Monthly Archives: July 2015

The Introvert’s Guide to Audience Participation

This week in Highgate Woods, my three-year-old was standing on a platform at the top of a climbing frame, staring through a telescope. Casting around for something to focus on, he called to me below,

“Mummy, do you want to be looked at?”

I thought that was an interesting question. DO I want to be looked at?

As an archetypal introvert, I will never, ever put myself in the spotlight without prior warning. I have never, for example, put my hand up from the auditorium in response to the sentence, “I need a volunteer”. I don’t get how anyone is prepared to rise from their comfortable, anonymous seat and go up on stage – especially given that, in most cases, they have absolutely no idea what they’re going to be required to do.

During my work as a children’s book editor, I’ve had to face lots of daunting tasks. I’ve negotiated tricky contracts, conducted delicate editorial discussions with recalcitrant authors, and represented my company in a variety of countries.

But the single most terrifying experience of my career was when I escorted one of my authors to perform at a literary festival. As I sat in the audience watching his session, he announced that he was going to sing a song about a crow. “During the song,” he continued, “I’m going to keep pointing at different people. If I point at you, you have to caw.”

So I’m sitting there thinking, “He’s going to choose me. He’s bound to. He knows me. In a minute, I’m going to have to caw. Like a crow. But I can’t caw. I can NOT caw. I don’t know how. I can’t even caw in the privacy of my own home with no one listening. I think I might actually be about to die.”

As the song progressed my heart beat faster and faster. The author pointed at one person after another and each one cawed with greater or lesser authenticity. Meanwhile, I grew ever more certain that my time was coming…

He never did point at me – but I still haven’t got over the terror of the occasion. Whenever I see or hear or read about a crow, I break into a cold sweat.

We went recently to see a live revival of the 1990s improvisation show Whose Line is it Anyway?.


During the show, a female volunteer came up on stage with her handbag. She had to be prepared, she was warned, for it to be emptied by the actors.

I tried to imagine myself in the same position. We’re in the Adelphi theatre, among an audience of 1,500 people…

Actor: Please would you come up on stage and stand there while I empty your handbag item by item?
Me: No I won’t, fuck off, are you insane?

Then, at the end of the first act, the audience were told they had a job to do in the interval. In the foyer were slips of paper. We had to write on them random lines of dialogue, and these would be used during act two.

Immediately I lit up. This I could do! This I LOVE to do!

I dashed down to the foyer, fuelled by adrenalin, elbowing people out of the way, and spent the entire interval scribbling down dialogue. Every now and then I’d bark at my poor husband Anthony to go and fetch me some more paper, and when the communal supply started running low, I tore each piece in half to make it last longer.

And did they pick any of my sentences? They did not, the bastards. Clearly they have no discernment. None.

So returning to my three-year-old’s question: Do I want to be looked at?… Obviously, the answer is no.

But do I want to be read?

Oh, yes. Yes, I really do.


Have you ever found yourself unexpectedly on stage? And what happened? Do let me know in the comments.

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Onion Goggles, Lemon Holders and the Joy of Specialisation

One of my oldest friends – we’ve known each other since we were nine – is hearing impaired. When we were children, she had a machine in her bedroom called an ‘S’ indicator.


Its purpose was to help her to articulate the letter ‘S’. Basically, you hissed into it and a dial moved to show how ess-ish your S was.

I really like the fact that this machine existed – something designed to do one small task and to do it properly.

I have an automatic mistrust of objects intended to do lots of different things.

Shampoo and conditioner in one? No! I don’t want to wash and go! I want one thing that is really good at cleaning my hair and another thing that is good at making it silky soft. (Not that that I’ve ever discovered the latter – as anyone with very curly hair will appreciate.)

Sofa beds? No! They make really rubbish beds and really rubbish sofas.

And what about those restaurants that offer you a choice of pizza, burritos, chow mein, chicken korma and toad-in-the-hole? How much faith do you have that any of those items is going to be cooked to perfection?

In 2005, Anthony my husband and I visited the Lake District with our 4-month-old baby. We went into a local bookshop and said ‘Do you have any books that might help us work out where we can go walking with an all-terrain pushchair?’

