Bursary code to hand, I registered for the online conference not knowing quite what to expect. Unlike many colleagues, I hadn’t spent the previous 16 months trying to continue a working life online. Far from it. Having retired at the end of 2018, I’d then concentrated on finishing our book from the ‘Ageing of British Gerontology’ project before a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Singapore, New Zealand and Bali towards the end of 2019. 2020 was to be the start of my ‘proper’ retirement once final corrections to the proofs were made and the book was with the printers. But we all know what happened then.
A week after lockdown, the book was published. A cruel irony that it was April 1st! Crueller still that we were unable to launch it at the upcoming conference. But every cloud and all that… because in many ways it was more fitting that we launched it in this, the BSG’s 50th anniversary year having, amongst other things, interviewed 50 well known gerontologists whose experiences form the heart of the book. A dry run a couple of days previously had established that the first part of the opening evening’s events – our book launch included – were better done on Teams than on Wonder. BSG President Tom Scharf cut his celebratory 1970s’ cakes on screen and handed over to me. Having ‘attended’ sessions earlier in the day: the welcome, the opening plenary and the Policy Press series launch amongst others, I had some idea of what it might be like. But the reality was discombobulating. Although I could ‘see’ who had tuned in, the disembodied nature of speaking to a series of initials rather than being able to make eye contact with people in the flesh, lent a very surreal air to proceedings. Made more surreal by some folk forgetting to turn off their cameras. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see one of our interviewees moving from his lounge to his kitchen and back again! Do I say something, or do I plough on? I ploughed on, acutely aware that I needed to stick to my allotted ten minutes. Under normal circumstances, we’d have laughed about it all over dinner and a drink, but the vagaries of technology meant that I was unable to socialise on Wonder because, guess what, it doesn’t work on an iPad as we’d fortunately discovered at that dry run a few days earlier.
However, I was able to attend some fascinating sessions on Thursday, including a much-appreciated yoga class before lunch. Then, first thing on Friday morning, Mo (Ray), Sukey (Parnell Johnson) and I were presenting a symposium on the project itself. Our dry run had worked perfectly. The ‘live’ session not so much. After my introduction to the project about how and why it had come about, we had to show a pre-recorded piece from Sukey about the role of photographic images because, at the last minute, she had to be on a photo shoot somewhere in London’s docklands. Then, Mo ended up giving her presentation on the future of gerontological research and practice without her carefully crafted slides to accompany it, because the technology failed. Such a shame. What was nice though was that we had allowed a good amount of time for questions and comments. And this time, being able to see and hear people when they switched on their cameras and mics, was a joy. It’s those connections that BSG fosters which are such a big part of any conference. The support for, but also the critique of, the work we do. That, and being able to spend time and socialise with people you may only meet initially at the annual conference but who become good colleagues and friends over the years.
This year’s conference was certainly different. I can understand why the decision has already been made to deliver it online again next year, but am not sure I’d personally like it to be that way all the time. Yes, it can theoretically reach more people across the world but, as I found out, not owning a PC or a laptop with a camera and mic, meant I was digitally excluded from the social aspects. I suspect I wasn’t the only one. Perhaps hybrid conferences might be the way forward: some people attending in-person, some on-line. It was, as they say, an experience and I am grateful that, having been without institutional support for the first time in nearly 40 years, that I was awarded one of the 50@50 bursaries to enable me to participate. Thank you BSG and may you continue to blaze a trail for the next 50 years.
The ‘Evolution of British Gerontology’ book can be purchased from Policy Press at: https://policy.bristoluniversitypress.co.uk/the-evolution-of-british-gerontology
The other outputs from the ‘Ageing of British Gerontology’ project, including all the portraits and the series of eight films, can be accessed on the BSG’s website at: https://www.britishgerontology.org/about-bsg/history/the-ageing-of-british-gerontology