We attended a Nadfas lecture the other week and enjoyed it, and it made me reflect on the different qualities of lecturers.

You make a preliminary assessment as the speaker sits, waiting to be introduced. Is he/she of attractive, or interesting appearance? How well and appropriately is he or she dressed? Does he/she look relaxed and comfortable?

Some nervousness is understandable. Speakers should remember that in by far the majority of cases, the audience is on your side. They want you to make a good job of it. They will give you time to settle in. They’ve turned out, after all, and British audiences are generally polite and well-mannered. You should have nothing to fear.

There are one or two pitfalls for would be lecturers to avoid, however.

Starting late. If the audience has to hang about for too long, (in my case this is more than 5 minutes, but possibly some people have more patience) it will become restive and bad-tempered.

Mumbling. The audience must be able to hear without straining. But the speaker shouldn’t shout: the audience will feel it is being hectored.

Boring, monotonous delivery. Such speakers sometimes drone on and on in minute detail. The lecturer certainly understands his subject in depth. There is NOTHING about the Blue Backed Beetle found only on North facing slopes of Shropshire that he doesn’t know and he clearly regards it as his mission to ensure that by the time you escape from his lecture, you know all of it as well. It can be difficult to stay awake.

In contrast to the Blue Backed Beetle man, there is The Lightweight. Often a woman, she appears to know nothing more about her subject than she might have researched on Wikipedia last week. You have no confidence in her understanding of the subject. She is a professional lecturer rather than an expert in whatever she’s talking about, and you can hear her mentally flagging up future lectures from some of the material she discusses. You feel you probably know more about the Fishing Villages of Scotland than she does, and must resist asking her questions to illustrate this.

Then there is the lecturer who condescends to the audience. It is clear that he regards the audience not only as a necessary evil, but as an uneducated mob of the great unwashed, who won’t understand words of more than 5 letters and should be slowly spoon-fed a simplified version designed not to over-tax its feeble intellect (unlike the speaker, who is a world wide expert on his subject, and terribly clever about everything else.) One wonders if stoning is permissible.

Speakers should avoid irritating mannerisms. These can include oddities of pronunciation, coughing, jingling objects in pockets, a peculiar stance or movement, delivery too slow, delivery too fast, giggles, sniffs… You find you cont the number of times he says, Ahem, rather than listening to the actual content.

Titles of lectures don’t seem to be of much significance to the speakers, for often they only loosely conform to how their talk is described. Thus, Art of the Caribbean may include Polynesia; and How to Make Scones may turn out to be mostly about how to buy an oven. The Blue Backed Shropshire beetle man, on the other hand – he never deviates from his title.

But every now and then, some hero/heroine comes along with a genuine depth of knowledge of his/her subject; with enthusiasm, charm and humour; with respect for the audience, and can talk to a brief. He/she makes up for all the deficient colleagues, and you’re glad you turned out.

Besides, if you are interested in the Blue Backed Shropshire beetle, I know the very man for you!



I am, as must be apparent in every word I speak, a woman of Scotland. After almost 30 years happily living in the lovely South of England, I’m still a Scot and proud of it.


Many of our characteristics are world famous. We are a hard working, capable, practical, enterprising and adventurous nation. We are skilled in argument and war. By and large, we are good-looking. Our engineers, doctors, businessmen and anything that requires logic and argument are building bridges, running clinics, laying down the law the world over. With these positive characteristics, are some equally well known defects. We can be belligerent and quarrelsome, vengeful, unforgiving, vain, violent and drunk. These attributes, good or bad, are I suggest, well known.


You may not have realised however when you consider Scotland’s poor record on addiction to alcohol and sugar, that Scots (women in particular) suffer from an additional addiction – a dpendency on cardigans. I myself am a closet sufferer.


We have lived in the beautiful south of England for nearly 30 years, and I resist any suggestions of returning to The Frozen North by arguing that the weather is so much worse there. I appreciate the mildness of the climate in the Deep South and we no longer have to make an annual dash from The Frozen North to the shores of the Mediterranean, desperately longing for sun. So, mild weather is desirable. Hot weather is a different matter.


We recently spent over 3 weeks in France in which for longer than a week, the temperature edged towards the 40s. Cold may not be good, but if it were this hot all the time, life would be miserable. I should perhaps mention at this point that we are famously lucky with our holiday weather, to the extent that other people used to try to take their holidays when we did. (In part I think this ‘luck’ is just a willingness to accept with good grace whatever comes. We’re Scots. We’re unfazed by ‘weather’.) But when you wake up in the morning realising that you’re already in a slick of sweat and the temperature before breakfast is in the 30s, it’s not good. Then the noon-day sun is almost unbearable. There is a whiff of drains. The crowd is too stupid, too smelly, too slow and FAR too near you. Everything is too steep, too difficult, too much bother, TOO HOT! You can keep your air-conditioning on, and we did, but its constant drone almost cancels out the benefits of its coolness.


