Rude audiences, ruder speakers, potential punch-ups and other ingredients of the annual dinner provide the fodder for the first of our columns on industry events
There's an eclectic array of evening functions on the construction industry rubber chicken circuit, but the cordon bleu events are, indisputably, the institutions' annual dinners. As our straining waistbands remind us, we've just completed one of the two annual dinner seasons. By tradition, these are in February and November, presumably to enliven the two dullest months of the year, and to keep costs down – since one-third of the potential guests are sure to be in bed with flu.

Construction has undergone continual change over the past decade, but it's reassuring to know that the organisers of these centuries-old rituals are sticking barnacle-like to their traditions. Not for them Egan-style cluster groups brainstorming new ways of passing the butter – no chance of that when you're squeezed onto a single table half a mile long. And how on earth could you dream of cutting waste? That would mean losing one of the five courses. Or improving efficiency? The president of the host organisation would have to trim his 47-page speech. And as for dispelling the impression that the industry is overstuffed with overstuffed middle-aged white men – perish the thought – is that really grounds for the CIOB inviting Ann Widdecombe along?

But there's so much more to dinners than resisting change. They're about celebrating the best of the industry's heritage: like internecine conflict, for example. Why else would you put all the editors of rival trade magazines together in one corner? Or place the most rotund guests in the narrow gap between two tables? Nobody has actually witnessed a fistfight at one of these events, but it wouldn't feel the same without the outside possibility.

For any annual dinner virgins reading this, it's important to remember the special etiquette of these occasions. At an annual dinner, it's not merely impolite to sit and listen in silence, it's positively de rigueur to talk persistently over the speaker, allowing the volume of chatter to rise steadily before completely drowning out their final anecdote. And at least one person on each table is obliged to get up and noisily head off for the toilets as the speaker introduces a new theme. The best example of this was a Lighthouse Club dinner a couple of years ago, when a Scottish raconteur's tales from the golf course were treated with the respect they deserved by almost half the audience exiting after the first punchline. The poor man may not have realised it, but this was actually the most shameless flattery. If only someone had explained this to Bill Oddie before the recent CIBSE beanfeast, he would have bought his prattling guest a drink, rather than emptying one over him.

Nobody has witnessed a fistfight at one of these events, but it wouldn’t feel the same without the possibility

The selection of speakers is a fine art. First, there should be two more than the guests want to listen to. And at least one of them should be Alan Crane. According to dinner lore, it is the solemn duty of one speaker to harangue the audience's inadequacies, although stopping short of Sir John Egan's onslaught at the Construction Confederation dinner a few years ago. On reflection, it was going a little far to tell everyone in the room that they were hopeless; as Egan should have realised, it's only acceptable to pick on select groups. These are, in ascending order of popularity: journalists, lawyers, rabid skunks and QSs. It's every bit a part of the show as standing up and down to separately toast the Queen, Prince Philip, Princess Pushy and each of the corgis, before passing round a Loving Cup in honour of the murder of Ethelred the Unready.