Wednesday, 19 December 2012

9 Lessons and Carols for Godless People 2012

I went with Lawrence T and his friends to 9 Lessons and Carols for Godless People last night at the Bloomsbury Theatre not quite aware of what I was letting myself in for. Robin Ince compered the event with the energy and passion of a rational David Icke, a non-stop stream of performers stretching the show to over 3 hours.

The show opened with the house band playing some funk-tronica, the brass instruments accompanying the ethereal sounds from the laser-harp swaddled in theatrical dry-ice. After this strong start, the first half was, frankly, a little baffling. There were many many person-with-a-guitar acts and a weird character piece which imagined the film Brief Encounter set in the present day which, having never watched, Brief Encounter, was utterly impenetrable  Josie Long saved the first half with her excellent stand-up routine, especially the part where she said Jay-Z lyrics in the style of a 1930's Film Noir detective (I've got 99 problems, but a dame ain't one). Try it!

The second half was considerably stronger, with some brilliant acts. Especially enjoyable was the mental change of gear when Richard Herring did a bit from Talking Cock, waxing phallical, right after a scientist from CERN had been oozing excitement about the consequences of what could turn out to be a Higgs Boson. In an innovative twist on ventriloquism, one performer spoke as a large, projected cartoon of God, complete with cloud and thunderbolts for smiting, which he controlled with an XBOX controller.  Those who entered doubting God's power surely left convinced after God smote the band-leader, causing him to spill beer all over his equipment! Mark Thomas ended the evening with his tales of "book heckling", putting sarcastic comments on bits of paper and leaving them in the spine of books in the shop. He told us his technique for replacing the stickers on books with his own (the trick is to "palm" the sticker before you enter the shop to make it less obvious) and gave away some facetious stickers at the end to encourage more people to do the same!

Whilst the show had some excellent moments, the running time of over 3 hours made it gruelling at times, especially when you got a couple of mediocre acts in a row. A good show for those in an exploratory mood, but maybe not for those seeking something with a coherent theme!

Monday, 10 December 2012

The First AHS Southern Regional Convention

The AHS' first ever southern regional conference was run last Saturday, hosted by the Southampton Atheist Society. Ever fearful of weekend bus schedules, I brought Greta (my bike) with me to navigate Southampton's post-war tarmac and concrete defiance up to the Highfield campus in the leafy suburbs.

It was quite a small event, with only member of Southampton Atheist Society able to make the event in the end, but good fun and worthwhile nonetheless. The day began with Jess V and Matt P giving a talk on how to run Reason Weeks, quickly covering pretty much everything from inviting speakers down to organising catering. I was up next to trial my new workshop on Risk Assessment. Everyone was prepared for the worst, with a title like that, but it turned out to be good fun with a great deal of interaction. After lunch David Allen Green gave a talk on campaigns, chastising those whose campaigns limit themselves to protest and talking about his work on the Paul Chambers "Twitter Joke Trial". Rounding off the day was Jonathan Pearce who deconstructed the Nativity Story, exposing its historical inaccuracies and how the story we're familiar with from school plays is a hodgepodge of the conflicting accounts of Matthew and Luke.

Rocking PowerPoint . . . Like a Boss

I was pretty pleased with how my workshop went. I started by examining the reasons for taking risks and making sure that the goals are always clear and well communicated. For a student society these might include getting attention for the society, growing membership and having fun! We then looked at risk management in three exercises which would demonstrate risk identification, analysis and mitigation. 

Splitting the people in the audience into two teams, I asked them to imagine a really risky event that they'd enjoy putting on. Team A came up with a "book burning" event where religious and atheist texts would be burnt onto CDs and handed out for free, whilst Team B suggested an exhibition of "Mohammed in Atheist Art" event which would be accompanied by a debate.

In the second exercise the teams identified four key risks in each other's events and rated them by probability of occurrence and the impact on the event were they to occur. These risks ranged from technical problems and preventing accidents to more unusual ones. Common to both were concerns about how the motivation for what they were doing could be misrepresented by unsympathetic groups and even violence towards the event organisers or attendees. Violence is unlikely, but not impossible, as demonstrated earlier this year when a student threatened members of Queen Mary ASH at an event about Sharia Law.

In the final task each team came up with mitigation strategies for risks associated with their events and we had good discussions about what you should do to counter bad publicity and violent individuals. Having a statement prepared outlining the reason for your event and your motivations is always a good idea, for example. If violence is threatened at an event then it should always be suspended or cancelled until adequate security can be provided by the student union or university.

Of the two, perhaps the most difficulty would be with the "Mohammed in Atheist Art" event, given Student Unions tend to err on the side of causing no offence rather than defending free expression, most recently demonstrated in the case of a Pineapple named Mohammed at Reading University. This said, the overriding message of the workshop was that we should not avoid doing something simply because there are some risks attached - most often the risk is worth taking and it gives a great sense of achievement to leave a society bigger and better than when you joined it.

Big thanks to Southampton Atheists and the AHS Exec for organising this event. Jenny B was in Edinburgh for the Scottish AHS conference on the same day as I was in Southampton, so hopefully these will both inspire more regional events in future!