I fear public speaking, to the point where I’ve actively avoided doing much of it in the past. A few years ago, however, I rashly agreed to give a talk at a prison – H.M.P. Bullwood in Essex – as part of World Book Day. My short novel for adult reluctant readers, Revenge, had gone down well in prisons around the country, and my publisher Barrington Stoke asked if I’d care to talk about it to a group of prisoners. Well, the thought filled me with dread, but the publisher had been great to work with over the years, so I bit the bullet.
On the day itself I had lunch with a regional organiser of the library service in Essex, who then drove me down to Southend. I must admit the journey was fraught with nerves as I read through my notes and feared the worst – drying up, fainting in front of the inmates, verbal abuse…
The jail was approached through a tiny hamlet of thatched cottages like something from a fairytale, and then, at the end of the lane, there appeared a concrete monstrosity surrounded by tall barbed-wire-topped plate metal fences. That was the first line of security. We were shown through a locked door in the fence – we had to display our passports to get through – and then led by a guard across a yard to the main building. We passed though another set of locked doors which led into a large chamber, the far end of which was barred and gave onto a courtyard. Here they checked our passports again and searched our bags. We could not take the following into the prison: mobile phones, soap, yeast, chewing gum, knives, and explosives. After the guards assured themselves that we were carrying none of the above, we were let through into the courtyard where we were met by the librarian, and taken across the yard to another wing. We climbed a flight of stairs into another locked area and arrived at last at the library, a pleasant area of books, videos, posters, and a big map-of-the-world rug.
I had about ten minutes to compose myself and set up the books I’d brought as visual aids, then take a final look through my notes. I must admit that at this point, before the inmates were led in, I wondered how I was going to get through the next two hours. My heart was thumping, my mouth dry, and palms sweaty. I took deep breaths, paced up and down and drank plenty of water.
I had been told that my audience would be young offenders – and the notion filled me with dread. I found out, just before I was due to speak, that this was not the case at all: the offenders were all illegal immigrants, and most of them from Africa.
Then the inmates were led in in threes and fours, and I chatted to them as they took their seats, and the fear evaporated.
I began the talk with a humorous story, and got a laugh, and the rest was relatively plain sailing. I could see that more than half of the audience of twenty were really interested (the other half sat at the back and snoozed), and my fear that I’d run out of material was unfounded. I actually had more to talk about that the allotted time allowed.
The first hour went well, and then the second lot came in and I had to repeat the entire performance, adapting it where I thought it could be improved. By this time I was confident, and the fear had gone, which was just as well as the second lot were pretty unresponsive; didn’t laugh at the opening joke, looked bored, and didn’t have many questions – in fact one guy, a surly-looking bruiser in his fifties, got up and walked out towards the end. But I battled on to the bitter end, and the librarian was pleased with the whole talk.
But the relief of walking out of jail after my sentence!
Three hours later I arrived home, glad to have got it over with. All in all, a fascinating experience, though one I wouldn’t want to do again in a hurry.
It did have the desired effect, though, of lessening my fear of public speaking. I’ll never enjoy it, but in future it might just be a little less nerve-wracking.