Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Skeptical Pub Crawling

I'm stupidly excited to announce that the skeptical movement in Wales is growing! "Skeptics in the Pub in Wales" is soon likely to become an umbrella group. Cardiff should be taking off in September, interest has been expressed in Swansea, and a Twitterer assures me that plans are afoot to set up in Aberystwyth too. But Dean and I are concentrating on Cardiff first.

For Skeptics in the Pub, you need speakers, an audience and a venue. A couple of weeks ago I went to London and Manchester to sniff out, i.e. smile stupidly at and pester ruthlessly, potential speakers. Through that, Facebook and Twitter, I have dragged a "yes" out of Hayley Stevens, Jourdemayne, Evan Harris, Simon Singh, Jack of Kent, and Simon Perry (now to find out whether name-dropping actually does encourage anybody to turn up - let me know - at worst, at least you wonderful people are publically booked in now!). Simon has produced a wonderful PDF of handy hints at setting up Skeptics in the Pub groups, and recommends starting off with a bang. Having nearly wet myself laughing at his "Skeptical Activity and the Quacklash" lecture in Manchester, I'm hoping he will fill that role himself this coming September.

Simon Perry giving his "Skeptical Activism and the Quacklash" talk in Manchester. If you want to know why he's waving his arms or who the person on his screen is, come along in September . . .

While I've been the insane chatterbox, Dean has been doing the much harder work which would doubtless stump me: getting together an amazing collection of venues, as well as seeing what we can get in the way of local publicity! He's also just written two amazing blog posts, one for Birmingham Skeptics and the other for the Twenty-First Floor. Don't forget that he's actually a neuroscientist, too. You can also read more about what being both these things involves here. To be both a scientist and a comedian strikes me as the most marvellous combination. Especially for skepticism. I'm quite envious, being officially neither.

Anyway, after a lot of skeptical planning, it occurred to us that we really ought to actually meet each other, as well as that I should check out said venues. So that was how I spent last Monday. (Yet another train journey. I think I live on the train. I learnt on the way that Cornish Fairings are actually ginger snaps, though I initially misheard it as Cornish Fairies - this took the biscuit!) After a bit of a mixup with the Internet predicting that my train would be half an hour later than it was, and then my failure to realise there was a car park behind Cardiff Central as well as in front, we spotted each other only too easily. I was wearing my "Keep Libel Laws out of Science" shirt, and he was wearing one which said "Science: it works, bitches" and sports a graph of radiation at the moment of the Big Bang on the back. So Dean's wife and then seven pubs were certainly greeted by the best possible nerd deputation! Apparently I am their first visitor ever to look out of the window and ask: "So, where's the brothel and the chiropractor?" But I did have a very good reason. And yes, we did pass them on the way into town!

A Skeptics in the Pub venue needs, of course, to be a pub. It also needs to be suitable for giving a lecture in, which preferably means having a projector and screen of some description - and the room also needs to be the right shape. The first pub we saw was lovely - all wooden and light and airy, with an upstairs floor, amazing looking food, and a sparkling view of the bay. But it was sort of hexagonal, with rooms leading into other rooms and various awkward levels and walls in the way - a lecture would be impossible there. On the other hand, it shouldn't be too lecture-ish. One place had an upstairs room that would have been ideal if it was a bit cleaner and less reminiscent of a school hall - it was perfectly square with a squeaky grey floor and yellow walls. The venue also needs to serve food as well as a decent range of drinks, because a lot of people - especially in this case! - would be travelling to it and probably want to eat when they arrived. The staff, too, make a lot of difference: in one place they barely seemed to notice we were there, and, while friendly, were not particularly interested in hearing about what could offer or what we needed.

It was a boiling hot day so I got to sample one place's ice cream and another place's Coca-Cola. Of course, this gave us more opportunity to chat with the staff. That gave me the opportunity to sell the idea of our lecture series a bit. I told them truthfully how well-behaved the Skeptics are: no brawling, no puking, and so on - at least not that I've yet seen - but as there were quite a few of us coming, likely to buy food, they'd get a lot of money out of us. Some places were willing to let us have a function room for free. Others asked for a fee, of £50 or £100, but upon hearing more about us made some encouraging noises about waiving it if they made that sort of money out of us anyway.

Some of the complications were, well, complicated. Others were simple. One pub was willing to let us have the room but wanted to introduce all sorts of whereases and whereins and were a bit iffy about weeknights. Another was enthusiastic about having us but - I pointed out to Dean when hopefully the manager and barman weren't listening - had an unpleasant smell. Dean was aware of all kinds of technicalities which would have gone way over my head, while my reactions were instinctive perceptions on the look and odour and friendliness of the place. But guess what? We still agreed on the best place. It was the soberest pub crawl I've ever been on, but by far the most satisfactory!

That's that side sorted. There's plenty more to do. Cardiff is a more awkward location than, say, London for most speakers to get to, and the train fares aren't cheap, so we may have to do a bit of fund-raising. We've had an offer to do some advertising for us, but the advertiser in question seems to want to give the impression that it's all their work and idea, so to say the least that one is out. I've promised to draw up a table of what day of the week and what week of the month other Skeptic groups have their evenings, to try and avoid clashing with them for those who might like to travel to both! Now, I must actually do that rather than fall asleep early every evening . . . If you are likely to come to a Cardiff lecture, do please let me know what day of the week suits you. (It will not be Friday or a weekend.) Then we coordinate the speakers. Dean and I both have potential talks brewing, so at least we'll be able to fill in if nobody likes us or the unpronouncable volcano gets at the trains next or what have you. Oh, and we hope to get our own website soon . . .

Well, we're going to make a bit of a change to Wales. Not bad for a summer's work, eh? Hope to see you there!

PS Do check out Dean's version, which contains all the indiscreet comments about individual pubs that I so carefully avoided mentioning as well as awarding me about 8 different names.

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