And the insects! I, who have boasted that I ‘never get bitten’ (I have a robust, though not an impenetrable, resistance even to the fearsome Scottish midgie) get horrible bites which linger, unsightly, itchy, hot and festering until we come North of the Loire, when over-night they all disappear!


So we return to England and cloudy, grey, cool skies, and I think, how absolutely lovely. You can keep your hot weather.


I realise my idea of a ‘nice’ day is one on which the sun shines; you don’t need to wear your hat and gloves, and if you find a seat out of the wind, you THINK about taking your coat off. And your cardigan? Like I said; it’s an addiction. You’ve got it firmly buttoned up under the coat. There’s no chance at all of your taking it off.




John filling in the recent Census form highlighted my uncooperative attitude to most questions.    There are some people who like answering questions about themselves – or indeed any questions.   I have never been one of them.   Of course I am not talking here of friendly interest in one’s well being, or even the kind of questions that intimates, who know most of your secrets anyway, can pose.    We can all recognise the difference between a loving question, and one of a different kind.     And some people in the course of their job are perfectly entitled to ask questions.       No, it’s the invasive or manipulative questions you don’t want to answer.

I suspect these characteristics must be ingrained from an early age, for I used to hate it when ‘adults’ could apparently ask you any question they liked – often ones they would not have dared to ask your parents – and you were rude and disrespectful if you did not promptly reply and a liar if you prevaricated.   (Sadly, I’m afraid even from an early age, I was all three.)

Some people are very good at extracting information from others, apparently painlessly, and I think among the necessary skills for this is patience.     It’s being prepared to release information about yourself so as to create a safe environment, being willing to let the conversation ebb and flow, being reliably discreet so you are worthy of being trusted, and listening carefully.    It’s not really about asking questions at all.

I rarely complete any non obligatory questionnaire.   Not only does it get tedious and boring, but I find I have a (quite genuine) capacity to mis-interpret questions.   I once applied for a railway season ticket.   The railway clerk perused the form and then said, you haven’t indicated how long you want the season ticket to run?   The choices were 1 month or three months.   I pointed out that the form said, ‘Words not required to be deleted.’   The clerk looked at me.   ‘So, you didn’t delete them?’    I nodded.   He shook his head at my stupidity.   ‘No-one’s ever interpreted it in that way before.’   (This sort of thing happens quite frequently.)

Occasionally some minor inducement makes me start an advertising questionnaire.   I never submit them.   Somewhere about the sixth question I lose the will to live.   ‘How do you rate our product compared with x, y or z?’    I don’t care about any of the products, I don’t have an opinion on this, and I can’t be bothered forming one.

I recall doing with my children one of those tests  about how you function.   I can’t remember the exact hows or the whats of it, but it turned out Rory and I were the same type, classified as only 1% of the population.   While some aspects of this were flattering, the person chosen as an example of the type was Donald Rumsfeld, which was a trifle alarming.   The comment was that this type of person will have an opinion on everything they have decided it is worth having an opinion on.   I rather liked that double decision.

I generally feel if I’m asked more than 2 questions on the trot, I’m viewing the questioner critically.

As for going to the door or answering the telephone, to be asked a question, well, that’s not good.   How long ago was it since we had put our double glazing in?   I was tempted to respond, What business is that of yours?     But the spectre of being rude always haunts the British, so I said quite pleasantly (I thought) if the caller cared to state his business, I would see if I could help him – whereupon he shut his notebook with a bang, said, I don’t have to put up with this! – and departed.

Sometimes there are discussions about the ethics of telling the truth.    Now I hope I am a truthful person.    Certainly if being asked for your testimony in a court of law or anywhere when the subject of discussion is important to someone, or their reputation, it is critically important to tell the truth.   To bear false witness against someone would be wicked.   But if on the other hand somebody asks you an impertinent question that’s no business of theirs, then I feel fully entitled to answer whatever I like.

And have you noticed, when there’s some question that you are being asked which you find difficult to answer, the minute you think up an answer both robust and satisfying, you are never asked the question again?

Then there’s those who ask questions but don’t listen to your reply.    I used to volunteer help one afternoon a week in my children’s school, usually being asked to help people with their creative writing, or reading.    I gave my help on a purely voluntary basis.      There was one very bossy teacher whom I (and my children) disliked.    There were always several mothers in the school, helping.    One day this teacher (none of whose pupils were ever in my charge)  came in to where several of us were, and I was getting on well helping a boy who hardly ever said anything to get his thoughts down on paper.    He was talking about his grandmother who had recently died and clearly the late lady had not departed into the great void unlamented.    The work we did together was sent home and his mother came to the teacher to thank her and to say his work had opened up a valuable conversation between herself and her son.   Ms In-Total-Command interrupted us although other women were free.   “I want to record a programme on the radio at 2.30,” she informed me.   “The radio and recorder are in the library.   Can you make a note, and go and record it for me?’    I stopped the boy mid flow and looked at her.   “No, I’m afraid not.” I said, smiling.   “I’m not a good person to ask to do this.   I won’t remember the time and I’m useless with technology.    I suggest you ask one of these other ladies.   Any of them are bound to be better than I would be.’   She glared at me.   ‘I’ve asked you,’ she said, and stomped off, with the manner of General Patten dealing with a deserter.     I shrugged, turned back to the boy, and thought no more about it.   Later she came back, presumably having discovered I had made no attempt to record the material, bristling with rage, and stood right in front of me and said, heavy with sarcasm, ‘Thank you so much for taking my recording.’    I thought, Should I say, I told you  I wasn’t going to do it?     Should I say, I’m not yours to command.    Should I say, I’m not an 8 year old you can intimidate.   Should I say, Dreadfully sorry – and pretend it was a mistake.    But in the end I just replied,  ‘It was nothing.’   This was certainly true.

