If a literary festival gets it right - and it is not hard - authors are very happy to speak to their audiences for as little as a warm welcome, a cup of tea or a glass of wine and perhaps a bed for the night if we have travelled for hours. One festival I went to provided absolutely nothing and I even had to pay 20p to go to the public lavatory to get changed into my festival garb. A high point of last year was Frinton Literary Festival which staged a wartime tea-party. Everyone dressed up for the event including the members of Frinton WI who came as 'Nippies', the name given to the waitresses who worked in the Lyons coffee houses in London in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
|Frinton Literary Festival 2016
|Members of Frinton WI in their Nippy uniform
When invited I talk about my research, the subjects of my books and - occasionally - about the process of writing. I enjoy this side of my life enormously and by and large I seem to get positive feedback from my audiences, large and small. I am fortunate in that the subject matter seems to chime with history groups and, luckily for me, the National Federation of Women's Institutes, who pay their speakers. When I wrote Jambusters, the story of the WI in the Second World, I could not have imagined it would give me five years worth of lectures. The WI are great consumers of their own history. And rightly so. It is a remarkable one. The Second World War was in many ways their finest hour. They kept the countryside ticking by busting bureaucratic logjams, making copious amounts of preserves from surplus fruit, feeding the farm workers with millions upon millions of meat pies and advising eleven government departments on everything from national savings and housing to education and post-war reconciliation in continental Europe. The WI had the ear of the government and the eyes to see what was happening in rural communities in England, Wales and further afield owing to their excellent connections. Sometimes I speak to groups of twenty women in a village hall or a pub, at other times I find myself faced by more than a thousand eager pairs of eyes in a theatre.
|The WI's National AGM 2016, Brighton
Some of my talks, however, are to other groups that comprise both sexes. The topics that go down well with men are of course those focused on the male-dominated aspect of my work: mountaineering and war. Everest Needs You, Mr Irvine, is a talk I have given hundreds of times over the last twenty years and its endless appeal seems to be the unsolved nature of the greatest mountaineering mystery of all time: did Mallory and Irvine reach the summit of Mount Everest 29 years before Hillary and Tenzing? I can't supply the answer but the romance of the story seems to capture people's imaginations even 90+ years on from the event.
|Mount Everest from the north side.
Mallory and Irvine were last seen close to the summit pyramid on 8 June 1924
|An enthusiastic audience of historians and family members
of Far Eastern Prisoners of War at a conference in 2010
As I was tweaking my pale cream skirt I suddenly realised I had an ace up my sleeve. Returning to my chair and without sitting down I indicated I was ready. The president called me down to his level and said in my ear 'remember, don't go over the time. You look lovely but they don't want to be staring at you in half an hour!' I whispered back: 'Indeed not. They might be worried. I wouldn't want anyone else to know this, but I'm wearing a pair of my husband's underpants.' I have never seen anyone blush and jump simultaneously. It was a sweet moment.
|The cream silk skirt on its first public outing in 2008.
I am not advocating a rebellion but I urge any of you who go out to speak, especially if you do it for free, to remind the people who commission you to treat you with the respect they would wish to be treated with themselves. And if that calls for a little shock, so be it.