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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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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