‘This might do the job,’ replied the bookseller, and handed us a book called:

All Terrain Pushchair Walks, South Lakeland


I found this immensely satisfying – even more so in the knowledge that if we were to visit the north of the Lake District in future, we’d be able to buy All Terrain Pushchair Walks, North Lakeland.

And speaking of ‘Lakeland’, the pleasure I take in objects designed for one purpose helps to explain the fact that my favourite shop bears this name. For the uninitiated, Lakeland is a kitchen and household shop that specialises in the most extraordinary range of kitchen gadgets. My own kitchen is crammed with its strawberry hullers, apple corers, banana bags, tuna can drainers and more. Much, much more.

Here, you can see me modelling my onion goggles – cleverly designed to stop you ‘crying’ when you chop onions.

Image copyright © Isaac Reuben 2015

Image copyright © Isaac Reuben 2015

They have the added benefit of making me look sexy, too. At least, when I forgot to take them off before answering the door to the Tesco delivery man, I think that was the effect they had.

Anthony has inherited from his German grandma a fork which is intended, exclusively, to hold hot new potatoes so that you can peel them.


Many is the time it has saved me from that well-known menace of burned fingers caused by hot-new-potato peeling.

And yet, some of my most valued kitchen possessions are – unaccountably – mocked by visitors to our house. One example is this set of containers designed to store left-over halves of – respectively – tomatoes, lemons, onions and peppers.


No longer do I find mouldering bits of fruit or vegetable wrapped in clingfilm and forgotten at the bottom of the fridge drawer. It surely goes without saying that no household should be without them.

Which is why, when I opened my container for storing half a lemon a while ago, and found that Anthony had put half a lime in it, it was a very difficult time for me.


Our marriage has survived after some counselling, but it was touch and go for a while.

So, what objects do you appreciate for their highly-focused purpose… either at home, or in your professional life?

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The author apologises for the repeated references to lemons in her posts, and would like to assure you that she will attempt to give equal precedence to other fruits in future.

Egg Shakers and Three-Legged Races: My Uncoordinated Life

So, I’m on a bit of a roll with the stuff-I’m-rubbish-at theme. Last week I talked about having no sense of direction, and this week, it’s all about coordination.

Yesterday, I found myself at a drumming workshop. As you do.

That’s me with the red hair and Ruth two places to my left.

The teacher was a tiny woman called Ruth, and though she looked like she might be blown over if someone sighed a bit too loudly, she radiated an extraordinary energy. We were a motley group of drumming novices, and yet she was able to communicate, with absolute clarity, when we should stop, start, get louder or softer, copy her rhythm, or just bash the drums like maniacs. She used her entire body to do this and it was extraordinary to watch.

At the end of the session, Ruth bid us put our drums down because we were going to do a clapping exercise. To a beat, we alternatively had to clap our hands together, then clap the hand of the person to the right.

‘Don’t go too fast’ she warned, ‘or you’ll get confused’.

What do you mean we’ll get confused? I thought to myself. This is easy – I can handle it no problem. I’ve got Grade 8 distinction on the viola for goodness sake – I can manage to clap my own hand then clap someone else’s.

Then, as the clapping continued, Ruth set us singing to the beat. ‘Still fine’ I thought, smugly. ‘No problems here.’

Then, still singing, Ruth took one of those rattly percussion eggs out of a bag. Instead of clapping her neighbour’s hand, she put the egg in it. On the next beat she passed another egg, and then another, and these eggs started to be passed round the circle to the beat.

Despite the fact that I’d been watching this whole process and understood what was happening, when the first egg was put in my hand, my brain went ‘Oh my god what’s that?’ and I dropped it. On the next beat, another egg arrived in my hand. This one surprised me exactly as much as the first one had and I dropped that one, too.

With rising panic, I told myself to concentrate. ‘The eggs are coming!’ I told myself. ‘Expect the eggs!’

And it worked for the next beat – I managed to keep hold of the egg and pass it on. But the next egg gave me another shock and I dropped it… and the next. Soon there were rattly eggs all around my feet. I stopped trying to sing, clap or pass eggs and just started to laugh – properly and uncontrollably. The tears-down-your-cheeks kind of laughing.

Throughout the workshop I’d watched Ruth use her body – to communicate, instruct, dance and make music – all with an apparently effortless grace.

