BHA Conference 2013

I recently attended the third annual British Humanist Association conference. It took place at The Hilton Hotel in Leeds. Here are my thoughts…

Ethical Jury
There was a pre-conference event organised by one of the former BHA trustees. It was a shame that Humanist Society of West Yorkshire weren’t asked to get involved as a pre-event would seemed like a good place to get the local group involved. As it was, we weren’t contacted at all regarding the conference.

It took place 4-6pm, but I turned up at 5:10 as I didn’t fancy two hours of it. I think this was probably for the best – the format was interesting, and I think it has a lot of potential, but I suspect the discussion group was too large as the 20-30 people in the room, apparently discussing one topic for the two hours, made for a very boring event.

Friday night entertainment
The Friday night featured bingo, the BHA Choir, Robin Ince, Helen Arney and a quiz. The bingo felt like they were playing to the demographics a little – the Humanist crowd tends to be mostly retired, though at the speed we went through it, I’m surprised they could keep up as my and Elina struggled when working together. Perhaps they’re all seasoned experts though.

Helen Arney was reasonably entertaining with her intelligently humorous songs, though I’ve heard some of them before and I think she suffered from having to go on first (the BHA Choir being stuck on the motorway), as sex jokes work better towards the end of an evening.

Robin Ince gave an excellent performance – I think Robin is a smashing human being who does so much good work for humanism, but I’ve seen him so often that I don’t always find him that funny. On this occasion though, he really delivered some excellent material and rounded the evening off nicely.

The host, Timberlina, was fine, but didn’t really have an act, which was disappointing as as Humanists we’re an accepting bunch – being a drag queen isn’t really a novelty in itself, we’re comfortable with everyone.

Saturday Assembly
The Sunday Assembly team, Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, presented a special Saturday morning version of their event. It featured three songs, a reading, a game, a pause for silence and plenty of comedy.

It was certainly an entertaining event – I think mostly as Sanderson and Pippa are both funny comedians (Sanderson is a comedian by trade, I’m not sure about Pippa). It was a little disheartening though as they’re doing what we’ve been trying to get going in Leeds Humanists for years, but having seen it actually done, and done well, it is somehow not what I had imagined, or hoped for.

That said, if I was in London, I would certainly attend.

Christopher Priest – Magical thinking
Andrew started by giving an introduction. He is a reliably good speaker and didn’t say very much at the end, which was a shame, as it would have been nice to hear more. We did get a round up of some of the BHA’s highlights over the year though.

He then handed over to the first speaker, the writer Christopher Priest. His talk started a little slowly with his life story but eventually opened up into some interesting insights into the beauty of the written words and social benefits of science fiction. Unfortunately he read his speech out from notes written out in full, but in the occasion off-the-cuff comments and Q&A he opened up to a warm and interesting personality.

The event was chaired very well.

Lee Cronin – inorganic biology
A superb talk on how to create life, Lee’s presentation style was funny, informative and engaging.

Given that both the field of organic chemistry, and inorganic biology, exist though, you can’t really blame Brian Cox for dismissing it all as all he same sub-division of physics.

Sue Blackmore – Living without free will
Having heard a few showbiz diva stories, I didn’t know what to expect with Sue Blackmore. What I found was a highly entertaining speaker and as tolerable a person as you can expect from a philosopher ;). Her talk was interesting and thought provoking.

Marek Kukula – Cosmic oasis
Marek is not only a Yorkshireman, but also turned out to be one of the best talks of the conference, talking about the relationship between the Earth and the rest of the universe. He is a science communicator and this really shined through in his presentation skills that were well refined.

Melinda Gebbie – Angels and dirty pictures
I’m not sure what to make of Melina. She talked about whether William Blake was an angel. He wasn’t, because they don’t exist – I thought we all agreed about stuff like that. She read her entire talk from notes and struggled quite a bit in the Q&A. She did talk with great confidence about baked good shaped like genitals though.

Jim Al Khalili – Written in the Stars
Jim’s talk was very enjoyable. As you would expect he has great presentation skills and his ideas were interesting and thought provoking.

Gala Dinner
The events at Leeds City Museum looked promising. After having a drinks reception in the basement exhibit, which included a non-alcoholic version, we made our way into the main hall and found our table where we found Elina had “onion free option” printed on the back of her name card.

Unfortunately this turned out to be an empty gesture as the serving staff knew nothing about it and when we asked if the main was onion free, the waitress said she would go check then disappeared off and never came back. The food was otherwise fine though.

It would have been nice if they had got all the guest speakers to the dinner and seated them on various tables, but this didn’t seem to be the case. Unfortunately, due to ill health, Terry Pratchett was unable to attend the event, but did send a very short video message.

Zoe Margolis
Author of Girl With A One Track Mind, Zoe spoke about the problems in the publishing industry and their inherently sexiest attitude. She made some very good points though I’m not sure it’s clear how much is sexism in the industry and how much it is an industry catering to a sexist society. Either way, there is work to be done.

Adam Rutherford
I had seen Adam’s talk at QED. It was excellent then, and it was excellent here too.

The Hilton is a mixed bag. Due to the pool, it always smells strongly of chlorine when you walk in. They provided pastries with the drinks, but they only had tea and coffee – no cold drinks.

The Saturday lunch was good, and included a variety of cakes.

The conference room itself was absolutely freezing though. People were talking about bringing their duvets down from their rooms because it was so cold.

Overall, the organisation was good. There was a help desk where you could find out information, registration didn’t take too long and the conference pack provided full details on the schedule.

The conference did run perpetually late though. Events didn’t always start on time and cumulatively slowed down later ones. Having run conferences, I know how difficult this is, but you really have to be strict with times, and give speakers 50 minutes with a 10 minute break in between talks.

There were also plagued by technical problems, though these are always difficult to get right at conference events.

I think Jim’s talk was originally supposed to be on the Sunday, as he did 5:20-6:20pm on Saturday, which only gave us 40 minutes to get home, get changed and get up to the gala dinner venue. He was listed as a “Sunday” speaker on one of the other sheets and there were only two talks on the Sunday morning, so I assume he couldn’t be there on Sunday so they had to squeeze it in.

It was an enjoyable weekend full of very interesting speakers.

Ultimately though, it’s impossible not to compare the conference to QED, and there, there is no comparison. QED provided a multi track programme, BHA Con only had the one. QED had had three hilarious comedians including BBC’s Mitch Benn, it was side-splittingly funny. QED had Richard Dawkins. QED had two full days of speakers, BHA Con had Saturday and a Sunday morning. Most importantly, QED was £130, BHA Con was £180.

To be honest, it was Terry Pratchett that really swung it for me when deciding whether it was worth attending, so having paid all that money to not see Terry Prtchett was hugely disappointing. I also later found that you could attend individual events for £10. if I had known that at the time, I probably would have opted for that as it would have represented much better value.

Despite though concerns though, well done to Sara and the whole team at the BHA – it isn’t easy to organise and run a conference and it was, on the whole, a smooth operation.



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This entry was posted on Monday, July 1st, 2013 at 11:16 am and is filed under Events, Humanism. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.