Sunday, 11 October 2020

Brontë talk: Zoom versus room – the organiser’s viewpoint

 On 7 October we came together to listen to a talk. Before COVID, this always happened in a room. But this time we met on Zoom.

My memories of rooms we have gathered in over the years go back to 2007, when the Brussels Brontë Group started up. There was the library in the Cercle des Voyageurs, that atmospheric downtown Brussels restaurant cum cultural centre in Rue des Grand Carmes. Fifty of us crammed into it for our first-ever talk, by Brussels journalist Derek Blyth. There was the room in Université Saint-Louis on the Boulevard du Jardin Botanique that became our permanent venue for a decade. And there is our current venue near the Woluwe Shopping Centre, where we hope to return post-COVID restrictions.

Nicholas Marsh speaking to the BBG at Universite Saint-Louis in 2010.

A lot has to happen behind the scenes before we can meet in a physical space to listen to Juliet Barker or Lucasta Miller or John Sutherland all the way from London or Yorkshire. For me, as the coordinator of practical arrangements, the day of an event is the culmination of months and weeks of email exchanges with speakers, hotels, the venue contact person, the caterer, the technician, the caretaker who will be present on the day.

Days or weeks beforehand, the niggling worries begin. What if the speaker (or their small child) falls ill? What if their Eurostar breaks down or is cancelled due to a railway strike? What if the equipment doesn’t work and (truly terrifying prospect) there is no PowerPoint? What if the coffee doesn’t turn up because the caterer has flu?

Things do go wrong. On 27 February 2010, our lecturer Nicholas Marsh was due to travel here on the Thalys from Paris, where he lived. But the Thalys was disrupted in the wake of the Halle train collision on 15 February. We hoped it would return to normal in time but it didn’t and at the last moment Nicholas, who didn’t own a car, had to hire one and drive here. He arrived with five minutes to spare.

Juliet Barker in 2016.

Brontë biographer Juliet Barker was to fly here from the north of England on 15 April 2016. But after the terrorist attacks at Brussels airport on 22 March many flights were cancelled or diverted. The announcement of a Belgian air traffic controllers’ strike seemed the last straw. Miraculously, however, Juliet managed to find a plane that did make it to Brussels airport.

Getting the speaker here is the main concern, but there are myriad other things that can go wrong. The hour or two setting the venue up before the doors open are anxious ones. While everyone else is enjoying their croissants and looking forward to being transported into a realm of thought, imagination and romance, the organiser’s head is full of chairs, coffee cups and cables. There aren’t enough chairs and the caretaker is nowhere to be found. A vital piece of equipment is missing. There was that time when Ola, with minutes to go, had to rush to the shops to buy the right cable (or was it an adaptor?) to connect the laptop to the projector.

But things have a way of coming right on the day. The speaker gets here, the PowerPoint works and there is coffee for everyone.

Once the attendees arrive and there’s a buzz of conversation, I can begin to enjoy the event. As the organiser, though, I can’t really relax until it is over. During the talk, I’ll be worrying about the odd noises coming from the microphone, or about whether it’s too hot and whether I should open a window and risk aircraft noises.

However. There is nothing to beat the rush of adrenalin on the day, and then the rush of relief and satisfaction afterwards when it is clear people have enjoyed it and you can relax totally and go for a drink to exchange impressions.

Each event, and I hope I speak for others too, adds to my store of memories of coming together with a speaker in a particular space, in a particular part of Brussels, with a particular group of people.

On 7 October, we heard a talk by Karen Hewitt. When it was first planned, everything was going to be as usual. The usual worries – and the usual pleasures. There was a meal with Karen and other committee members to look forward to, followed perhaps by a drink in Grand Place. The chance to get to know the speaker is one of the many satisfactions of being the organiser.

Then COVID happened and suddenly we could no longer meet in a room. Instead, we discovered Zoom.

In one sense, this talk wasn’t really organised by me at all, since Ana, our technical wizard, set it up and made sure we all knew what to do. She ensured we muted or unmuted ourselves and could ‘chat’, if we wanted, through the Chat function.

We wanted to replicate at least some aspects of the real experience, so attendees were allowed to ask questions in person, if they wished, rather than typing them out in ‘Chat’.

While COVID restrictions last, I am pleased that we have a way of meeting up and holding events, and I welcome the fact that attendees outside Belgium can join us at the click of a mouse. But as for the relative satisfactions, for the organiser, of organising a talk in a room or on Zoom, I think I can leave you to draw your own conclusions.

Do please, however, continue to Zoom with us until we can safely meet in a room.

Helen MacEwan

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