In 1985 my old friend and erstwhile Best Man, Dave (naturally, “Dave” – most of my male friends and family are called “Dave”- except, that is, those called Mike, Andy, Richard or Keith!) and I went to London to attend the Annual General Meeting of British Mensa Ltd., more commonly called just “Mensa” – which for those who don’t know is a society, membership of which is limited to those having a tested Intelligence Quotient (IQ) in the top 2% of the country.
At that time Dave had been a member for just under a year while I had only passed the supervised test a couple of months earlier, so this was, jointly, our first foray into the larger workings of the organisation. At that time Mensa seemed rather to be indulging in the “Cult of Celebrity” the committee including Sir Clive Sinclair and the mathematics Whiz from the TV show “Countdown”, Carol Vorderman.
I have often related how Dave and I met up for that AGM outside the National Liberal Club in Westminster (having got different trains in from Ipswich and Chelmsford respectively) and I enquired about the rather soppy smile on his face as I approached him.
“Carol Vorderman just smiled at me” he said.
I replied, rather bitchily, “Don’t worry about it. I’m sure she didn’t have a clue who you were”!
The 1985 meeting took place at a time of some turmoil in the society with various factions seeking to either amend or add to the Mensa Constitution in an effort to constrain the actions of the ruling committee. This committee was seen by some as being allowed to take arbitrary “disciplinary action” against individual members who spoke out against them – action that said members were not permitted to invoke against “despotic” Committee members!
It all got pretty vicious and uncivilised for a couple of years but eventually settled down with some reasonable rule amendments and a few resignations on both sides. While it lasted, however, it did make for some pretty exciting meetings and the distinct possibility that someone might give a committee member (especially if it could be a prominent one) a smack on the nose, added a certain spice to the proceedings!
Dave and I enjoyed watching the in-fighting so much that we returned the following year when the AGM was held at Imperial College, London.
There were similar fireworks at that one too but my main memory is of gate-crashing an event hosted by the Local Groups Officer for any Local Secretaries (the organisers and facilitators of neighbourhood meetings, known invariably as “LocSecs”) who happened to be present at the AGM.
Actually, it was only me who did the gate-crashing – Dave was by then the LocSec of the Ipswich Group (as he still is to this day) and was entitled to be there.
I’m sure I simply told the nice lady hosting the “LocSecs’ Tea Party” that “I’m from Chelmsford” and I couldn’t be blamed if she interpreted that as meaning “I’m the Chelmsford Local Secretary”! Still, it got me some free drink and a few buns!
I did not attend any more AGMs what with parenthood, office closures and house moves getting in the way and at some point in the intervening years the whole format changed.
What happens now includes the AGM but is not centred on it – a whole weekend of events is arranged and these “Annual Gatherings” are hosted by a Local Group or Region and located in a (usually) big hotel in a UK city or large town.
I have no idea how, or by whom the venues are chosen year by year and I was surprised to learn that my old home town of Ipswich would be hosting the whole Annual Gathering circus for 2017, duly organised by my old mate Mr David Davies the Ipswich Local Secretary! This would be the first time that any group in the East Anglia Region had received this “honour”.
I must admit that my first thought was the same as the one I had on learning that London had been given the 2012 Olympic Games – “are we going to muck this up in an embarrassing fashion?”
Then it all went out of mind for a while, being driven out by the much more important arrivals of my Grandson and Granddaughter in December and April respectively.
And it stayed out of mind until June when I happened to notice that a Mensa Regional Officers’ Meeting was scheduled to take place in Ipswich on a Saturday afternoon – the same day as one of my school year group’s reunions had been arranged for – and I decided to attend the Mensa event (as may any paid up member) as an “observer”.
At the meeting I got to see Dave Davies as well as his draft programme of events and thought it all looked well worth attending. I didn’t, in fact, realise that Ipswich had so much to offer – possibly a problem everyone has with their home town! “Familiarity breeds contempt” as they say! I won’t bother listing the itinerary here as many of the locations concerned and the events arranged wouldn’t mean a lot to many of my readers while some of them will know what they were anyway.
Then summer intervened and it all went out of mind again.
By the end of August, however, it became apparent that there would be no unexpected holidays or babysitting requirements preventing my attendance on the weekend of 9th/10th September – although all of the events that needed paying for (River boat trips, Gala Dinner and the like) had sold out by then.
Not wishing at that short notice to prevail upon my sister and brother-in-law for use of their spare room when I wouldn’t be there most of the time, I booked a room in a hotel about 3 minutes walk from the slightly grander Novotel (where all the action would be happening) for the Saturday night.