The best exponent of the art of answering questions in a way that ended the discussion that I have observed was the late James Callaghan (Prime Minister.)    ‘Sunny Jim’ as he was nick-named (I gather because he wasn’t) had, for public presentation a genial, avuncular style.   But if you watch him being interviewed he had a steely resolution and a knack of answering questions politely but in such a way that it did not seem possible to pursue that subject any further.

There are of course different styles of questioning.   I watched Tony Hayward of BP (who was admittedly rather inept as a spokesman) being interrogated by American senators and other politicians on the regrettable oil spillage in the Gulf of Mexico.   The questioners were (by our standards) rude and aggressive, and almost all took the opportunity to condemn him publicly, one supposes with an eye to their voters at home.    (I am not suggesting they did not have cause for complaint.)

I thought there was an interesting contrast between that style of examination and the one employed by Lord Chilcott, chairing the enquiring into the events leading up to the Iraq war.    At the time, Chilcott was criticised for being ‘too soft’ on witnesses.     I did not think so.     I thought he was the type of person Lord Byron might have had in mind when he wrote:

He was the mildest mannered man

Who ever scuttled a ship

Or cut a throat

With such true breeding of a gentleman

You never could discern his thought.

I thought he was typical of a type of Englishman, mild but inexorable, who with extreme politeness would manoeuvre you to the edge of a cliff where, still murmuring expressions of deep regret, he would push you over.   I enjoyed how, for example, with their polite and respectful questions, they still obliged the former Attorney General to describe how he had regarded the war as illegal, pressure had been applied to him, he had been sent on a visit to America, and when he returned, he had changed his mind.    We don’t need them to say anything more.   We can draw our own conclusions.

Finally, I was amused to note that in the questionnaire to applicants of The Apprentice (2010), the question was posed, What is the worst lie you have ever told?    The worst lie?    Are they kidding?   Presumably, you told it for a reason.   They cannot be expecting a truthful answer, surely.    Will it suffice to make something up that’s innocuous and entertaining, and then add in invisible ink, (This one.)?

Here endeth the article.   Any questions, any one?




I sometimes wonder just who’s in charge here – is it the brain, or the body?

Mostly of course you feel it’s the brain.   The thinking capacity (in my case anyway) takes charge in times of crisis and talks to the body in low, clear tones, as if to a child or animal.   For example when some distressing event happens and the system is about to collapse, the brain will flood the senses with the order, Hold tight.   We can’t lose it here.   Hang on until I get us to a safe place.

Of course frequently the brain gets too big for the body (I’d have said boots, but the vision of the brain stomping about in its boots put me off my train of thought.)   When we were recently in Japan we were looking at a fruit, a little bigger, more squashy, and more orange than a tomato.

Elisabeth said to me, ‘Do you know what that is?’

‘I’ve no idea,’ I replied.

 Brain said to me, ‘It’s a persimmon.’   

‘What?’ I said.

‘A persimmon.’ said the brain firmly.

‘How do you know that?’ I asked irritably.    ‘I don’t know that.   I’ve never seen it before.    And whose brain are you anyway?’

‘It’s a persimmon,’ said the  brain, with dignity.

When we get back home, we look it up.   Yes, there it is in a picture.    Yes, it is a persimmon.   Brain remains smugly silent.

But sometimes the body dictates the pace.  I once lay on my sofa for two whole days, doing nothing at all except watching crap TV, even although there was nothing wrong with me.   I just felt like lying on my sofa.   Then I got up and went on what turned out to be a  most difficult weekend of which I had no prior (conscious) knowledge.   Does the body have its own awareness of which the brain knows nothing, and vice versa?

I woke the other morning in a state of total instant alertness.  Brain said, What’s happening?   Body said, Be quiet.   I’m listening.   Brain obliged.   Body listened to various minor noises.   Then body announces: Danger over.   Nothing’s out there.   Go back to sleep.

Brain thinks (but doesn’t complain to body), if only it were that easy!

Memo to self:   Brain, listen to body.   Body, do what brain tells you.   

Am I the brain or the body?   Both, I suppose.

PS   Brain, who can be the most irritating know-all, has pointed out to me that I must have seen a persimmon before now, because though it was true to admit I had no recollection of this, I know exactly what one tastes like and what is more, I do not like it.