‘I think you’ll find….’

Happy days are here again.

Writers of all shapes and sizes are finally back on the road again in front of audiences in town halls, shops and converted chapels. Being relatively new to the game and therefore largely unknown, I have probably got off rather lightly, but I have still had over 40 gigs cancelled in the last two years, first by the Prime Minister (too busy partying to remember to re-open them), and then by the sheer difficulty that cash-strapped festivals had taking the financial risk to run events. It has been tough for everyone.

But we are back, and last night I was in front of a delightful crowd in Sherborne, having the luxury of talking to them about stuff I feel really quite strongly about. This weekend, it is the Montgomery Literary Festival and next week, the launch of my new book, Taking Stock. ‘Join best-selling authors,’ says the blurb of these events once again, ‘and others’. I am more than content to be an ‘other’ until I eventually become something else, or die. Anyway, enough of the gratuitous self-advertising, and to the matter in hand.

Which is that not all these occasions go quite as planned. I’m referring not so much to the Surrey Bookshop that got me in to talk about seabirds, but then forgot to tell anyone, (no one at all came, and I was reduced to asking them ironically whether I could make myself useful in crowd control); or the Zoom event to a Scottish bee-keeping group where I was so much not who they wanted to listen to that I just watched the on-screen number of attendees dwindling from 75, to 70, to 60 to 48 until I was simply and unceremoniously unplugged. No, I’m talking about Derek.

Derek is 67, and we all have a Derek or two in our lives. Derek sits impassively through the talk, as motionless as a NUR train driver, because his moment only arrives when questions are invited at the end. For Derek lives for those questions, and the nuclear damage he can do with them.

‘I was intrigued,’ he begins, and then sets out what in the talk he was intrigued by. He wasn’t. He is simply staking out the battle ground. He is intrigued by the prospect of making the speaker look inadequate.

‘Some authorities seem to suggest,’ he continues, laying out the serried ranks of experts that he can muster up to prove that you have just been talking complete bollocks. But it’s all done so gently as to be virtually indiscernible. But then comes his killer blow:

‘I think you’ll find…’

Two things about the expression ‘I think you’ll find’. First, it is well nigh impossible to say it in other than a nasal, slightly whining accent. And secondly, it is the final assault on the citadel of your inadequate talk. ‘I think you’ll find’ is a conversational neutron bomb.It is legal proof that you are wrong, and probably shouldn’t be here.

Dereks generally then re-appear at the book signing that follow these events, all smiles.

‘I hope you didn’t mind me putting you right on carbon credits/bird navigation/ varroa treatments (delete whichever is inapplicable). Other than that, I found your talk most interesting.’

‘Ah. Did you enjoy it?’

‘Let’s just say I found it interesting, and leave it at that.’

‘Would you like me to sign that book for you? I could personalise it if you want.’ My pen itches to write ‘to the world’s premium twat’, but I wait for his instruction.

‘Oh no,’ he says. ‘It’s not for me. A friend asked me to pick it up for him.’

I sign it and hand it over.

‘They’ve got Robert MacFarlane here next week. I’m waiting to buy Underland.’

Fair point. So am I. In my world, everyone is waiting for Robert MacFarlane.

But, mercifully, there were no Dereks in Sherborne.

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