Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Tonight the Village Hall - tomorrow the world?

For the first time in around six years I have been paid to speak about history. It has taken me roughly six months to prepare an illustrated talk based on my research into a local Early Modern manuscript. Since no-one seems to want to publish the fruits of that research – 65,000 words of transcription, evaluation and analysis – I decided the best way to recoup some of my expenses would be to offer myself up to the Local History circuit for £30 an hour. Of course, it's about more than the money, which honestly is fairly limited in its availability. No, I want people to accept that I'm a real historian, in a way that won't involve me walking round with a tattooed forehead. And I eventually enjoyed the experience of “coming out”! This was in spite of my initial doubts that I'd lost my touch – I had once been, after all, a Further Education history lecturer.

However, I am not a natural public speaker. Even a school play at the age of ten had turned me into a gibbering wreck, and caused me to relinquish the starring role to my understudy. Yet in grammar school days I was happy to stand up in front of any kind of audience as long as I was part of a well-rehearsed choir – and, of course, never the soloist. For me the thrill was in the close harmonising and the feeling of being an important thread in a rich fabric. When I was about fifteen I mistakenly entered a speaking contest at my school. This involved delivering a passage from Shakespeare – Viola's soliloquy from Twelfth Night, Act II, Scene II: 'I left no ring with her: what means this lady?' etc. - followed by an unrehearsed two minute monologue on a random topic given you on the day. My mouth dried, my voice died, I fled... Never again, I promised myself.

So why did I become a lecturer all those years later? I was 53 and had just come through an Access course and a B.A. I was offered a job in the place where I'd studied, and felt comfortable and confident with familiar surroundings and colleagues. Of course, it wasn't an entirely scare-free exercise, training to teach whilst actually teaching! I apologise now, and probably at the time as well, to my first batch of students for being such a useless tutor. But there were other subjects and other tutors, and I must have provided a little comic relief for my guinea pigs. But I got there without harming them too much, and gained my P.G.C.E. So I was utterly deflated when, as a reasonably competent part-time lecturer, I was one of the first to be made redundant 5 years later. I had learned to enjoy “going on stage” and holding forth in my favourite field.

I have had to get up and briefly address small groups a few times since then, but the thought of presenting an hour long exposition of my latest research, with Powerpoint, rattled my cage somewhat, even though I'd willingly accepted the invitation. I think the worst prospect was of some clever-clogs challenging my assertions. So I had to firmly remind myself that I'd been in similar situations before; that I'd thoroughly prepared both text and illustrations; that I'd absorbed some advice from my more outgoing younger sister; and that anyway the subject was mine and I'd done all the hard work! No-one else had examined my particular source I knew for sure, and my research had been meticulous.

And so it turned out to be an exhilarating evening for me, and I've already got three more bookings.

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