Only six days to go. Then, for considerably more than 24 straight hours, I’ll be not only awake, but busy setting up ticket and book stalls and coordinating volunteers, interviewing a friend and colleague about her desert island choice of records on our pop-up radio station, and then at 17.00 on Thursday 19 April welcoming audiences to the first talk of the 24 hour marathon. And then I’ll be buzzing around, keeping an eye on everything, looking after our speakers, MCs and volunteers, taking a few photos, tweeting, listening to as many of the talks as I can and listening into the radio when I can, changing into my PJs at around 11.30, giving a talk myself at 2.00 am on Friday 20 April, introducing the Goth slot at 3.00 am, changing back into daywear at around 6.00 am, doing a radio show with Mike about places and music that mean something to us at 11.00 am, and then, after Tony Ryan brings the talk programme to a close, saying some possibly incoherent, unavoidably emotional words to thank everyone for their contributions, and to send our audiences, speakers and volunteers safely on their way home. My family will scoop me up, pop me in a taxi and get me home, where I will almost certainly be asleep over a pint of beer by around 8.00 pm.
It does regularly occur to me during the course of this event that it is pretty incredible. During the night shift especially. It might seem a bit like one of those anxiety dreams – you’re in a lecture theatre in a University (a fairly normal setting, for many of us), but it’s 2.00 in the morning, and you’re in your jimjams. But unlike those dreams, it’s not uncomfortable, far from it, because you’re not the only one – many of the volunteers will have slipped into panda onesies or whatever, and the speakers, however eminent, have all been advised of the dress code, however they choose to interpret it.
But it’s not just the uncanny nature of the night shift, it’s the whole event. It’s the fact that each year I send out invitations to colleagues at all levels asking them to give a half hour talk on any topic they like, at some point over a 24 hour period, accessible to non-specialist audiences. And before I know it, the programme is full, and I’m turning people away. Some people come back, year after year, but usually around half of the speakers are new to the event. And each year we recruit student volunteers from across the University and all around the world, who throw themselves into the event with enthusiasm and creativity and energy. Each year people offer more than we’ve asked of them, wanting to be involved.
Initially this was down to the Tim factor. That first year, our student volunteers had all been taught by him, and inspired by him, and they all loved him and missed him terribly. Most of the speakers had worked with him – one flew over from Lausanne, another came up from Oxford, just to be part of it. It was inevitably, at least in part, a memorial to someone who had played a vital role in the University, in the Physics department, and in the academic life of generations of students. Obviously, five years on, the undergrads at least never knew Tim and the majority of speakers probably didn’t either. But his story still touches people and in any case, almost all of us have our own cancer stories.
Almost all of us have lost someone who we loved, someone who inspired us. Each year I think not only of Tim and Victoria, but of my mum and her mum who I never knew, of Jos and Dorrie and Anne. I think of the survivors too, of Lorna and Sarah and Linda and Bev, amongst others. Each year names are added to the list. This year I will think of Maryam having treatment in the US for ovarian cancer, Jennie about to go into round 2 of chemo for acute myeloid leukaemia. I think of Jonathan and of Sheena.
Tim’s story is of course not just a story about cancer. It’s the story of a teacher who connected with his students, who encouraged and inspired them, who made complicated ideas accessible and who was passionate about not only teaching but learning as a lifelong activity. And that’s the other reason why this event goes on, from strength to strength. Because the University is a place dedicated to teaching and learning, full of people who are passionate about teaching and learning. Because we get a buzz out of encountering stuff we don’t know, didn’t know might be interesting, didn’t know we might be able to at least begin to understand.
24 hours of inspiration.
If you’re in the neighbourhood, do pop in. For however much time you can spare, for as long as you like. It’s not just talks, there’s 24 hour boardgaming too, if that’s your thing. And live music too.
And if you’re not in the neighbourhood, you can listen in to Radio Inspire, which will be broadcasting a mix of music, interviews, spoken word, quizzes, and more music throughout the event.
Everything we raise, through selling tickets and cups of tea and buns, goes to this year’s two charities, Rotherham Hospice and Impact Living. What we do in that 24 hours makes a difference to the charities we support and this year it will help to provide end of life care in people’s homes, and to support vulnerable young people with cancer.
Come along if you can, listen in when you can – and if you can, please donate.