Tag Archives: humour

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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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?

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Porridge and Sweetcorn: the Psychology of the ‘Free Gift’

Filed away in my parents’ house I found this letter that I wrote to Father Christmas when I was 5:


Why a little girl from a Jewish family was writing to Father Christmas in the first place is a subject for another day…

The paper is blackened with soot because it had been sent up our chimney (obviously the only way to communicate with Santa Claus) and, as my father has noted at the bottom, was subsequently retrieved from the garden.

The first thing that might strike you about this Christmas list is the paper it’s written on. It advertises:

ANUSOL: Soothes painful piles and anal irritation 

My father practised as a GP in a large Sunderland health centre and drug companies constantly tried to seduce him with freebies, including this branded paper.

Practically everything in our house seemed to have the name of a drug company on it: paper, pens, calendars, mugs…

My parents always welcomed these gifts enthusiastically. I’m pretty sure that we would have had a sofa with Amoxicillin-branded cushions or a car painted with the Nurofen logo, had they been offered to us.

I remember one of the free items was  a gadget that would cut through your seat belt if you found yourself entangled in it due to a car crash. I’m not sure what was written on it. Perhaps, “You’ll never feel trapped with Laxido”.

I think there’s a curious psychology surrounding the idea of the ‘free gift’. (Incidentally, the term itself is tautological: if it’s a gift, then you’d expect it to be free.) We have a tendency to accept things that are free, even if we have no desire for them whatsoever.

I re-entered office life last year after nine years of working from home. I was bizarrely excited about every aspect of the corporate world because I’d spent so long away from it. One day I emailed my husband Anthony in great excitement, saying,

“They’re giving away free porridge with golden syrup in every kitchen!”

“But you don’t like porridge…” he replied.

“Yes,” I said, “but it feels really good to know that if I did like it, I could have it. And for free!”

More recently, in my current office, these boxes turned up containing packets of microwavable ‘express’ sweetcorn:


This photo was taken only about 5 minutes after they’d arrived and already the boxes are half empty. By the time the email came round saying ‘There are packets of microwavable sweetcorn in the kitchens’, the whole lot had already been snaffled.

Now sweetcorn is, admittedly, quite a useful thing. Most people like a bit of sweetcorn with their dinner now and again. But nobody could claim it was exciting. I’m not sure the fact that it ‘heats in 1 minute’ really made much difference either. I don’t generally think, ‘I would eat sweetcorn much more often if only it didn’t take so long to prepare…’.

No, the speed with which those packets vanished was, I’m sure, almost entirely due to the mysterious power of the ‘free gift’.

Anyway, back to the Anusol…

I can only assume that Father Christmas was not impressed with my choice of writing paper because, despite having requested it in my letter, I wasn’t given a Cindy (sic), and certainly didn’t receive ‘all the clothes and all the furniture’ to accompany her. Which just goes to show that presentation really matters: sometimes it’s worth ignoring the free gift and spending a bit of money.

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How many kisses is too many kisses?


When I was a brand new editorial assistant in my first publishing job, I signed off an email to one of the company directors as follows:

Susan xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

The moment I pressed ‘send’ I realised what I’d done and I sat there, frozen in horror.
Once I’d started breathing again, I realised I couldn’t just pretend it hadn’t happened, or she might think that *I* thought this was an appropriate way for a junior to sign her name to a director. But how do you say sorry to someone for having put too many – or indeed, any – kisses in a message to them…?
“I apologise for my excessive epistolary affection”?
“I will endeavour to communicate via a more formal register in future”?

In the end, I put my head round her office door, red-faced, and mumbled somethig inarticulate. Given that she was far older and more experienced than me and in a position of power, this was her cue to be amused and reassuring and make me feel much better.

She wasn’t and she didn’t. Instead she was bemused and condescending, which is why I’m clearly still trying to get over to trauma 18 years later.

It hasn’t stopped me from putting kisses after my name, though, when I’m actually writing to a friend. I’ve noticed that there is a definite etiquette involved in this process. The number matters. One kiss means you’re on friendly terms. It *might* mean that you’re close, but it could also apply to, for example, a client you know well or another mum you chat to in the playground. Three kisses definitely signifies that you’re good friends, whereas an extravagant row of many kisses either means that you’re twelve-years-old (in which case you might intersperse them with circles to represent hugs), or that you’re writing to your partner or very close friend.

In an email exchange, it’s interesting that most people will copy your pattern exactly. For example, two kisses after your name will get you two kisses after the recipient’s name.

There is a gender segregation here, though. Men are definitely less generous with their rows of x’s. If I’m writing to one of my male friends, most of whom tend not to put kisses after their names, I find myself having an internal dialogue as follows: “He doesn’t, so probably I shouldn’t. But if I were writing to a female friend I definitely would. It feels really unfriendly not to. So I will – I shouldn’t let my normal writing style be dictated by someone else.” Then I do so, and immediately feel very slightly silly and childish. And then I feel annoyed with myself for being so insecure.

I write most of my messages on my phone using voice recognition, so if you see me with my phone to my mouth saying “love-Susan-ex-ex-ex-ex-ex”, this will be why. Please try not to cross the street.

