I’m feeling a bit inadequate. On Friday I went to The Small Wonder Festival in Charleston with fellow Rattle Talers Katherine Doggrell and Lonny Pop. We were there to take part the short story slam. For those of you who don’t know, Small Wonder is a gloriuosly up-market short story festival, which takes place in Virginia Woolf’s home on the Sussex Downs, and a short story slam is a terrifying event in which you prepare a 3 minute short on a theme (in this case The Final) and read it out on stage in under 3 mins, in competition with everybody else. There were so many authors at this particular slam that names were drawn from a hat so, as you sat in the packed out barn, you didn’t know if you would be called on to read or not. I have entered several slams in the past and I have enjoyed some more than others, but they don’t fill me with terror as much as they did before, that is, they didn’t.
My name was called and I took the long walk to the stage. For some reason, when I reached it, nerves got the better of me. I don’t know what it was: the unfamiliar venue, the scale of the event, the timer running on the screen behind me, the number of pearl necklaces in the audience? Whatever it was, fear gripped my soul as tightly as I gripped the lectern, and I gave one of the worst readings I have ever given. I gabbled and stuttered, forgot about dramatic pauses and almost missed the punch-line entirely. It was horrible.
To make matters worse, four judges sitting in the front row held up Strictly style number cards. There were fives and sixes, so though not an outright fail, it was definitely a case of could do much better. I think I was kept off the bottom spot by a woman who wrote about Andy Murray. Maybe it was that I didn’t like my own story much, that it was hastily altered to fit the theme. Maybe it was the presence of an agent and publisher who had previously rejected my work. Whatever the cause, under that spotlight my stage-fright came flooding back.
I thought I had got rid of stage-fright for good, conquered its malicious whispers about inadequacy and managed to push it back into the dark place it belongs. When I first started doing readings I often thought I was going to pass out, this wasn’t even onstage, this was just sitting in class at Sussex University with people I had grown to love and respect. The first time I had to stand up in front of an audience my right leg shook uncontrollably, my palms ran with sweat and there was no moisture in my throat. Somehow, no-one there noticed and even congratulated me on my confident reading. I was still scared stiff of reading and even had therapy to help me get over it. Since then, it has got better each time and last time I read at Rattle Tales I hardly noticed it at all.
So what happened at Small Wonder? I’ve been thinking about this all this weekend, and I have come to the conclusion that it has to do with class. Is this a shocking thing to say? Like many people of my generation I’m not that sure what class I am. I am from a Northern industrial city but my Dad didn’t work darnt pit or anything, he’d travelled the world in the army, and came home to an office job. At the same time he had managed to escape a two up two down existence by joining the services. My Mum was brought up in Northern Ireland, one of a large Catholic who lived in a tiny tenant farm-house leased from the Protestant land-owner, they were poorer than I can imagine. When I was a child we were comfortable but not well off, we had a huge Victorian terraced house but my Dad had two jobs and we took in lodgers just to keep it going. There were always books around and newspapers, and when I applied to the local Technical College at the age of sixteen, my Dad wouldn’t let me because I had the grades to take A ‘levels and go to university and shouldn’t waste them (this was when people who couldn’t afford it got grants – imagine that!). I didn’t hanker after a life stately home or being sent away to boarding school, I wasn’t taunted by the girls from the High School or anything like that but, somewhere along the line, I turned into a great big inverted snob. Common People is up there in my all-time favourite songs because the lyrics really speak to me. I’m not as bad as I used to be, some of my best friends are posh, I loved Parade’s End and Rupert Everett is at my dream dinner party, but sometimes I still feel (in the word du jour) a bit of a pleb. It’s my problem – I know that – but posh makes me feel unworthy, posh makes me feel annoyed at privilege, posh makes me want to talk in strong Northern accent and steal something pretty. This is, of course, a ridiculous way for someone of my age to think. I really should have grown out of it by now; after all, it’s an even playing-field now isn’t it? There’s no who you know anymore is there? Is there?
My friend Katherine read beautifully on Friday. Poor Lonny didn’t even get to read, despite writing something specifically for the event – too many names in the hat, not enough time on stage. It’s a shame, she has a great stage presence. I was lucky to get the chance, but I messed up, and I’m annoyed with myself. Our table was rooting for the man with the inappropriately licky dog but in the end the night belonged to the lady with the coffee grounds. Well done to all the finalists.