I gave a lecture so bad that I agreed with my own heckler. Why am I doing it all over again?

I remember once giving a lecture at a trendy bar in Shoreditch many, many years ago, when the forebears of the current generation of Shoreditch Twats were barely beginning to haul themselves from the primordial ooze, at which I was so bad that I started g

Let us go back a few months. It is a clement day in early March and I am in a rare good mood. An email arrives from the Southbank Centre. It is having a shindig on the theme of postwar music in October and it would like me to give a talk on the critic and social theorist Theodor Adorno. The crucial bit goes: “We can offer a fee of £200 for the event.”

I can’t go around turning down sums like £200. It may be less than a thousandth of the sum that Boris Johnson calls “chicken feed” but for me it’s the kind of money that can make the difference between having to borrow to get through the last week of the month and sailing through with head held high. Plus, I rather like Adorno and would like to know more; I may not be an expert on him now but surely seven months will give me time to get up to speed.

So I accept, albeit not without a degree of wariness. Though I consider myself a gifted and fluent raconteur on licensed premises or in the Hovel with a glass in one hand and a cig in the other, when I appear onstage, I never quite know how things will go. Or, rather, I never quite know how badly things will go.

We all hate hearing our own recorded voices but in my case it’s really bad, so while in my head I sound like someone at the midpoint between Paul Robeson and David Niven, it turns out that I actually sound rather more like Ed Miliband (for whom, I should add, I have great respect, especially since the whole Mail business, and I hope he wins the next election, but, well, you know what I mean).

It is not only the matter of the sound but the fluency. I remember once giving a lecture at a trendy bar in Shoreditch many, many years ago, when the forebears of the current generation of Shoreditch Twats were barely beginning to haul themselves from the primordial ooze, at which I was so bad that I started getting heckled and I ended up agreeing with my heckler and stepping down – or I think I stepped down. It was a long time ago and the E that I’d taken to sober me up after one of the most epic lunches I’d ever had was beginning to kick in, so I don’t remember much after that point, although one thing I will never forget is that Irvine Welsh, bless him, was very nice to me that evening.

Then there was the other talk I gave to an audience of Art People at the Whitechapel Gallery. The guy who asked me to do that is a gentleman and a scholar and the talk was going to be about Beckett – anything about him I liked – so I thought I’d do the funny bits in Beckett. The art audience was so stonyfaced as I read through some of B’s most hilarious gags that I started to sweat with nerves, to the point, about halfway through my ordeal, at which the sweat began to drip off my nose on to my notes and it became a steady stream, so it looked to all intents and purposes as though a tap of thin mucus had been turned on inside my nasal cavity. I thought to myself, “Never again” – and certainly not anywhere on a line drawn east of Russell Street.

Anyway, back to October. I awake one morning from uneasy dreams, like the hero of The Metamorphosis, to find that I have been turned not into a beetle but into someone who has just remembered that he has about three days to become an expert on Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno and confident enough to speak to a room of about 200 people.

“Why do I do this?” I wail, as I feverishly cram in the British Library. (I have quite a collection of Adorno’s books in the Hovel but even though I turn the place upside down so thoroughly that visitors commiserate with me on my recent burglary, they remain elusive.)

I arrive at the Southbank Centre eventually, hung-over and thoroughly demoralised, and of the other two speakers, one of them is a professor specialising in Adorno and the other has written a book about him. All I have are half an A4 sheet consisting of two complete sentences and one of those notebooks that look like Moleskines but are in reality from Ryman and cost only £4.99, with some quotes – and there are now about 1,000 chairs in the level-five function room and on every one of them is sitting a person who has forgotten more about Adorno than I have ever known.

And the funny thing is, it all goes rather well. Sorry to disappoint you like that, but sometimes shit doesn’thappen.

Boris Johnson won't speak for "chicken feed". Image: Getty

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

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Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital