Interesting North

Now that the dust has more-or-less settled, write-ups of Interesting North are starting to emerge around the web. So far, they’ve been really positive – which is a slightly strange feeling, especially where people are crediting me directly. It wasn’t really me – I was just one of the catalysts – so it seems a little unfair on the speakers and everyone else involved to heap too much praise in my direction.

I lived with the organising for about nine months, from actually making the decision to do this to the day itself. For much of that time, not much happened – the real hard work, if that’s the right term for it, was crammed into the last few weeks. And I didn’t do it all myself – although doing things by committee is never the most efficient of processes, there were a hardcore of people ready and willing to pitch in with physical assistance when it was needed. I folded 300 tshirts, and packed 300 bags, and the family keyed 300 booktitles into BookCrossing. Students at Sheffield Hallam made 200m of bunting. Greg single-handledly produced a newspaper. And so it went on.

At the outset, my main fear was that it would be a damp squib rather than an abject failure. That it would be only a few people who turned up, speakers wouldn’t show, the AV wouldn’t work properly, and the reaction would be one of sympathy and “oh, well, never mind” rather than outrage at outright disaster. Once the ticket sales ticked passed the hundred mark, I could relax slightly. Then it sold out, so the concern about attendance diminished. But then a whole new set of stresses emerge – did I remember to check whether the AV desk could feed the video camera with sound? Would we be able to get 250 people across the road for lunch and back inside an hour?

If I’m absolutely honest, I didn’t enjoy the day. Not because it went horribly wrong – it didn’t – but because if it had have gone horribly wrong, there would have been nothing I could do about it. It’s a little like watching a child pedal away from you the first time you take the stabilisers off the bike. There’s a few moments when you can run alongside to catch them, but once they accelerate away from you, there’s nothing you can do except watch. And once I’d hit play on the titles video, that was it – whether it worked or not was out of my hands. Fortunately I had a professional taking care of linking everything together, and watching Joel Fryer in action made me very glad that my part in the standing up and talking was a minor one. He makes it look easy, but it’s not. Put me on a stage with a subject I’m comfortable with, and I’m very rarely nervous – but I find ad-hoc presentation strangely terrifying.

Being completely unable to control how events unfold, and yet still be immersed in them, is a strange and not-entirely comfortable feeling. And standing at the back of the room, the better to be able to warn the catering team for the moment that the coffee was needed, it was very difficult to get a feel for how people were reacting. So I found myself worrying – pointlessly as it turned out – about the overrunning schedule, and the occasional sound glitches, and the slightly dodgy acoustics. If you’re watching the speakers concentrating more on the clock and the PA than what they’re saying, you’re probably better off finding other things to do – so I spent most of the day behind the scenes rather than in the hall. Which is a shame, because I missed some genii by all accounts.

From the feedback I’ve had, both online and in real life, I was worryingly needlessly. Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves, including the speakers, and there have been plenty of people asking if I’m going to do it again. The short answer is that I don’t know. I’m not sure how compatible it would have been with a “real” job – fortunately Rattle were very understanding about the time sink that Interesting North became, but it would have been a lot harder if I’d been sneaking around trying to do this in someone else’s time. It would also be highly dependent on sponsorship – I was very fortunate to have some very generous sponsors, but without them it would have been a major financial risk for me personally. And without the team – all of whom have commitments of their own – none of it would have happened.

Of course – once I’ve caught up with sleep, got rid of the detritus of cardboard boxes that are left over and decided what to do with all the spare books and coloured pencils, I’m probably going to feel differently about it. So the answer to the question is a qualified “yes” at the moment. It would be a shame to waste the goodwill; now that the word is out about what Interesting North was, it should be easier to shift the tickets. Hopefully the sponsors will want to be involved again. And the memory of sitting bolt upright in bed panicking about whether I’d told people the right date will have faded.

So see you next year. Maybe. Probably.