realise there had been a real problem with the catering-- we thought it was just a bit delayed and that we had arrived early and we were having fun exploring the amazing Grant collection and catching up.

    The way we experienced it was that the booze arrived just in time! Apologies for not helping more, but the fact I was oblivious to it shows how well it was managed by the UCLDH team!