Archive for the ‘Public Speaking’ Category

Poole Central Library, where I have been invited to give a talk about The Mango Orchard, is sandwiched between a KFC and a Primark store, and housed in a concrete shopping centre. Inside, I am pleased to see, it is light and airy. In addition to the regular librarians – including the charming Jenny Oliver who has organised the event – there is an army of green sash-wearing volunteers welcoming people and directing them towards the drinks and refreshments.

With Judy Butt before the talk

Two volunteers heave the books I have brought with me on to a table. I feel a bit like a travelling salesman arriving at an event with a boxful of books. It’s always difficult to know how many to bring. I once travelled six hours to an event in Halifax and sold not one. I have a good feeling about Poole, though.
I am given a very generous introduction by the former mayor, Judy Butt. She is now an executive counsellor with one of the best titles I have ever come across. She is (deep breath) Cabinet Portfolio Holder for Leisure, Sport & Recreation, Culture, Libraries & Community, Learning Public, Engagement and Participation for the Borough of Poole.

The talk goes well and the questions are intelligent and thoughtful. Among the people who put their hands up are a former priest who worked in Mexico, and asks his questions in Spanish, a couple whose daughter is planning her own Latin American adventure, and a woman whose Indonesian grandmother had killed her grandfather with black magic.

“We sold all the books,” the volunteers tell me sadly as they hand me a brown envelope stuffed with cash. “Shame you didn’t bring more.”

From Poole I head to Plymouth, approximately 100 miles away. It takes over five hours. I calculate (I have run out of reading material) that Robert Stephenson’s Rocket would have gone to Plymouth and be half way back by the time we get there. I am joined, between Yetminster and Dorchester, by a group of students. They look a thoughtful, intellectual bunch. They sit down in the seats next to mine. “You know?” says one, “I had a dream last night that I could only get drunk by licking Clarissa’s knees.” The others nod and plug in their iPods.

It’s another good night in Plymouth. This time I don’t have to bring any books and a nice lady from Waterstone’s does brisk business on my behalf. And it’s back to London.

Next stop, Chicago.


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Joan Hickson as Miss Marple

Last week I took part in the Woodstock Literary Festival, a boutique festival sponsored by the Independent and The Independent on Sunday. It is difficult to imagine a more beautiful setting for a literary festival than Woodstock, a town eight miles northwest of Oxford and home to the glorious Blenheim Palace, where much of the festival is held. As I walk through the village en route to my talk about The Mango Orchard, I pass well-kept greens, Georgian houses and medieval pubs. The only traffic is a rally of vintage Rolls-Royces and I feel thoroughly as though I’ve just stepped into a novel by PG Wodehouse. It’s no surprise to learn that they filmed the Miss Marple TV series here.

In the festival green room I am handed a pleasingly plush goody bag. Included is a box of “Real strawberries Enrobed in Chocolate.” Enrobed? How posh is that? I am suddenly infused with the feeling that I must finally have made it.

I leaf through the programme, which lists a hugely impressive and diverse list of speakers including Dom Jolly, Alistair Darling, Martin Bell, Robert Fisk, Terry Wogan, Richard Ingrams, Pam Ayers, Richard Dawkins and Margaret Drabble to name but a few. In such illustrious company I feel slightly nervous before beginning my talk, but am soon rattling away comfortably, encouraged by my attentive audience.

The attendees are an interesting bunch, and after I finish my talk I am engaged in conversation by a man who spent several years in Columbia prospecting for gold and a globe-trotting botanist who went plant hunting in the Amazon. Their questions on The Mango Orchard are intelligent and their comments are kind. I leave the festival enrobed in a warm glow. Toodle-pip!

