He often thought what a good thing it would be if the wearing of masks or animal's heads could become customary for persons over a certain age. How restful social intercourse would be if the face did not have to assume any expressions – the strained look of interest, the simulated delight or surprise, the anxious concern one didn't really feel.
This excerpt from Barbara Pym's Less Than Angels struck a chord, as her lines so often do for me. This is a book full of sly digs at the foibles of academics and, since I am preparing to run a 3-day conference in April, I find it easy to identify her types among my delegates. It's a small conference – under 100 people – and so relatively easy, but it's three days of being at the beck and call of people who find their bedroom too close to the lift or to the place where staff gather to smoke, or who wrote their PowerPoint presentation on a Mac and find that the college's PC won't read it, or need to print their paper 10 minutes before their presentation is due. Relatives are taken ill, luggage only turns up on the last day; I hope it's not tempting Providence to mention it, but I've never had the ultimate horror of a death during the event, although it's happened to a colleague.
The current preoccupation is simpler. Apart from being ready – programmes and abstracts printed, badges bought and prepared, menus decided, rooming lists compiled, wine ordered (of vital importance!)- and checking the box of things every organiser should have - scissors, white tack, pay-as-you-go mobile (surprisingly useful), spare USB stick, marker pens etc - I am trying to prepare myself, practising the expression of open friendliness and interest, the warm and welcoming voice, the alert listening face I glue on at the conference dinner when I am so exhausted all I want to do is crawl into bed with a glass of whisky. And I'm hampered: my natural expression is just a touch on the gloomy side, I'm told, even when I am at my most tranquil, while my thinking expression tends to be a slight frown. Conscious of this, by the end of a conference I feel as if I've been grinning manically for days.
My inclination, like that of Pym's Alaric Lydgate, would be to retreat behind a mask. However, I shall try to channel the 3am frets into consideration of what I am to wear to alleviate the Eeyore tendencies; I remember arriving at one conference venue, hanging my clothes for the event in the wardrobe and thinking, "Goodness, it's a positive symphony of black!" Perhaps I'd better just pop out to M&S next week.