A few weeks back, I mentioned I was doing an onstage event. Here’s how it went down

David Sedaris I was not. Dave Allen I was not.

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“Oi!” A cross text from my daughter begins. “Why didn’t you invite me to whatever it was you were doing on stage in London yesterday?”

“Because,” I reply, “I had a hunch I’d be shit.”

You might recall that I ended a column a couple of weeks ago with the news that I’d be doing a gig at the Mascara Bar as part of the Stoke Newington Literary Festival. Maggie, the Mascara’s splendid owner, had called me asking if I knew anyone who’d like to read some of their stuff out to a crowd in exchange for money. I couldn’t think of anyone until I had the bright idea of suggesting myself. Maggie was delighted with the idea, and so was I.

However, as the date approached, I began to be overcome by misgivings. The Mascara is a marvellous place, one of my favourite watering holes on Earth, and it would be lovely to see Maggie again, but as I went through my columns, deciding which ones to read out, I kept thinking, “Is this really the right material for this kind of venue?”

Every joke I looked at fell flat on the page; in my mind’s eye, I saw the faces of dozens of people in an audience, not knowing where to look.

My public appearances are few and far between, largely because I rarely get asked to do them, and the reason that’s the case is I like it that way. Occasionally I hear multi-millionaire raconteur David Sedaris on the radio and ask myself, with some pique, why I’m not a multi-millionaire raconteur.

“I could do that,” I say to the radio, while his audience of thousands has hysterics. But I know, in my heart, I couldn’t.

Long ago I worked out that I was at my best when taking questions from the audience. My best gig ever was in Norwich, when I decided to read for 15 minutes and answer queries for 45. In the front row was a woman of stern mien, dressed in fox fur and those glasses that sweep up to a point at the sides, like a Dick Emery character from the 1970s. And not that Dick Emery character who shoves men in the chest and says “You are awful… but I like you” but another one, the kind who would make a withering remark as powerful as a wallop with her handbag.

She sat in the middle of the front row, about ten feet away, glaring at me with raw hatred before I’d even opened my mouth. She asked the first question, in tones as acid as the Xenomorph’s blood: “And what does your wife think of all this?” By the end of the evening I felt I was speaking only to her, almost as if I was in love, and when I showed the audience – well, her, really – the little circular Band-Aid I had in the crook of my elbow following a test at the STD clinic, she turned 90 degrees in her chair, to face the wall, and never looked at me again. It was glorious.

The worst gig was at an art gallery, talking about Beckett’s funny side to a roomful of unsmiling artists and art students, nervous sweat dripping off the end of my nose so fast it was as if a tap had been turned on. Never again, I thought to myself, and also: artists can go screw themselves. 

Anyway, Saturday evening saw me at the Mascara Bar in good time; Maggie poured me several glasses of Maker’s Mark, which was very kind of her but didn’t do much to soothe my nerves. The last one I had, to take with me to the stage, I asked to be quite dilute; I had a fancy that I could use it as a prop, both raffish and charming, in much the way that that sublime comic, Dave Allen, used his glass of whiskey. (Which was probably cold tea anyway.)

Well, David Sedaris I was not. Dave Allen I was not. The Mascara Bar is only open at one end; its performance area is separated from the main bar by a curtain. The air was still and warm, and there were about – ? – people in the audience, in little chairs. I say there were ? people there because I couldn’t bear to look at them. 20? 30? Quorate, anyway. By which I mean enough people to humiliate me. Even my brother and my sister-in-law were there. Someone I had been particularly hoping to impress was running late, thank God.

And so I started reading, and as my jokes fluttered feebly into the air before falling to the ground, occasionally helped by polite but faint semi-laughter from the audience, the sweat started pouring off me, and I began to fluff my lines, even though they were right in front of me. I glanced at my watch. Time seemed to be going backwards, if it was moving at all. A nice young man who works on the Evening Standard’s Londoner’s Diary asked a question; my answer made it into the paper the next Monday. Well, that’s showbiz. Never again, until next time. 

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 appears in the 19 June 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Bad news