Naked with black socks might in fact be the best way to do it. In black socks and birthday suit I could be pretty sure of clearing the room, in which case no one would remain to stare at me as I made my Speech. But, given the draughtiness of many public halls in this country, and especially in February – perhaps not.
So, not comfortable.
I just hate being looked at. Not even stared at. Looked at. People used to believe, I believe, around Newton’s time – you know, when all those metaphysical poets roamed the earth – that eyes actually gave off beams of something. That was how things were seen – by the eye aiming this – something – in their direction.
Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread / Our eyes upon one double string…
(The Ecstasy: John Donne)
And this is how I feel: that people’s gazes are physical entities. A single gaze is enough to send a shiver down my spine if I accidentally bisect it. A roomful of gazes, all pointing in different directions (at a party, for instance) feels like being caught in an electrified spider’s web. A roomful of gazes all focussed on me – is like being at the end of a laser beam. But, needs must, sometimes.
You know when you’re suddenly forced to do the thing you are most afraid of? And instead of running to hide in the bathroom some adrenaline-fuelled something takes over? This travesty of yourself – this Mr Hyde character – does what it has to do, collapses, and then can’t remember anything of what it did?
I’ve told before the story of my first experience of public speaking, having been instructed to learn a three-stanza poem and then recite it in chapel (Now You See Me). A week of building horror, and the subsequent Mary I made of it, would have been sufficient for one lifetime. But no.
I had to give a presentation of some science project at an Open University summer school: Biology 202. I had been paired up with some other woman who was even more gormless and silent than me, and so it fell on me as the lesser of the two incompetencies. I spoke. I made at least one hysterical joke, which I remember I regretted immediately, and at which no one even tittered. Scientists are really serious. I can’t remember a single word.
I once had to read a poem I had written, to some sort of literary gathering. There was a microphone, but even with the microphone nobody could hear me. Some tormenting Horrid Henry at the back kept yelling Speak up! Speak UP! And when I had finished, same Horrid Henry and his henchmen jovially insisted that I repeat it. I can’t remember which poem it was. I can remember observing that my hands, clutching the poem, were shaking violently, and wondering whether my knees were about to give way.
I was once forced to give a talk about nuclear power to a group of foreign visitors. One of my many jobs was at one of the old Magnox power stations – it’s all right, they didn’t let me press any buttons on the reactor; I just arranged the visits. I answered letters and took phone calls from people interested in coming to visit, sent out information brochures, kept the diary and arranged for the right quantity of Lady Guides to come in from surrounding villages on the right days. Sometimes I arranged a talk from one of the nuclear physics, electrical or instruments engineers, or set up a bar. I remember a roomful of Russian lady engineers. We had foolishly assumed that Russians would prefer vodka, and had bought in crate-loads of the stuff. We didn’t speak each other’s languages so we smiled rather a lot – and pointed, and shrugged. The Russian ladies were fierce – and for their pre-lunch aperitif they wanted not Wodka! but Weesky!
Whatever the level of the visit, it had to be preceded by this dreadful old film – I had to set up the projector, too – in which atoms were depicted as multi-coloured ping-pong balls whirling around other multi-coloured ping-pong balls.
Usually, for common or garden visits, the atomic ping-pong film was followed by a brief talk from a Lady Guide – then off everyone would troupe on their tour. But on one occasion something went wrong and I was the only person available to give the talk to a group of Japanese visitors. The Lady Guides knew it by heart but of course I didn’t. I had scarcely even listened to it, since it was boring, and since I never imagined I would have to give it.
However, I spoke, about something – which may or may not have been the workings of a nuclear reactor. I may have made another of those unfunny jokes. The Japanese visitors listened, politely, though a sympathetic, amused look rapidly spread amongst them: the meaning of a cold sweat and violent shaking is obviously quite apparent, in any language.