I’ve become a Skeptic. I don’t meant that healthy dose of cynicism most Londoners need to survive the finer points of life in the capital – £5 a pint, rush hour congestion, the latest over-hyped restaurant opening – but London Skeptics In The Pub, the award winning lecture group.
Once a month, a load of enthusiasts get together in The Monarch, Camden, to discuss everything from politics to philosophy, history to science. An expert speaker presents on a chosen topic and then it’s opened up to the floor for discussion. Right from the first, I was hooked: it’s thought provoking, good-natured and charmingly chaotic, especially towards the end when everyone’s had a few / few too many. No surprises then that it’s also almost always packed (if you go along, make sure to get there early – it’s first come, first serve). Given your average undergraduate’s attendance record at lectures, Universities across the country could learn a thing or two from these guys.
Talks and lectures are fast becoming one of my favourite forms of entertainment. Living and working back in London has brought with it a rediscovered pleasure in midweek nights out: None of the military precision planning that coloured life in the country (the joys of rural public transport and no connections between home and work), just walk straight out into a world of social possibilities.
Of course, being a school night, it’s not exactly carte blanche. Anything too late or too boozy – well, it’s doable, but it definitely makes for a difficult next day in the office; and there’s no point in blowing the entire budget before you’ve even got to the weekend. Talks are perfect not least because they’re so inexpensive: London Skeptics is a mere £5 a pop and even tickets to the Southbank rarely cost more than a tenner in spite of the higher-profile line up. Often, however, there’s no charge at all: Gresham College in Holborn, for example, provides hundreds of free public lectures a year on everything from ‘Hawaiian Religion & Dance’ to ‘Criminal Minds’.
In other words, there’s plenty of spare change to round off the evening with a drink or a meal – Both of which are perfectly possible given most talks are done and dusted by 9pm at the latest. No need for world speed eating records inhaling packets of crisps during the interval nor risk of death by dodgy kebab after the show’s finished.
Naturally, it helps if the lecture itself is worth listening to. Inevitably, some are better than others but on the whole, I’ve rarely been disappointed. Most speakers aren’t there out of obligation but for sheer love of their subject and that enthusiasm is infectious, no matter what. So often the talks I’ve enjoyed the most are on the subjects about which I’ve known the least – David Eagleman on the science of the subconscious brain or Pete Goss on sailing solo around the world (and for someone who doesn’t do boats and gets seasick on the Thames, that’s saying something!)
Miss the point of a movie and the director’s hardly going to be on hand to explain himself. Still think that modern art masterpiece is just a stuffed sheep: How can you argue the toss with the gallery (unless of course you go along to one of their free lectures! Try the National Gallery’s lunchtime series)? A talk, however, is an interactive experience. You can question or clarify or get to see something in a completely different light thanks to comments from the audience. It’s the ultimate in user-generated content, a reminder of a time when it was all about conversation not elements in a conversational media strategy.
But let’s suppose you do get stuck in a less than stimulating session: What then? I’d be lying if I said it never happens (you’d be surprised at how dull some celebrities can be – so much so I now actively avoid “Evenings With” on principle). Fortunately, talks quite often have unusual or “off-limits” homes. The whole premise of The Lost Lectures is to be as much about the location as the lecture : They’ve hosted events at secret locations all over the capital including a lighthouse and an East London Boxing Hall. Equally, Barts Pathology Museum has an intermittent programme of seminars which includes a rare opportunity to see this Grade II listed site and its 5000 specimens.
The growing ranks of the London lecture scene prove what everyone in business has long since known : The best discussions don’t happen in the boardroom, but the bar.
Or should that be the museum and the boxing ring?
For a comprehensive list of talks and lectures in London, see www.talksandlectures.com