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.

The Mystery Guest

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?

13 Responses to “The Club Guest”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Peter Coles. Peter Coles said: The Club Guest: […]

  2. Mrs Trellis?

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    I presume that the question she was asked by Margaret Penston was something like: “Do you agree that scalar-tensor theories of gravity are superfluous in view of the Cassini-Huygens experimental data?”

  4. Bryn Jones Says:

    Coincidentally, I am writing this on a train that has stopped at Llandudno Junction station, from where trains connect the short distance to Llandudno itself. Llandudno is a pleasant seaside resort half way along the north coast of Wales. It should be a pleasant location for the 2011 National Astronomy Meeting and has good transport connections by road and rail with many places, which will be convenient for those people who have the travel funds to get to such meetings. I too was interested to learn at yesterday’s R.A.S. annual general meeting that the university (Sheffield) that had committed itself to hosting the 2011 National Astronomy Meeting had pulled out.

    I’m intrigued that Peter has a photograph of the mystery woman who gatecrashed his exclusive dinner last night. Thw whole incident seems very amusing to me.

  5. telescoper Says:


    Some photographs are usually taken at Club dinners, to go with the record of who was there, who spoke, etc. Margaret usually takes the pictures and she sent the one of our Mystery Guest this morning.

    I also think it was very amusing, but perhaps would feel differently if it had been me who had paid for her dinner.


  6. Bryn Jones Says:


    It will be interesting if the picture does lead to the identification of the mystery woman, and it must have been unfortunate for the American visitor to have been duped like that. I’m not sure the whole set of experiences would have conveyed an accurate picture of the British astronomical community to the American visitor.

    And, by the way, I first read your blog article while my train approached Prestatyn, but it seems appropriate to wait until the train had reached Llandudno Junction before pressing the submit button.

    The convenient transport links to Llandudno do not apply to Cardiff: it will take you close to four hours to get there by road or train.

    It’s just as well that Roger Davies chose not to give the name of the first talk at yesterday’s R.A.S. ordinary meeting: it would have been beyond the call of duty for a new R.A.S. President to pronounce Eyjafjallajokull as his first act in his new position.


  7. Anton Garrett Says:

    A truly astronomical hoax. I hope she is in good mental health because people who do this kind of thing are often suffering from depression, and not even rip-off merchants deserve that.

    From observation, this happens most frequently at philosophy events…

    Llandudno is OK (I saw Chris Farlowe there last year), and the walk up the Great Orme peak at the end of the promontory is spectacular. Perhaps somebody will have started a university there by next year – since John Major’s time almost anybody can. Why did Sheffield back out?


  8. Bryn Jones Says:

    Does anybody have a spare form for applying for a royal charter?

  9. telescoper Says:

    Does the Queen use a Royal Charter flight when she goes to Benidorm for her holidays?

  10. Alan Heavens Says:

    Perhaps we should sit her next to David Willetts (surely a welcome appointment) – see if she can ‘borrow’ 50 million or so.

  11. Paul Roche Says:

    So is the Llandudno Astronomical Society going to act as the Local Organising Committee for NAM2011?!

    Llandudno is a nice little town but I’m not sure it’s a great location for NAM – it’s between 4 and 5 hours by train from Cardiff (equivalent to a trip to say Leeds or York from here…) and around 3 hours from Birmingham, and is likely to be considered a little “out of the way” for most astronomers I’d guess – but then again, it will be a nice change from the usual university settings, so who knows, maybe we should push for more holiday camps in future….

  12. telescoper Says:


    I don’t know who’s going to make the arrangements there or what the facilities will be like. We’ll have to wait and see what’s planned.

    The big problem with us in Cardiff is that NAM seems always to lie outside our Easter break. If that happens again next year, the RAS can’t count on much help from us to set it up or at least not those of us who have teaching in the second semester.


  13. Bryn Jones Says:

    Phillip’s story about the burglary at an astronomical institute is very similar to a story told by our former prime minister here in Britain (the prime minister who resigned a fortnight ago). His home was burgled, and the intruder upturned the contents of some rooms looking for valuables. The police came later to investigate and concluded from the mess in the study that it too had been ransacked by the thief. The politician had to correct them. The study had not been touched: it always looked like that.

    (He told this story on the Desert Island Discs radio programme many years ago.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: