I am sitting on a platform at a venue called the Tardis in deepest Clerkenwell. The man sitting next to me has just taken all his clothes off. Well, I tell a lie – he has removed his pants and trousers, but his socks remain.
Now he is urging me to disrobe, too. A hundred pairs of eyes shift their focus from his crumpled genitals to my wary face. It is at this point that I start thinking, "How did I get here?"
The phone call came a week ago. "I was wondering," began a a male voice. Surely, that must be the most ominous preface ever invented, always dragging in tow some unwelcome request such as, "whether you'd look after my incontinent labrador". Before I knew what the caller wanted, my inner voice was screaming "No way". But, unaccountably, my outer one was already going, "Yes, I see. Super. Of course I'll do it."
The call was from Tom Hodgkinson, editor of The Idler – a magazine so wantonly lazy that the fact its head honcho roused himself to phone me deserved some kind of commemoration. It turned out that Adam Buxton, of The Adam and Joe Show, had dropped out of The Idler's Self-Help Evening at the Clerkenwell Literary Festival. Would I stand in? Stand in for an experienced comedian whom a hundred people had paid good money to see? Stand on a platform and talk fluently for 10 minutes before joining a panel of three professionally funny people for half an hour's Q&A session? All right. Why not?
A lifetime's experience has taught me that I never say no to a cup of tea, a party, or a request to make a public address. The first two are pure pleasure, while the latter reflects a kamikaze tendency. For some reason I find the impulse to try out my oratorical skills on a captive audience irresistible, despite the high odds of crashing and burning.
It probably stems from life as the middle child of five rowdy siblings – the chance of anyone listening to a word you said was remote. By sixth form, I was a keen member of my school's debating society and managed to carry off the English Speaking Union's silver cup against a tribe of Clearasil-abusing males – girls were thin on the ground at such events.
Fifteen years on, female speakers are still usually outnumbered by three to one, from the Oxford Union to my wedding reception. I don't think it's a sinister plot by a misogynistic establishment to silence women. It's just that most women would rather have scabies than address a room full of strangers.
My failed attempts to make my assistant editor, Annie, talk at the Idler event were illustrative. Annie is much funnier and far more verbally adroit than I am. She'll happily hold court to any number of rapt fans down the pub. And she's a northerner, which means people don't hate her when she opens her mouth, the way they do us plummy southerners. Alas, my central argument didn't wash with her:
"Just remember that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you is that you suffer total and utter public humiliation." She gave me a long look.
I realised then that the reason so many women dislike public speaking is blindingly obvious. It comes down to the exaggerated female sense of dignity. A sex that relies for its upper hand on excellent communication skills can't risk the horror of seeing these talents fail publicly. The thrill of capturing an audience is as nothing compared with the dread of losing it. Men have no such worries. After all, they're giving the audience the gift of their mellifluous tones, and sod them if they don't like it. Likewise, men can't suffer from loss of dignity in mid-oration because they're blissfully unaware when it does desert them and just carry on regardless.
That's why I decided to have a dignity bypass. I felt it was standing between me and a career in blathering. The Idler event proves that the strategy worked beautifully. I've done a 10-minute riff on my days with bulimia, "the idle girl's way of staying thin", and the chairman has just persuaded me to sing the first verse of "Now the Carnival is Over". No matter that I can't hold a tune. Arthur's just taken all his clothes off. Perhaps I should follow suit?Reuse content