God of small meetings
Laurie Taylor asks for a show of hands. Wine will be served later
I seem to have turned into a chair. Or rather a Chair. Whenever anyone decides to have a public debate about the demise of postmodernism or the advance of American imperialism or the extension of the London congestion charge to Dollis Hill, they first of all beaver away for three months compiling an exciting list of controversial speakers, and then spend their last five minutes pencilling me in as chairperson.
It's taken me a while to come to grips with the speed of this development. One day I was in demand as a thrusting independent speaker and the next I was forced into a ritual role where not much more is required than the capacity to read out the biographies of four speakers, hold up a card saying 'One minute please', count the number of hands for and against the motion, and announce that there was some cheap wine available in the lobby for those without a home to go to.
I wouldn't be quite so concerned if there were any concrete evidence that I am a gifted middleman. But so far not a single soul has come up to me after a debate and congratulated me on my admirably non-partisan performance. While the principal protagonists are busy being photographed or fighting off sexual invitations, I'm left to skulk away to the foyer where the best I can hope for is the odd nod of recognition. ("Look, darling", said one woman to her young daughter after my more than competent chairing of an Institute of Education debate about the abolition of private schools, "There's that silly man who got the vote all wrong").
Neither does there seem to be adequate recognition of the stress involved in chairing. Only two weeks ago I found myself implicated in a debate at City University on animal rights. The protagonists were an animal experimenter who was happy enough to annihilate the entire cat population of the UK if it would lead to the production of a better wrinkle removal cream, and an animal rights activist who believed that the only way to deal with the problem was to garrotte the experimenters and their next of kin. Before the debate started the organiser casually told me to keep the speakers away from the edge of the platform. "Last time 'Doctor X' spoke (he was referring to the pro-experimentation speaker) someone in the audience picked up his chair, raced down the aisle, and tried to impale the speaker on the end of it. Thank God the chairperson took the force of the blow."
This isn't the only dirty work left to the chair. On my last appearance at the ICA for a debate on the merits of reality television, I was told to take special care when the motion was put to the floor. "Don't take any questions from an elderly man with a big straggly beard or from a woman with spiky red hair and BLIAR badges on her leather jacket. They're both nutters." As all the public debates I've ever chaired seemed to feature at least a dozen straggly bearded men and several score spiky red-haired women, I opted for safety and excluded anyone who even approximated either description. "No, not you. Not the woman with the leather jacket. No, definitely not the man with the beard. The person behind you."
In the end I was driven to ask an academic colleague from the Politics Department at Birkbeck if he could think of any reason why I might have suddenly become mere chair material. At first he tried to fob me off by mentioning people like Robin Day and David Dimbleby who'd built immense reputations out of such a role. But when I pointed out that my own chairing was rather more likely to be conducted at Conway Hall than Television Centre, he finally admitted that he did have a theory about my demotion.
"I watched you in a number of debates when you were a speaker. Like the time when you were against dumbing down at the National Portrait Gallery and for euthanasia at the Lansdowne Club. It was not inspiring. You seemed to be finding it difficult to have a strong opinion . In fact, you rather recalled Michael Frayn's classic admission."
"And what admission was that?"
"How did it go? Ah yes. 'To be honest, what I feel really bad about is that I don't feel worse. That is the intellectual's problem in a nutshell.'"
Now, are there any points anyone else would like to make?