A bit disappointing (and how not to ask a question)

I had really been looking forward to Wednesday evening. It’s Bristol’s ‘Big Green Week’ this week and I’d got tickets to go to a lecture on regeneration with Tim Smit (founder of the Lost Gardens of Heligan and the Eden Project), designer Kevin McCloud (presenter of the ‘Grand Designs’ programme on TV) and Rob Hopkins (founder of the Transition Network). These are three people whose work I have followed with interest and who I have come to admire. So I was keen to hear what they had to say. Such was my enthusiasm that I had even convinced Natalie – who generally shies away from evening lectures like this – to come along with me.

I should have known that something was up when we took our seats and were immediately subjected (having already paid £8 each for our tickets) to an on-screen commercial for one of the event sponsors, a well-known ‘ethical’ bank. This struck me as a little weird, but I don’t go to many things like this so perhaps it’s normal. The chair of the session, who was the CEO of one of the other sponsors (a renewable energy company) then introduced herself and went off on a bit of a ramble about her own company. This blatant self-promotion seemed distinctly uncool.

When it came to the main speakers, however, I must admit that I have never been so disappointed in my life. Rob Hopkins was a reasonably entertaining speaker and gave some interesting examples of the projects that Transition Towns have undertaken. But I’m not convinced that the solution to the various problems that we face as a society is to get to know our neighbours better and to start a community bakery. It can’t hurt, for sure, but as far as I can see it’s more likely to merely make middle-class people with lots of free time feel that they’re doing something positive, when in fact they’re just appeasing their conscience about driving around town in a small tank.

Kevin McCloud was likewise a competent and enthusiastic speaker, but didn’t really seem to have a particularly strong narrative about what he wanted to say. He talked a bit about some of the projects he is involved in (such as the HAB housing project), and told some interesting anecdotes, but didn’t really give me any particular sense of how regeneration should be done and how we can go about it. He also rambled far too much and ran out of time, so that his lecture just petered out in slight confusion.

Tim Smit, to take things one step further, appeared to be proud that he had no idea at all about what he wanted to say. In fact, he seemed to think that just having him there on stage would be sufficient for us to sit enraptured and adore him. He told us how he had managed to insult various audiences (although in my view he didn’t so much insult the audience, as their intelligence) and moved from random fact to baseless assertion to blatant slur (are all NGO chief executives, for example, incompetent and vain?). What could have been an inspirational insight into someone often labelled as a ‘maverick genius’ was, instead, an incoherent ramble that left us none the wiser about anything whatsoever. Having gone into the lecture thinking that Tim Smit was the bees knees, I found myself liking him a little bit less every time he opened his mouth.

My frustration with the event was compounded by the question and answer session at the end. The chair called on several people in the audience, each of whom decided that rather than asking a question to the panellists, they’d much prefer to just introduce themselves, promote whichever tedious company they happen to work for, and give their thoughts on something unrelated to the topic of the lecture. This seems to be a Bristol thing, because I’ve seen it happen at several events around here, but never anywhere else. In the end, with the session having already overrun by ten minutes, we cut our losses and left.

So not an outstanding success. In fact, a major disappointment. To feel so let down by three people that I had admired greatly is absolutely gutting. I sometimes wonder why we find it so difficult as a society to address the problems that we face, but if this is how the people to whom we look for answers behave, then I think I may have my answer. I went into the lecture looking for inspiration, but came out feeling nothing but despair. Now, I may not be Martin Luther King, but if I was trying to make a difference and was given half an hour with three hundred people who already kind of agreed with me, I would hope that I could do better than this. Much better.

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