Love Susan xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

PS When searching for a suitable image to accompany this post, it was noticeable that when I put ‘kisses’ into Google Images I got lots of nice pictures of pink lips, whereas when I searched ‘kisses xxx’ the results were startlingly different. It probably would have been better if I hadn’t been doing it outside my daughter’s ballet class.


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What does your wedding invitation say about you?

Rachel Knickmeyer: knickmeyer.net

Rachel Knickmeyer: knickmeyer.net

One summer we had two wedding invitations displayed side-by-side on our mantlepiece.

The first was to a wedding of wealthy friends. It arrived in an envelope sealed with stamped wax. The invitation itself was made of thickly textured card with gold engraved type. It was surrounded by a band of lace, secured by an artificial rose.

The second was to a Quaker wedding. The invitation was on a sheet of typed A4 paper (recycled).

The first wedding directed us to a wedding list registered at one of the major department stores. The second had a note saying that if anyone would like to buy a gift, the couple would very much appreciate the following… There was then a list of items which included (without any reference to branding) a cheese grater, a sieve and a wooden spoon. I don’t remember, but I strongly suspect there was also a suggestion to contribute to a chosen charity, as well or instead of giving a present.

The weddings themselves were the embodiment of their invitations. At the first wedding, the bride wore Pronovias. Waiters in black tie circulated with champagne cocktails and intricately-constructed canapés, after which the guests sat down to a 5-course meal in an elegant hall. Each table had a flower display worthy of a design award.

At the second wedding, the bride wore a purple dress that could be used again in future. The guests carried the vases of flowers from the Meeting House to the party venue. There was a delicious vegetarian buffet after which we danced outside on the grass (it was a warm evening). At the end, we waved the bride and groom off as they cycled away on a tandem. It was perfectly clear that the couple would have embraced these choices however much money they happened to have in the bank.

So what to make of this? Both weddings featured a loving couple who wanted their friends and family to celebrate their union with them. I don’t think one was morally superior to the other.

It must be said that our own wedding was much closer to the first than the second – far less showy and less opulent it’s true, but it still had all those trappings on a more modest scale. Yet I admire the anti-materialistic impulse. I like the purity of it – the way it gets you away from the surface of things to focus on what really matters.

The problem is, I really like pretty stuff. And kitchen gadgets. And Apple products. I could definitely forsake most wordly things so long as I could still shop at Lakeland. And my Cath Kidston handbag is going to need replacing soon. And I’d need to keep my iPhone, iPad and iMac…

Maybe I don’t have a Quaker soul.

If I get fed up with Judaism and can’t become a Quaker, I might consider Sikhism. They really have the right idea, the way every service ends in a shared meal. Yes, I think I will become a Sikh. I don’t know what their weddings are like, though…

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Do As You’re Told!


My friend Emma mentioned the other day that she’s very much looking forward to coming to our 10th anniversary barbecue next month. I was a bit perplexed by this because I wasn’t aware we were having one. She showed me the entry in her calendar:

“Reuben’s 10th anniversary barbecue (babysitter booked).”

What struck me later is that my first thoughts were not: “We have already been married for more than ten years, and we don’t own a barbecue”.

These were, to be fair, my second thoughts.

But my first thoughts were:

– Bloody hell – now that it’s in Emma’s diary, we’re going to have to arrange it.
– We’ll have to buy a barbecue and we can’t afford it.
– Maybe we could just use one of those disposable ones.
– Who else should we invite?
– My husband doesn’t even like barbecues.

All of this only took a few seconds and then I came to my senses. But it got me thinking about how extremely suggestible some people are (e.g. me) and how others are the exact opposite.

I’ve worked with people, for example, who completely refuse to respond to anything I ask, apparently on principle.

I say: “Please could you… [insert here completely basic function of their job]” and instead of saying, “Yes, of course!” they respond with a question of their own. The conversation then spirals into a bottomless pit of doom where I begin to consider eating my own arm.

So perhaps it’s better to be easily led like me. Although it must be said I’ve done many stupid things, just because someone has suggested them to me. Despite the fact that any kind of risk-taking makes me feel panicked and miserable, not excited and alive, I have been guilty of the following (you can surmise for yourself how old I was for each):

– ringing on doorbells and running away.
– climbing over a spiked fence to leave the grounds of a castle because it was quicker than going back to the main exit.
– stuffing rude notes through the next door neighbour’s letterbox.
– trespassing in an old lady’s garden in Siena in the middle of the night.
– drinking half a bottle of vodka in 30 minutes and spending the next few hours lying in a flowerbed throwing up.

I get that this is a pretty weedy list of misdemeanours to show for my 41 years. I expect I could dredge up some more if I thought about it really hard. But the point is that I didn’t want to do any of those things and nor did I feel good about them, either at the time or afterwards.

Anyway, the barbecue mystery was finally solved. It wasn’t “Reubens’ 10th anniversary barbecue” but “Reuben’s 10th anniversary barbecue” – i.e. the barbecue of Emma’s friend Reuben.

“You should both have paid more attention to the placement of the apostrophe,” her husband said, sternly.
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