Ian McMillan: Agenda for the conference when nobody came

I’M on the board of a little organisation that deals with the selling of books to bookshops which means that once a quarter I have to hop on a train and go somewhere in the country for A Meeting.

I note that as I sit in Carriage D going through my meeting papers lots of other people are doing the same thing. People from Doncaster are going to London for meetings and when I’m coming home I note that lots of people are going from London to Doncaster for meetings.

It’s like a version of the crusades or a pilgrimage or a grand tour except that our Sword of Truth is a printed agenda and our Shield of Righteousness is a power point presentation followed by a discussion in a breakout room.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Then, at our last meeting, somebody suggested that rather than meet in person next time we had a meeting conducted by telephone. We could sit in the comfort of our own homes and have the meeting without leaving the house. Because we’re a fairly low-key group we wouldn’t do a video conference where we could actually see what the inside of each other’s front rooms looked like: this would be sound only, no vision.

We took a vote on it and all our hands were raised like we were punching the air at a rock gig. It was decided: rather than buying a train ticket we’d just slouch in an armchair and the meeting would come to us.

We felt a bit 21st century and a little smug; privately I began to deride those people scuttling to meetings as Luddites who didn’t know that we lived in a brave new world not a stuffy room in a chain hotel with a flipchart in the corner and old mints in a bowl.

I was glad it wasn’t a video conference, though. I’ve only had one experience of that particular phenomenon and it was, shall we say, surreal. It was 1997 so it must have been in the very early days of the Video Conference as a form.

I was in Mexico at the invitation of the British Council to read my poems to Mexican students who were studying English; that’s why a small section of Mexican post-graduates of a certain age could pass for natives of Darfield, I guess. I made a reet grand impression, tha knows. The idea was that I’d sit in a lecture theatre with some students in Mexico City and we’d link up with some students in another city in Mexico (I think it was Oaxaca) and some students in a branch of the University over the border in El Paso, Texas, and make up a poem together.

I got wired up to a microphone and they switched the camera on and we started. The students in Mexico City were keen and engaged, as were the students in Oaxaca; I could see them crowding round the screen and joining in. In El Paso, however, there was nobody. It was just an empty room. The organisers assured me that some students would arrive in the room in El Paso shortly but they never did.

After about 10 minutes, though, a bloke turned up. He was clutching a brush which led me to believe he was a cleaner. For a while he swept the floor as the students and I watched, mesmerised. We shouted “Hello!” And he looked around, worried; perhaps he thought the room was haunted or that he should lay off the lunchtime beers. Then he worked out that the noise was coming from a small box in the corner. He walked towards the box and in our rooms in Oaxaca and Mexico City his huge round face loomed like The Moon. We lost the connection shortly after that: I think he just switched the machine off.

When it came to the time for our telephone conference last week, I decided to take advantage of the fact that this wasn’t going to be a conventional meeting. I had a shower and put my dressing gown on. I made a cup of tea. I lolled on the settee in the manner of a Roman Emperor or a Rubens nude.

Well, a Rubens nude in a dressing gown. My thinking was that if you’re going to have a meeting in your house then you may as well take full advantage of it. At the appointed hour of 13.15 I had to ring a number and an automated voice told me to key in another number, which I did. There was a bit of buzzing and a couple of dinging noises like a microwave telling you your dinner’s done and then I could hear voices. There was a voice in London. There was a voice in Newcastle. There was a voice in Norwich. There was a voice in Darfield. It worked!

“Are we all in dressing gowns?” I asked, and the chairman said: “Ian, you’re not taking this seriously enough.” Well, at least I wasn’t sweeping the floor.