A dinner to remember

In 2005, just before Christmas, a very strange thing happened to me.  At a grand banquet held in Hogwarts a knight of the realm stood up to give the after-dinner speech and, part-way through, suddenly began reading out an excerpt of an article I'd written.

I had no idea this was going to happen, and was startled to find myself centre of attention.

The Great Hall of Christ Church college, Oxford.

The occasion was the dinner of the annual meeting of the Palaeontological Association, held in Oxford.  Professor Sir Peter Crane was the association's president at the time, and also Director of Kew Gardens.  The dinner venue was the Great Hall of Christ Church College, which just happens to double up as Hogwarts in the films starring that ubiquitous magician boy.

My article was from the Palaeontological Association's newsletter, describing our appearance on "University Challenge: The Professionals" in 2004.  Sir Peter's PA had apparently enjoyed the piece very much, and had encouraged him to read out a snippet of it in his annual address marking the recent achievements of the association.

So he did, and as far as I can remember, this was the bit he read* out:

"Having been repeatedly refused any information on our opponents, we arrived to find we were up against the Eden Project, in a Biology-v-Botany clash (of sorts).  Their team included the project founder, Tim Smit, and whilst waiting for instructions on what to do, and where to go, we had an entertaining discussion on how to make natural history attractive to the general public.

Norm [MacLeod] suggested that the NHM should invest in animatronic dinosaurs that devoured every 50th child, which would certainly add a new dimension to school trips.  And if that thought didn't unnerve the Eden Project team sufficiently, Norm had another trick up his sleeve: our mascot, a rather malevolent-looking Pteranodon dubbed Terry.

Ours was the last of the first round matches to be filmed, so there was a fair amount of sitting around required.  Watching the Welsh Assembly do battle with the Scottish Parliament killed some time, before we were led off to make-up and then for some food.  As we walked into the canteen, the people already in there (presumably involved in some way with Celebrity Stars In Their Eyes, being filmed in the studio next door) turned and stared at us, trying to work out if we were famous.  One small boy tugged his father's shirtsleeve.

"Look Dad!" he whispered, "it's the expert on late diagenetic carbonate cementation in the Mesozoic, Dr Tim Palmer!"

"Don't be daft, lad!" retorted his father. "That's Norm MacLeod, the leading authority on morphometric variability in planktonic foraminifera!"  They returned to their dinner."

The audience applauded and I felt outwardly self-conscious but incredibly proud.  I had no idea Sir Peter was going to read it out, and even if I never achieve anything much in my palaeontological career, that moment will live with me for a very long time.

Curiously enough, some years later I found myself back in the same Granada Studios canteen during the filming of Countdown.  However, I've yet to find the right knight to read that story out.

*If you have a strange and irrepressible need to know what Sir Peter sounds like, there is a YouTube video of him here: