A very British congressBMJ 1998; 317 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.317.7152.220 (Published 18 July 1998) Cite this as: BMJ 1998;317:220
Normally I am cynical about spas and large congresses. Both have something a little too artificial about them for my taste. Nevertheless, at the end of June there I was in our local watering place, wearing a name badge with a long ribbon marked “chairman,” and awaiting the arrival of a thousand obstetricians.
Four years ago, it had seemed a good idea. The British Congress last came to Leeds in 1952, when (according to his Lancetobituary)one of my predecessors presided over it with grace and charm. That sounded fun, and anyway my colleagues and I thought that after 46 years of enjoying other people's hospitality it was only polite to invite them back.
For three years and 11 months the congress loomed over us, distant but inevitable, like a postgraduate exam. Our first planning meetings were relaxed and expansive. A floodlit concert at Fountains Abbey? Atalk from Betty Boothroyd? Then we realised that the trick was to blend imagination and practicality.
In the final weeks, things became eerily quiet. Most of the stress was falling on the professional organiser, who responded with more grace and charm than I could muster. When she told me that an eminentspeaker had had a serious accident, I telephoned his secretary. “Are you quite sure he can't stand up? What if we …” A distinguished and understanding replacement performed brilliantly.
At 17.50 on day zero I joined the line to greet the royal couple who were to open the proceedings. What we had not realised was that the ceremony would coincide with the England and Argentina match in the World Cup, and that one of the couple was a keen football supporter.The congress was opened with dignity, warmth, and a minimum of delay.The royals departed for their stately homeand everyone else crowdedaround hastily erected screens in the exhibition hall. Apart from the disallowed goal the highlight for me was negotiating with the football hating hall manager as the game went to extra time
For the next three days I carried a dysfunctional walkie talkie and operated on a need to know basis. There was nothing I could do about strike hit railways or the spontaneous combustion of the van carrying the abstract books. What a chairmanis useful for, I discovered,isreasoning with people who try to talk their way in without paying.
Surprisingly, my cynicism about congresses evaporated. Of the thousand people, nearly half wereactive contributors and all of them—from student stewards to jet setters—were on their mettle and anxious to do well. For the first time I realised just how much creative energy goes into these meetings.
It ended as it began amid sporting gloom, caused, this time, by Tim Henman's defeat at Wimbledon. The damage to the national psyche did not affect the bar of the Majestic Hotel, where stragglers rendered some impromptu Gilbert and Sullivan. An overseas speaker remarked that this was a very British congress and I could see what he meant.