Worship Street Whistling Shop: Gorgeous Cocktails

We often encourage students to engage in reflection as part of their learning experience. Reflective practice – we as academics argue – makes you not only a better learner but it is a useful activity to engage in throughout your life as part of seeking to enhance your own individual performance and development. 

It is in that spirit that I case my mind back over the last week. Regular Twitter followers will know that I spent most of last week in London, and came back with slightly less dislike for the city that I’ve never fully ‘got’.

Anyway, I kicked off the week on Wednesday with a wonderful tweet-up on the theme of law and sex organized by Myles Jackman and Alex Dymock. I confess to having mixed emotions about the event. On the one hand (and my over-whelming feeling), I loved the idea of bringing together academics, lawyers, activists, the media and ‘practitioners’ in one informal setting. On the other hand, I’m not someone who enjoys events meeting strangers, finding the whole social thing difficult when its not people I know well and am comfortable with. As I get older, I realise this is quite a common feeling but it’s one of those things that we still seem collectively uneasy about admitting. A bit like revealing an impressive dildo collection.

There was also the worry that nobody would turn up. All of which turned out to be utterly without foundation. The evening was a triumph, packed out with a wonderful mix of folks with familiar faces, and new ones combining to forge a most enjoyable evening. It was Jane Fae who – and this is so often the case – made one casual remark during the evening which I’ve been pondering ever since. She placed the event in the context of a more open dialogue about sex that seemed to be taking place. We were – she suggested – more willing to come out about and talk about sex.

I remain uncertain. It’s certainly true that there seems to have been an explosion in events in the last 24 months which seek to bring together academics from a range of disciplines, along with activists, campaigners, journalists, commentators and simply those interested in sex. It’s been wonderful to see and I think it has immense potential to transform the national and international discourse on sex in the medium-long term. Simply getting academics from different disciplines in the same room is a major achievement in itself let alone then creating a positive dialogue with and between other parties.

Yet, how much is this known beyond what might be termed an intellectual and liberal elite? On that, I’m really unsure. Wednesday evening had lots of wonderful people but the room seemed full of high-flyers and creative types (plus apparently an undercover cop). Sex workers were leading sex workers. Journalists were high profile figures or editors. Lawyers were senior or clearly bright and heading for a fantastic future ahead. I suppose this is as much my own realisation that I too am part of this liberal intellectual elite, that I too am non-representative and isolated from the mass populace. It’s rather thrilling to be surrounded by, and part of such a bunch of folks, and yet it is also immensely humbling, and rather awe-inspiring when one stops to consider the potential power to influence and shape national policy and thinking that was contained in that subterranean cocktail bar last Wednesday. If however, we are that ‘elite’, that removed power force, who is to say we have nay more right to influence policy than the elite already in place? I’m not sure how to get out of this circular pattern of thinking but at least acknowledging it seems a useful starting point.

Anyway, it was a fairly restrained evening for me on the booze front (£9 a cocktail not that I was counting (I was)). The following day was an interesting affair. I deliberately spent the morning wandering around the banks of the Thames, thinking and reflecting, something I’ve not had the chance to do in some time. In the evening I was speaking at the launch of Policing Sex – an edited collection available now from all good bookshops (go on, buy it).

I knew I had 10minutes and had to focus on the policing aspects of my chapter (on policing dogging) and wanted to spend part of the day thrashing out a structure that meant I could squeeze something meaningful into the short period I would have that evening. I also had arranged to receive instructions as an expert witness in a case so I also wandered off for that and a refreshing Nero Mango Fruit Booster (a major weakness of mine, particularly when the weather warms up). I then dived back to the hotel for a quick collection of thoughts and then on to Birkbeck for the launch. I wasn’t sure what to expect room wise and whilst most people had a detailed script (which looked longer than 10mins) my scribbled notes in my pocket suddenly seemed rather inadequate. As it turned out, it went well, with the room laughing when I wanted to and looking engaged and serious at other points. Post-launch conversation was convivial and it was nice to again meet up with people that I’d only talked to online.

It was also great to see some folks from the previous evening and the questioning to the BBFC chap around R v Peacock was fascinating. Apparently, not the game-changing case some believe, at least as far as they are concerned. Lovely chap but I wasn’t convinced by his logic. Nonetheless, another whirl of thoughts followed. I was also given some freebie wine as part of a sponsorship but sadly lacking a bag I gave it away. It’s not often I end an evening giving away wine. Anyway, back to the hotel I headed at around 9.30pm to pull together my paper for a conference on the Friday.

By this point, I was having a great time, but I was also starting to flag. I hadn’t had chance to pull together the paper for Friday prior to this point having been busy with work and (stupidly as it proved) opting to take some thinking time on the Thursday morning. Anyway, back at the hotel, BBC Question Time blurring in the background, I tried to order my thoughts while munching on some Percy Pig and Pals. I realised that there was a lot to say and knocked together a few PowerPoint slides to give some structure to what was a published paper. I knew there was a lot to get in but feeling rather tired I decided that if I got up early I could polish it off and it would all work once I was in my small session.

Arriving at the conference, it became instantly apparent that this was a much smaller event than the previous one a few years ago, and also a narrower bunch of people. Many papers seemed to have been withdrawn (as well as delegates) and my paper became effectively a plenary joined with a rather different paper on cancer rates in lesbian women. I don’t blame the organisers for this, they had done a sterling job of keeping the show on the road and managing to operate a conference against the odds but the two papers were not going to be an ideal match.

I knew as soon as I started that things were not going to go well. I wasn’t confortable with what I was going to say and my initial opening throw away lines (designed to ease my nerves and get a feel for the audience) went down like the proverbial lead balloon. I tend to use humour to provide a rythem to a paper and to get me through. It re-assures me people are engaged and listening and is a device I developed years ago to ensure that I could overcome my nerves at such events – given me the air of confidence when I’m anything but.

Of course, humour is subjective and when I get really nervous I tend to say things as they come into my head. This means they are typically slightly rude and often inappropriate (unless you share my inappropriate and rude sense of humour). By the time I was talking about bareback sex and made some remark about “a wild stab in the dark” the wheels had well and truly come off my presentation. My time was cut mid-way through, compounding my own mistakes to guarantee a dogs dinner of a paper. Tutting lesbians and embarrassed looks assured me that the only way this was going to end well would be a bolt of lightening and a sympathy narrative. I talked whilst trying to find a phrase, a statement to end of the paper. When I did there was a silence. A good couple of minutes seemed to pass before an uncertain and brief applause. ‘Please let me run away and die’ was all I could think. Questions followed but we were told (in a statement lasting about 3mins) that time was limited. A brief question (combative but understandable) followed and I was told I had no time to answer. In a sense I was pleased but I was also livid. I ventured a brief answer and another interjection disagreed with me on a point. By this point I mumbled something and sat down. I didn’t care, I wanted it over with. I then sat through a paper that I found alien to my interests. It was – for me – extremely dull but the audience seemed to enjoy it and asked thoughtful questions. I was at the wrong event. 

It’s ask true I’ve had bad papers before and I will again. Usually all self-induced (as this one) by a lack of preparation. It’s a reminder for student readers that things can and do go badly pear shaped for lecturers too – and that our advice is borne from experience.

The maddening thing of course is that a bunch of academics will talk about that car crash of a paper for some time. Oh well.

Anyway, I went for a brief walk at the end of the conference to clear my head before heading over to the Guardian office complex for a very large glass of white wine with a friend before heading home. Talk about ups and downs.

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