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I am getting up slowly. My aim is to have a leisurely breakfast with the newspaper propped up against the toast rack before catching the 11.30 to Norwich, where I am due to appear at Writers’ Centre Norwich’s Summer Reads.
The phone rings. It’s a producer at BBC Radio Oxford, asking if Jo Thoenes can interview me for a programme about genealogy. I readily agree; I appeared on her show when I was at the Oxford Literature Festival in March and I was very impressed with her. I am booked in for a telephone interview in half an hour. I glance at the microwave clock. I realise that I have no time for a leisurely anything; I need to be showered and ready to leave before Jo calls back.
Jo Thoenes
Shaving, I really should have learned by now, is one thing you should not do in a hurry. As well as remove my stubble, I also manage to slice the end of my nose. I have no idea how I have managed to achieve this wound, but it’s certainly very real; my nose is throbbing and blood is trickling into the sink.
When the phone rings, I am sitting on the sofa, leaning forward to avoid staining my shirt, with a piece of toilet paper stuck to the drying blood on the end of my nose. Jo and I have a quick chat and then launch straight into the interview. I’m in mid-flow and suddenly my nose starts bleeding again. I realise I am beginning to lose the thread of what I am saying. I want to explain that for me, the most important of the family historian’s art, is oral testimony, but I am now trying to dab a drop of blood from the carpet, and the word “testimony” has completely escaped me. “Oral…err,” I grab another tissue. “Oral… um… ” I don’t guess what the second word may be in case my Tourette’s tendencies get the better of me.
Jo somehow manages to divert my attention from my nose and back to answering her questions but I can’t think that mine is the most illuminating interview she will conduct today.
A few hours later, my nose has stopped bleeding and I am being interviewed again, this time by Stephen Bumfrey at BBC Radio Norwich. It suddenly strikes me as I sit in this Norwich radio studio and that I am having a very Alan Partridge-esque day. I’m even staying in a Travelodge. All I need now is to have a fight with a trouser press.
After the interview, Sam Ruddock from Writers’ Centre Norwich escorts me round the bookshops in the centre of Norwich, all of which are pleasingly well-stocked with copies of The Mango Orchard, and some even have it in their window displays.
I am delighted to be part of Summer Reads. It’s a reading campaign Writers’ Centre Norwich organises with Norfolk Libraries. I am very proud to be part of the line-up of excellent books: Joseph O’Conner’s Ghost Light, Simon Armitage’s Seeing Stars, Evie Wyld’s After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, Andrey Kurkov’s The Good Angel Of Death, and Katie Kitamura’s The Longshot.
I have half an hour to return to the Travelodge and get changed for my talk at the fabulous Millennium Library. The attendance is good, the audience are generous listeners and ask wise questions (which thankfully didn’t include “What’s that gash at the end of your nose”) and buy a good number of books. Thanks to Sam, Katy and all at Writers’ Centre Norwich for including me in Summer Reads, and for organising it so well. I hope to have another book for you soon.

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I am deeply indebted to the Mexican Tourist Board and the Mexican embassy who organised, and paid for, a press reception for the launch of The Mango Orchard paperback last week. Press, travel industry leaders, diplomats and VIPs gathered in the cool basement bar of the new Wahaca Soho restaurant on Wardour Street for delicious canapés and truly lethal (but very moreish) tequila cocktails.
It was a humbling reminder that Mexicans are the world’s most generous hosts. Gracias compañeros! 

