Learning the art of public speaking (the hard way)

Real lives

When Bram Stoker's Dracula came out three years ago I was invited to chair a debate about vampires at the ICA in London. On the bill were Christopher Frayling, a woman whose speciality topic was vampire lesbians in the movies, and genial gore hound and film fan Kim Newman, promoting his novel Anno Dracula.

The latter hissed a warning to us all as we sat round the table in the bar: "Don't get out of the boat!" There were some very rum types queuing up to get into the seminar room, and Kim, a veteran of horror film fests and sci-fi symposia, was cautioning us against personal contact with any of them. Which was just as well, since the room was packed with black- clad goths who looked as though they'd like nothing better than to snack on our jugulars, and the first, creepiest and most persistent questioner wanted to know whether any of the panel had ever met a real vampire.

I was reminded of this by a quintessential "getting out of the boat" moment after a debate at the Dartington Literature Festival brought to you by Ways With Words and, this year, the Independent on Sunday in a blaze of media sponsorship which basically means they get hacks like me down to Devon to chair literary events. There is something the WWW team don't know about me, something best summed up by a casually cruel comment from a friend when I recanted my modest triumph at the ICA. "Yeah, but they've never asked you back, though, have they?" Looking back, most of my public speaking engagements have been one-offs. This time, however, I have been booked for three events - will I get shoved back on to the Paddington Express if the first one bombs?

But I'm feeling pretty confident. There's no time for second thoughts now anyway. I meet my three novelists backstage. We are whisked through a door into a bright light. Applause, sit down, fumble with water glasses, introduce, remember names, burble helplessly, shut up, they speak, I burble again, the audience asks questions, more applause and out. Not too bad, surely? At the quick post-mortem on the lawn, there is a shower of effusive praise, though a few people say, rather too casually, that I might possibly cut down the length of my questions. Just a tad. Not that they're too long, or anything, no, no, nooo. Any minute now someone's going to come up and say: "Oh well, you did your best." Then someone does.

My next event, a debate on the Orange Prize, goes by in even more of a blur. I am supposed to be devil's advocate, but frankly the 1996 winner, Helen Dunmore, and the founder, Kate Mosse, are so sweetly reasonable (and so good at this sort of thing) that it's very difficult to disagree with them. Yes! Of course! Lovely big literary prize for women only. Why on earth not? "Judging by the press coverage," coos Kate, sweetly, "You'd have thought I'd said that men shouldn't be allowed to write novels." This time the laughter and applause befuddles me and I lead them out proudly through the hall. Don't get out of the boat! Helen and Kate are swallowed up and I'm immediately assailed by a large woman who hisses: "You didn't mention misogyny!" I creep out like the whipped cur of patriarchy I am, but she follows, cackling menacingly: "Misogyny, the hate that dare not speak its name!"

Despite this, I am still maintaining a lunatic cheerfulness, even though now the organisers are coming up and saying in clipped tones: Remember. Short. Questions. This last session is called Women Behaving Badly, with novelists Julie Myerson, Clare Boylan and Dunmore again. A terror deeper than I've ever known grips me before we go on stage. Into that white light once more, then: "Sex. In your novels. A lot of. Why?" The room is packed. Boylan is a star, effortlessly tripping off one-liners. There is only one awful moment, and that's when she's just come to the end of another shrewdly funny bit of analysis and purrs: "But I don't think I've answered your question. What was it again?"

What was the bloody question! There's an agonised pause. For the first time I see a hint of anxiety in her eyes as she peers over the top of her specs at me. "Fantasy, Clare," I say very firmly. "Er, wish-fulfilment. Fantasy." This is not much of a lifeline, but Clare catches it nimbly and swims off again. And it's all over; I emerge, trembling, on to the lawn for the verdict, which seems to be: terrific. Really short questions.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Glazier

    £16500 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This specialist historic buildi...

    Recruitment Genius: Office and Customer Services Manager

    £18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small but very busy (and f...

    Recruitment Genius: Portfolio Administrator

    £14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company has become known a...

    Recruitment Genius: Mechanical and Electrical Engineer - Midlands

    £35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of refrig...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot