In a power-point presentation you’re in the dark and you have to focus on the images you want to interpret for your audience. So you feel them breathing, laughing at your jokes, but you don’t see them. Now the lights were on and I took care to include the wide-eyed little girl and my good friends Pauline and Kent who I knew would be with me in spirit. When electrical kit fails the secret is to make a quick decision: abandon it and launch into the talk. I’m used to public speaking and I enjoy it, having been Head of an English Department for years. I had in my hand a print-out of the blog I’d written for this talk The Farne Islands: seabirds, geology and Celtic Christianity. But I didn’t intend to read it. No notes, no script. But having written them gave them existence and I only had to conjure them into the air. I reckon I was fine. The intellectual process interested me. As I was speaking I was aware of the direction in which thought was taking me: Kittiwake at Cullernose point, geology and a collapsing needle of dolerite, seabirds surface-feeding on the waves, Climate Change morphing the food web with sand eels further out to sea, the Dogger Bank fishery depleting stocks, kittiwake on the ambler list. What next? There’s an adrenalin rush when you can hear yourself speaking but you can’t see the transition to the next subject and you try to conjure it into being. I could hear in my voice a new rhythm and a careful pace as I balanced what I was saying with where I was about to go. You have to see the story-line that lies ahead.
Images serve as a prompt. They remind you exactly why you chose them and how they’ll take the narrative forward. I think I kept to theme, but inevitably structure slipped somewhat. We never made it to Dunstanburgh with my thoughts on what is subsumed within natural history, a concept we often speak of without considering quite what it means. The history of nature, the spectrum of time through which we contemplate seabirds – even when the species pre-dates mankind by millions of years, like the shag whose earliest fossil is 60 million years old.
The talk should have been strong on beauty, those images are lovely. And I didn’t go for the homophone of an aesthetic. I’d have had to labour it, I think. An aesthetic, anaesthetic. No one fell asleep, no one snored. And the delightful little girl was with me every moment of the way.
I marvel at politicians who give lengthy, unscripted speeches, note-free to a sometimes hostile audience. How do they do it? It's also a question of tone. The actor Tom Hiddleston lost it at The Golden Globes and conveyed an arrogance born of nerves.
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