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

Show Hide image

Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era