In order to leave Faith, who had no great desire to accompany me, with transport I also utilised my Senior Railcard and purchased discounted return train tickets from Peterborough to Ipswich and back.
Having taken these irrevocable steps I then emailed Dave, told him I would be attending and asking (rather belatedly) if he needed any help.
From the organisational chart I was shown it seemed that help was needed during the Saturday afternoon on the “helpdesk” in the hotel reception area so I put myself down for a 2 hour stint following on from my earliest possible check in time at my own hotel.
So, on Saturday morning Faith gave me a lift to the station and I duly caught the 9:50 train to Ipswich (via Whittlesey, Ely, Newmarket and Bury St. Edmunds, if you’re interested) and it arrived a few minutes early at around 11:20. As I wasn’t over-burdened with luggage I decided not to bother with buses into town and to walk to the Novotel (only a mile or so away), getting a bit of an insight into the changes that had taken place in the town since I moved out in 1979.
And there were many!
The whole area that I walked down had previously been a somewhat shabby part of town dominated by the railway sidings serving the docks but now comprised a multiplex cinema and numerous fast food restaurants. It was, in fact an area formerly so run down that even a Drive-in MacDonalds counted as an amazing improvement!
Having checked in to my hotel I reported for duty at the “helpdesk” in the foyer of the Novotel – to the relief of the current incumbent who was waiting for someone to turn up so that he could get some lunch! So I started about 2 hours earlier than I had volunteered for but fortunately the work wasn’t too hard.
My main duties were dispensing information packs to newly arriving members and trying to give directions to places of interest to those going out to explore. Bearing in mind that I stopped living in Ipswich in 1979 I don’t think I made any mistakes!
Some of the renamed areas nearly threw me on occasion: “Waterfront Development? Oh, you mean THE DOCKS”! I’m glad no-one from the Ipswich Tourist Office heard that one – I’d have been run out of town if they had!
The Mensa membership that I was called upon to “serve” were lovely (I nearly said “brilliant” but that goes without saying!) and extremely appreciative of volunteer fellow members working for no reward and I’d happily do it again (although maybe not for 4 hours on the trot next time).
I wasn’t on my own all that time being joined during the afternoon by Ipswich members Margaret (who I knew from Ipswich meetings of old) and Izzy (who I had not met before) and when the helpdesk closed at 5 p.m. some discussion ensued on meal arrangements for the evening. Dave Davies in his capacity of organiser was obliged to dress up in his posh suit (prompting calls of “Waiter!” from disrespectful friends when he appeared in it) to attend the Gala Dinner but Margaret agreed to ask around to find others not attending the “do” to go into town and eat.
I went back to my hotel for a shower and a rest then returned at 7 p.m. somewhat hungry.
Margaret had not been able to find any others at a loose end so she, Izzy and I wandered into town and wound up at a Lebanese/Moroccan restaurant in Tacket Street where I had some strange but very tasty and filling “something or other” and some beer! We then returned to the hotel and passed the rest of the evening in the bar chatting (brilliantly of course) with all and sundry.
The next morning I returned to the Novotel after a leisurely breakfast at a rather nice restaurant called “Isaacs” on the Waterfront and Dave and I attached ourselves to a prearranged tour of the “Willis Towers” building (look it up!) designed by Sir Norman Foster using black glass. I spent some time chatting to a member from Ireland who shared my pain when I related that they had torn down the Friar’s Head and British Lion pubs to make way for it in 1975!
This building has a massive roof garden with views of the town, including the football ground and I had a further discussion with the same gentleman up there on the relative merits of the Ipswich Town and Derby County (his team) sides of the 1970s – one of my more surreal experiences!
Dave Davies had to attend a river cruise in the afternoon that would not return until after my train was to leave (the boat nearly didn’t return at all but that’s not my story to tell) so I set out to have a walk round and maybe get a photo of the house in Ranelagh Road that I was born in.
I didn’t get that far as, when I stopped in at the railway station at around 2 p.m. on the way, it turned out that my planned 5.25 p.m. train was cancelled due to engineering works and if I wanted to get to Peterborough at all without going via London I had to get on a free coach to Stowmarket (where Peterborough trains were terminating) immediately. Good job I checked then!
And the verdict on hosting the British Mensa Annual Gathering in what might be considered an unfashionable backwater?
Well, as far as everyone I spoke to in the hotel was concerned it was an unqualified success! And personally, I am delighted to say that I was as wrong about the suitability of my home town as I was about the London Olympics – I apologise for doubting!
Let’s face it – if my friends who organised it hadn’t done a magnificent job I wouldn’t have felt it necessary to write this, the longest article I have ever posted on here, now would I?