I walked out of the room, feeling a complex range of emotions – I was glowing with the cathartic experience of laughing till I cried, chilled out from the drumming, and slightly mournful that I couldn’t experience the joy of moving like that so naturally.

I’m not sure why any of this came as a surprise to me. I’ve always had problems with co-ordination. Had I been born in this century, I’m pretty sure I would have been diagnosed as dyspraxic, but in the 1970s and 80s, the difficulties I had with sport, dancing, writing, organising myself and finding my way about (see last week’s blog – Getting Lost in My Own House – Life With No Sense of Direction) meant I was called all sorts of other things – none of them particularly scientific sounding.

During the rattly egg incident, I was vaguely aware that I’d had this precise sensation once before – that of helpless laughter in the face of a total failure of co-ordination that didn’t really matter. It was sports day 1981. The three-legged race. Zoe Passfield and I were a team. We’d practised faithfully in the playground for many days. We were poised at the start line, raring to go.

When the whistle blew, we ran two steps, collapsed in a heap, and spent the rest of the race prostrate on the field, giggling hysterically and making no attempt to get up. I’ve always remembered that moment for its strange sensation of real joy in the face of absolute defeat. It was good to experience it again.

Getting Lost in My Own House – Life With No Sense of Direction

If your sense of direction is as bad as mine,  you may recognise the following facts:

  • When you come out of a shop you have no idea in which direction you’d previously been heading.
  • You see your sat nav as coming after only oxygen, water and food in the order of life’s necessities.
  • You navigate a department store by wandering around each floor completely at random till you spot what you’re looking for.
  • The fact that you’ve managed to find your way from A to B has absolutely no bearing on your ability to find your way from B back to A.
  • You’re entirely capable of getting lost in the area where you live.

I have barely any sense of direction. This is a fairly common phenomenon, and as people like me will know, it’s hugely inconvenient.

A conversation I find myself frequently having:

Friend: You know where the such-and-such place is?
Me: No, I don’t I’m afraid.
Friend: Yes you do. You just go round the Eastern Bypass, and along the A463 past the Old Lion.
Me: I don’t know those roads. I have no sense of direction, so there’s really no point in describing to me where that place is.
Friend: Oh yes, YOU know. You just have to go along Potters Lane, and take the right fork halfway along by the Shell garage. You know where I mean?
Me: No.
Friend: The Shell garage. On Potters Lane. You must know it.
Me: No. No, I don’t know it.
Friend: You do! The one you come to straight after the Easham flyover.
Me: Oh yes! That Shell garage. OK, thanks.

Of course, I still have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about, but lying is the only way to get them to shut up. Because people who do have a sense of direction simply cannot get their head round the sheer spatial incompetence of people who don’t.

Not being able to find your way around makes day-to-day life difficult in all sorts of ways. For example, if I’m in a restaurant and I go to the loo, then when I come out again I’ll have absolutely no idea where I was sitting. The open layout of restaurants makes me acutely aware that the friends I’m with can quite likely see me standing there looking perplexed, even though I can’t spot them among all the crowded tables. And I find this embarrassing. So I walk confidently in the direction I hope my table might be, and pray that I find it before anyone realises I have no idea where I’m going.

As a child, I was taken on the same route to school from Sunderland to Newcastle every day for nine years. But when I passed my driving test and was able to travel independently, I had no more idea of which way to go than if I had just arrived in a foreign country. As I approached age 17, I used to say to myself with increasing anxiety, “I have to learn the way because I’m going to be learning to drive soon” and I’d really try to concentrate and memorise the route. But I couldn’t. I simply couldn’t.

Perhaps my most memorable getting-lost incident was at the end of my Cambridge interview. Having spent an hour trying to be my most intelligent, thoughtful, competent and mature, I shook the interviewer’s hand, bid him farewell, and walked into a cupboard.

For an insane second or two, I wondered whether I could get away with just staying in the cupboard. Then I saw sense, reversed sheepishly, and was gently pointed towards the door.

They still let me in to the university, amazingly. This perhaps is down to the fact that academics are not themselves renowned for their practical skills.

So, a question for those of you like me… what ridiculous situations have you found yourself in due to your bad sense of direction?

If you enjoyed this post and want more of the same kind of nonsense, there are several things you can do about it:

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