Accustomed as I am becoming

Over the last couple of years, I have found myself giving talks to a variety of different groups on behalf of the Museum.

In the past, of course, these engagements would have been fulfilled by Peter, and by comparison, I always feel embarrassed at my lack of scholarship. Nevertheless, it's interesting to find the variety of people who want a speaker from the Museum. Here are some excerpts from my recent speaking diary.

Wednesday 8th March:
Speaking to the Women's Fellowship at Wimbledon Methodist Church. It's an afternoon booking, taken on before I started getting paid to look after a charity shop on Wednesdays. I've had to arrange for a stand-in at the shop, and it's all a bit of a rush to get back in time.

This is my wife's church, and I know a lot of the audience already. They want to be entertained rather than informed, and my light-hearted, anecdotal approach goes down a treat, especially as my talk reminds many of them of the area in their childhood. I get caught up in listening to their reminiscences and am late leaving, even though I forgo a cup of tea. The following Sunday, Valerie is late back from the evening service. She's been delayed by "my fan club" telling her how much they enjoyed my talk.

Tuesday 28th March:
Speaking to the Parkinson's Disease Society at the All Saints' Centre in South Wimbledon. Am shocked to find a friend in the audience. He's been recently diagnosed and kept it very quiet. I'm sworn to secrecy.

Many of the audience are brought by ambulance, and the ambulance is an hour late arriving, which gives me plenty of time to get jittery.

One of the results of Parkinson's Disease is that the sufferer develops an emotionless facial appearance. So when you're talking to them, you can't tell whether they're interested or not. The temptation is either to "switch off" yourself, or to overcompensate and speak like Ken Dodd on speed.

I think it goes all right, but the late start means that I can't hang around and collect reactions.

Sunday 9th April:
I've been asked to lead a "Wandle walk" for the Parents' Association of Poplar School. But they only want an hour, so we agree to start at the café at Morden Hall Park at 11 a.m. and end at the café in Ravensbury Park at noon. On the day of the walk, the organiser phones to say they're having a picnic afterwards and he'll bring a sandwich for me. When I get there, he tells me he's also got the keys to the Watermeads, and can we include that in the walk?

The weather's been wet (luckily it's fine now) and my route through Morden Hall Park is changed to avoid the worst of the mud. The audience is huge, and part of it very young. We hang around waiting for several people. One of the grannies remembers going to Gilliat Hatfeild's children's parties, and standing by the side of the road to see his coffin being taken to St Laurence's church on a hay wain. I get her to share her reminiscences with the group, and she emphasises how nice a man Hatfeild was and how popular with the villagers. It's a nice corrective to today's stereotype of village squires. A small group of boys - about middle school age - walk with me and prove very interested in water wheels, and intelligent about how the depth and width of a river affects its speed and power.

We started late, some of the children and grannies walk slowly, and we're going further than planned. All this means I have to leave the group at the Watermeads and go on somewhere else. Pity about the picnic, but it's starting to rain, anyway.

Tuesday 9th May:
I've been asked to speak to the Friends of Nonsuch (Park and Mansion, not School) after their AGM. I'm given a rough time to arrive, but get there early and hear a lot of the AGM, which is interesting.

During the coffee break, chatting with the chairman, I discover that they were founded in '94 and receive no public money. He and I share our disillusions with the Lottery.

Having been to a dinner in Nonsuch mansion recently, I am able to start my talk with a tribute to their achievements, and allude to a couple of other points raised in the AGM while I'm talking. They seem to like this approach, and they laugh at my jokes. I manage to shape the talk quite well, and stick to time.

At the end, I'm besieged by people who want to speak with me, even though the porters are trying to get us out so they can go home. The talk was clearly a success, which is gratifying because this is a knowledgeable audience.

I'm not as available as Peter was and sometimes I have to turn down invitations to speak. I had, for instance, to refuse a request from the London Borough of Merton to lead a walk along the Wandle on April 1st. I enjoy what I'm doing, though, and hope I'll be able to carry on well into the future.

Stephen Ashcroft

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