The Club Guest
Yesterday I went, as I do from time to time, to the Royal Astronomical Society’s monthly meeting and thence to the RAS Club for dinner. This was the last such meeting before the summer hiatus – they resume in October – and also incorporated the Society’s Annual General Meeting at which new officers are elected, amongst them the new President. Andy Fabian was the outgoing President, having completed his two-year tour of duty, and he was replaced by Roger Davies.
It was also revealed at this meeting that next year’s National Astronomy Meeting would be in Llandudno. Usually this event is organized by a university and is held in a university town. This year it was in Glasgow, for example. However, the University of Sheffield has pulled out of organizing the 2011 NAM and no other was willing to take on the considerable task of organizing it at such short notice. It was therefore decided to break with tradition and hold the event not on a university campus but at a holiday resort. I’ve never been to Llandudno, but I think it could be great for us astronomers here in Wales to have the Principality host NAM. I suspect, however, that it wasn’t regional politics, but economics, that held sway in reaching the decision. Llandudno is perhaps a bit cheaper than most English seaside towns. I can already hear some of my English colleagues starting to whinge about how difficult it will be to get there, but we’ll see. I just hope I can persuade them to hold it outside Cardiff’s teaching term otherwise I won’t be able to go even if it is in Wales.
It was interesting to learn about all these developments, and the subsequent Open Meeting was not without interest either. We had talks about volcanic ash (topical, that one), martian meteorites, high-altitude balloon flights and stellar disks. A mixed bag of talks, but all of them very enjoyable.
However, this meeting turned out to be remarkable for a completely different reason. At the end of one of the lectures in the open meeting, a strange woman entered the lecture theatre, walked down the aisle and took a seat in the front row. In fact she first tried to sit in Roger Davies’ seat – he was standing in order to supervise the question-and-answers at the end of the talk – but he asked her to move. Finding a free seat a bit further along, she removed her hat and proceeded to brush her hair ostentatiously. As the other talks went on she appeared to pay very little attention to them, preferring instead to look around the room. I had never seen her before, but open meetings like this often attract visitors and in any case acting a bit strangely is by no means inconsistent with being an astronomer.
After the meeting closed I went for a glass of wine to Burlington House and then to the Athenaeum. There was quite a crowd there and as usual we all had a glass of wine before sitting down. It was only when we started to eat that I realised that this mysterious lady (left) was actually sitting at another table. Since the RAS Club is for members (and their guests) only, I assumed she was with one of the invited speakers at the meeting who, as is usual in such cases, had been invited to the club afterwards as a club guest.
I thought nothing more about this until I saw the Club Treasurer, Margaret Penston, looking a bit agitated, go to her table and ask The Mystery Guest a question. I couldn’t hear what. Our visitor then stood up, announced she had to be going and left quickly before anyone could do anything about it. It turned out she wasn’t anyone’s guest at all, but had just latched onto a group of people leaving for the club, each of whom assumed one of the others knew her. It being England, nobody asked her who she was or what she was doing there. I have no idea who she was or why she had decided to attach herself to the RAS Club that evening.
All this was hilarious enough but, after she’d gone, it emerged that she had paid for her dinner by “borrowing” money from a genuine club guest, an American astronomer who happened to be sitting next to her and to whom she had introduced herself as the “Contessa” of something or other. Our American friend may have thought it was all an elaborate practical joke, but he was clearly completely dumbfounded by the episode. The Club had a whip round to pay him back the money he had lent her.
On top of all this, some other members of the Club then pointed out that she had done something similar on at least three previous occasions, in locations ranging from Paris to London. Why none of her previous victims had identified her yesterday and drawn attention to her past history I have no idea. If they had she would have been removed earlier.
If the relatively small gathering we had on Friday could furnish three previous examples of this kind of behaviour, then it seems likely that it’s part of a pattern. However, it doesn’t seem likely that she makes her living doing this sort of thing because she’s only “borrowed” amounts from £5 to £70. Perhaps astronomers aren’t the best choice of target.
I wonder if anyone reading this blog recognizes her and can shed light on her curious behaviour?