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For the second time in two days, I find myself on the train heading from Liverpool Street station towards Essex. Today, I’m going to Prettygate Library in Colchester, to speak at the Essex Book Festival.
I had allowed enough time to walk from the station, but when I arrive in Colchester, and I see the spitting grey sky, I jump into a cab. I arrive at the venue half an hour early so I while away the time in the nearby pub. The Jefferson Starship song We Built This City on Rock and Roll is playing on a loop on the jukebox, to about four regulars.
Sylvia, the library supervisor, welcomes me. She introduces me to Karen, the Audience Development Officer (what a wonderful title!) and the rest of the staff.
“Thanks for your Tweet,” Sylvia says as she takes my coat. “And we heard you on Radio Essex as well. We had a few people phone up after they heard you.”
She takes me up to the staff room which looks out on to the car park. It is empty. I look up at the sky. It’s still grey and spitting. Will anyone come?
Karen comes up to collect me, and she has a smile on her face. I take comfort from this. As Audience Development Officer, I figure she wouldn’t be smiling if she hadn’t managed to develop a decent audience. Indeed, when we come down the stairs, I see that the library is full.
Karen’s job of developing the audience, I see, is not limited to getting them to come, she also acts as compere. “I think we have some of the local book group here,” she says, and the whole of the front row cheers.
The highlight of many talks is often the Q&A session; today is no exception. All the questions are intelligent and thought-provoking. One man tells me how much the book had meant to him because of his own family story which, in different circumstance, had also taken him to Mexico. There is real emotion in his tale, and I’m not the only one to be brushing away a tear.
Back to London and I go straight to the premiere of the Colombian film, Los Viajes del Viento, or Wind Journeys, screened as a fund-raiser for Friends of Colombia for Social Aid. The film is stunning. I particularly appreciate it because the Colombian landscape is extraordinary and reminds me of the journey I did through Colombia with my friend Pedro (chapter 3 in The Mango Orchard) to La Guajira at the northern tip of South America.
I arrive home and check my e-mails. For the first time in nearly a year, I have a mail from… Pedro.

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A big thank you to everyone who came to hear me speak at Words by the Water last week, especially to Maggie and her book group, who suggested the festival to me in the first place.
I had fully intended to tweet in between readings, but had forgotten that the Lake District is almost entirely a mobile free zone.  There was apparently a weak signal next to the lake, a few hundred yards from the theatre, but it was raining stair rods most of the time, and when it wasn’t, it was too cold for me to have any practical use of my fingers, so the update has had to wait until now.
Someone described Words by the Water as being in like “an interactive Radio 4”. Indeed, Melvyn Bragg was there and I attended some wonderful talks by the likes of Peter Hennessy, Roy Hattersley   and Jean Baggott. I also got to meet the brilliant John Gray and Ted Nield and had been promised an introduction to John Simpson, but Muammar Gaddafi had other ideas.
During my stay there I learned that there is only one lake in the Lake District (Bassenthwaite, all the others are officially “waters”, “tarns”, “meres” or reservoirs) and that David Lloyd-George sired over 50 illegitimate children in Carnarvon alone. I learned that in the 1950s, Britain’s nuclear deterrent depended on AA phone boxes and the Prime Minister’s driver having some loose change. I also discovered that JG Ballard refused to invest any money and kept everything he ever earned in his current account. I was told by a highly respected broadcaster and national treasure (who shall remain nameless) that he keeps fit by running up and down stairs… in the nude.
Also in attendance most days at the festival was six-foot-something Welsh drag artist, who spent her days walking grandly through the theatre foyer claiming to be “the world’s first female baritone”, and trying to lure people up to the Sky Arts den to ‘see her arias’.
Ps: Thanks to Jo-anne for her media advice!

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Last week I did something I have never done before. And it being the first time, I was abit rubbish at it. I was a chat virgin.
I have had one-to-one chats on Facebook but until last week, when I was invited to chat to individual readers and reading groups around the country, was the first time I had been involved in a mass-chat. I’m fairly sure that’s not the right terminology and saying “mass-chat” is a bit like your dad talking about musical combos or the hit parade, but hey, you know what I mean.
I logged on to the site http://www.rchatrandom.co.uk/archive.asp?sessionid=42. Nothing. I waited some more, and still nothing happened. The moderator sent me a text saying that there was a glitch. Questions began to appear: Was I still in a relationship with Juanita? What were my motivations for writing the book? How did I keep track of the conversations contained in the book?
All I could do was sit and look at the screen and watch the questions build up: was I surprised at the large number of relatives you found in Mexico? Would I like to give a talk on the book at Words by the Water at Keswick?
After about fifteen minutes, the screen finally flickered to life and then I had to write as fast as I could to try and answer all the questions before the clock ticked down. It was like being in an exam, but with nice questions.
After an hour, time was up. The screen went blank and I having spent an hour typing to furiously to people all over the country, I found myself alone in a dark room.
I got up and made something to eat.

