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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PMQs review: Theresa May shows again that Brexit means hard Brexit

The Prime Minister's promise of "an end to free movement" is incompatible with single market membership. 

Theresa May, it is commonly said, has told us nothing about Brexit. At today's PMQs, Jeremy Corbyn ran with this line, demanding that May offer "some clarity". In response, as she has before, May stated what has become her defining aim: "an end to free movement". This vow makes a "hard Brexit" (or "chaotic Brexit" as Corbyn called it) all but inevitable. The EU regards the "four freedoms" (goods, capital, services and people) as indivisible and will not grant the UK an exemption. The risk of empowering eurosceptics elsewhere is too great. Only at the cost of leaving the single market will the UK regain control of immigration.

May sought to open up a dividing line by declaring that "the Labour Party wants to continue with free movement" (it has refused to rule out its continuation). "I want to deliver on the will of the British people, he is trying to frustrate the British people," she said. The problem is determining what the people's will is. Though polls show voters want control of free movement, they also show they want to maintain single market membership. It is not only Boris Johnson who is pro-having cake and pro-eating it. 

Corbyn later revealed that he had been "consulting the great philosophers" as to the meaning of Brexit (a possible explanation for the non-mention of Heathrow, Zac Goldsmith's resignation and May's Goldman Sachs speech). "All I can come up with is Baldrick, who says our cunning plan is to have no plan," he quipped. Without missing a beat, May replied: "I'm interested that [he] chose Baldrick, of course the actor playing Baldrick was a member of the Labour Party, as I recall." (Tony Robinson, a Corbyn critic ("crap leader"), later tweeted that he still is one). "We're going to deliver the best possible deal in goods and services and we're going to deliver an end to free movement," May continued. The problem for her is that the latter aim means that the "best possible deal" may be a long way from the best. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.