I received a free ticket to the dinner in 2010 (apparently in lieu of a mention on the program for my many months of work – yes, it still smarts). This year, I chose to fork out the $150 based on my very positive 2010 experience.
Was it worth it – well, yes and no.
I should preface this by saying it’s not really a criticism of the GAC organizing committee who did a superb job with the whole convention. I guess it’s more a matter of misjudgment than anything – and misjudgment made for all the right reasons, I expect.
The first issue is that $150 is a very large amount of money for dinner for one. For those of us old-fashioned enough to believe that one should dress up for a gala dinner, there’s the considerable added expense of clothes and jewellery. Yes, I know, this is entirely optional – but it’s something one has to factor in.
In 2010 the food provided by the Melbourne Convention and Entertainment Centre was superb. It was way beyond what I expected and, as I recall, everyone was raving about it. This year’s offering was very different.
The entree was a pretentious nouvelle cuisine mish-mash of mismatched tastes. It was pretty, but that was the only sense it satisfied.
Main course for non-vegetarians was either fish or lamb – served alternately. I hate that. I know you can swap around with people at your table, and I know that it’s probably the only workable method for such a huge crowd, but for $150 I’d really like to be able to choose my own main. Small quibble, but there it is.
I was lucky – or so I thought. I had the lamb plonked down in front of me. It was an unappetising hunk of brown meat with a tiny squirt of tasteless sauce (probably a ‘jus’ given the pretension of the entree). The lamb was overcooked and stringy. It was supposed to have been accompanied by Potatoes Dauphinoise – misspelled Duphinoise on the menu. Perhaps the missing ‘a’ excused the fact that it contained none of the standard ingredients of a Dauphinoise – cream, butter and cheese. Instead, it was an insipid, under-seasoned, flavourless square of potato slices which no self-respecting Frenchman would have touched with a barge pole. A couple of forlorn baby carrots sat drearily on the plate as the ‘token’ vegetable.
The desserts were very good, but tiny. I had some kind of lemon sorbet thing and a chocolate mousse in a chocolate basket which surely came from a different kitchen than the pap served previously.
Now, none of this is the fault of the Convention organisers, but I know the MCEC can do better – and they really should have.
The entertainment for the night is my next gripe. I can understand that the organisers wanted to give us maximum value for money, and I do appreciate the thought. The entertainment program was packed – over-packed. The thing is – the Saturday night dinner is one of the only chances Convention-goers have to catch up with each other. We find each other far more entertaining than most of the acts. This, unfortunately, proved true as people increasingly got frustrated and just talked over the top of the entertainers. It wasn’t fair on the entertainers, but it wasn’t fair on the dinner guests either.
Simon Taylor was the MC for the night. He did a professional job, but why book someone with Taylor’s talent as an illusionist and not have him perform?
I love Brian Dalton aka Mr Deity but a technical problem took the wind out of his sails and, I think, the momentum was lost for the whole evening. I don’t know whether the problem was the tech crew’s or Dalton’s, but having an international speaker floundering at the podium unable to launch his video wasn’t a good look.
And then there was the startling omission (again!) of Dan Barker – a brilliant musician and song-writer from our own international atheist community. Supposedly the reason given for not including Dan was the expense of hiring a piano. I’m sorry, but if I had a chance to book Dan Barker I’d organise the budget to include the cost of a piano.
There were some laughs to be had from the other entertainers, but the sound was not great and most people just decided to chat amongst themselves.
I was blown away by Catherine Deveny’s performance at the 2010 GAC. It was a real tour de force. This time her performance seemed to lack verve and including her 2010 spat with Cardinal George Pell just seemed like she was stretching for material. Sorry, Catherine, I do love you, but the Pell thing is over – move on!
So, on the strength of the food and the entertainment, the investment of $150 for the gala dinner was definitely not worth it. But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. The chance to dine in the company of Michael Barnett (@mikeybear), Gregory Storer (@GregoryStorer), Kieran Dennis (@dolmiogrin), Linley Kissick (@postielinley), AronRa, Andrew Skegg (@askegg), Robert Cope and Sean Jelinek (@SeanJAus) was priceless.
It was also great to catch up with Carol Wocker, @MsPraxis and @Tradrmum, OJ Lesslar, Kazza from Queensland, Martin Pribble (@MartinPribble), Colin Mackay, Russell Blackford (@Metamagician), Jonathan Meddings (@TheCarapace), Jin-Oh Choi (@JinOhChoi) and many more.
I spent quite a lot of time talking with Dr David Leaf from Dying with Dignity (NSW) and new friend, Neil Francis, head of Your Last Right. One of my new interests is forging closer links between us ‘generic’ atheists/secularists and those targets of religious propaganda and interference whose interests are more specific – e.g. voluntary euthanasia, women’s reproductive rights, scientific research, secular education, gay rights.
In this same vein I was delighted to have time to chat with Jane Caro about government funding for private schools. Perhaps because I was educated (in part) at a private school I’ve never objected greatly to reasonable funding to that sector – based on the premise that the parents of private school students pay a portion of their tax for education facilities and are entitled to the benefits of that. I have to say even a brief chat with Jane had me re-examining my stance on this. I look forward to chatting with her further and maybe blogging on the pros and cons of government funding for private schools.
I’m not much of a ‘fan girl’, so hunting down celebrities is one of the things I’m least likely to do. One ‘celebrity’ I did want to meet, though, was Fiona Patten, leader of the Australian Sex Party. I’m not tied to any political party – nor do I intend to be – but I admire Fiona Patten greatly and she’s generously retweeted links to some of my work in the past. But, before I had a chance to go hunting for Fiona, she found me, saying, “Chrys Stevenson? I really wanted to meet you!”
Wow! That was my ‘memorable Convention moment’ right there! Fiona turned out to be a lovely, down-to-earth gal and another person I’d like to spend far more time with.
One event at the Gala Dinner, I think, epitomised what the night should have been all about – fun and making real human connections. I’ve never thought much about the convention of sitting all the VIPs down the front – why not spread them amongst the hoi-polloi? Do we really have to set up this artificial ‘us and them’ division at atheist conventions?
PZ Myers is one of the most accessible of the Convention speakers. Throughout the Convention, PZ and Australian blogger Martin Pribble got involved in a good-natured spat over their respective rankings in a poll for the best atheist/agnostic blog for 2011. As (mock) tensions rose during the Convention it was decided that a duel was in order and, as no duelling pistols were to hand, a hug-off seemed a reasonable compromise.
And here it is, captured for posterity by Andrew Skegg.
Yes, folks, that’s what we ‘militant atheists’ do when we get together. We hug each other – frightening, isn’t it?
So, to answer the question posed at the beginning of this post, “Was it worth attending the Gala Dinner?”
But if we do it again, can I ask the organisers to consider something more informal and something which allows much more free time for Convention attendees just to ‘hang out’ and chat and hug and make real life friends out of cyber-friends. Because, you know, that’s really what we’re there for. And, ultimately, building stronger real-life links within our various ‘communities’ is going to pay far greater dividends for secularism than watching any comedy act – no matter how good it is.