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The day of the reading in Hampstead arrives.
I receive a flurry of e-mails from friends who are Arsenal fans, making their excuses. It’s the local derby, they’re sure that I understand. I have long learned that one can’t fight football. My 40th birthday was the day that England played Portugal in the quarter final of the 2006 World Cup. Love me as they do, I knew there was no chance of getting more than a smattering of anti-football friends to attend any party that night.
Tonight though, I have no choice. I agreed to talk about my book a long time ago.
I enjoy talking about my book; it’s certainly easier than writing it. My only fear is that no one will turn up. I dread speaking to rows of empty seats. It used to happen sometimes when, in my TV days, I used to fly to conferences obscure parts of Eastern Europe to talk about my TV channel.
I once travelled for seven hours to attend a film festival in Czech Republic. When I arrived, the organiser, a corpulent man with a thick moustache and permed hair, said that he wanted me to host a press conference.
No one had said anything about a press conference. I couldn’t think who would be interested in listening to me give a press briefing when I had nothing to announce, but he insisted that local press would be fascinated to hear from me.
He led me into a lecture theatre, where there were three people sat at the back. One of them, I discovered later, was the organiser’s wife, another, was lost and walked out as soon as I began to talk. The other woman was, she insisted, a journalist.
I talked about my TV channel for about ten minutes, until I could think of nothing more to say, then I asked if anyone had any questions.
The one journalist put up her hand, and asked if I could help her. I said I would try. “My TV hasn’t worked for months,” she said. “Do you know where I can get it fixed?”
I arrive at Waterstones in Hampstead, where I see three people and about 35 empty seats. My heart sinks. I am led upstairs to the staff room, a spacious room with a sofa and large coffee table, on which are two bottles of kosher wine. The charming girl who is charged with looking after me offers me a glass, and tells me tales of previous speakers – some of whom are household names – and h

ow much they had to drink before, during and after their talk.
She leads me back downstairs. I have a feeling of dread and prepare to tell rows of empty seats all about my journey in the footsteps of my great grandfather.
There are three empty seats at the front. All the rest are taken. As I begin my talk, more people arrive, then more. Two extra rows are added as I speak. Having spent five years writing this book, it is pleasing in the extreme that people are interested to hear what I have to say about the experience. The questions are plentiful and intelligent.
Then we all go to the pub.

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Four days after my big night out and the hangover is no better. I’m dizzy, my brain feels like it has been replaced by candyfloss, clamped with a vice and muffled with a tea-cosy. My thought processes are slow, and a long way from my mouth – not a good day to be talking to the press. Today it has been women’s and genealogy magazines, and the regional newspapers in the North Yorkshire.
I go for a walk to the newsagent to clear my head. I buy the Ham & High to look at the interview I gave to promote my talk at Hampstead Waterstones on 14th April. The interview is not there.
I write to the interviewer and am told the piece was filed to late and will appear next week, a day after my appearance at Waterstones.
I have a lie down but can’t sleep; my head is too painful. I convince myself that I have a brain tumour, and wonder if I will live long enough to give my talk.

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I have been receiving calls all day about the new window display dedicated to The Mango Orchard in the Waterstone’s branch in Orchard Square, Sheffield, where I am to do a reading next week.

The display says that you can “meet me” for £2 (redeemable against the cost of the book). Considering the prices to meet Geoff Hoon, Harriet Harman or Stephen Byers, it does seem a veritable snip.

It has been a Sheffield day. Most of the morning was spent in interviews with the Sheffield papers, The Star and The Telegraph, which should publish their articles at the end of this week.

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