Rising to the (university) challenge

Whenever people see my list of public engagements, the thing they most often ask is if I ever get nervous. To tell the truth, the answer is not very often. I find that it’s often best to plunge in – yes, preparation is important but I don’t like talking from scripts and, like everyone else, I perform best when I’m on sure ground (running a small business, the importance of bleeding radiators, where to get a good manicure …).

That said, I have just survived a month that featured rather too many scary encounters, even for me. For a start, I did eight minutes of live radio with Jenni Murray on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. I was invited to talk about women in business – early next year the programme is announcing its list of the UK’s most powerful 100 women. For my money, Murray herself is one of those women: she does command the attention of millions each morning. Plus she scares the hell out of me.

I also gave my first speech at the Mansion House, at a dinner to raise money for girls’ cricket. I have two subjects on which I am completely confident of delivering at big public events – my careers book and my one-woman comedy act. The audience got a mix of both. This included my showing them the book that Mr M gave me when we were first married, called Understanding Cricket. At the time, I thought this most considerate, until I realised it was the very book – indeed the very copy – that he had given to his first wife.

The Mansion House date wasn’t too intimidating, at least not compared with having to give a speech in front of 1,500 16- and 17-year-olds. Yes, 1,500 teenagers. I was speaking as the chair of the education charity Career Academies UK, and had planned to deliver a five-minute speech, which I had actually written, from the lectern. But I followed Tori James, the youngest British woman to climb Everest. The combination of realising just how inspiring James was and the prospect of facing 1,500 young people (have you had a conversation with a 16-year-old recently?) made me abandon the lectern and go it alone without a script. That was scary.

Not content with that though, later that day I performed excerpts of my one-woman comedy show in aid of The Royal Hospital Chelsea, in its chapel, slightly weirdly. I was brought up to respect places of worship, so I suffered a twinge or two of discomfort as I explained why getting a US work permit was such a chore. Question on the form: are you coming to the US to engage in prostitution? Answer from me: at my age and weight, do you really think I could charge?

But all of this paled next to my appearance before a parliamentary select committee, as an expert witness on women in the workplace. As I sat there, forcing myself to breathe, wondering what on earth they were going to ask next and knowing I was on live TV, I desperately wished I could leave.

So you’d think I’d be ready for anything. But the most scary thing was yet to come. For reasons best known to my agent, I had agreed to captain the team of my former university, Newcastle, in the 2012 Christmas University Challenge, when the usual brainy current students are replaced by “prominent alumni”. Alumna I might be, but I am not sure about prominent and even less sure about my general knowledge.

My teammates were Peter Gibbs, weatherman and regular chair of Gardeners’ Question Time; Tony Wadsworth, former CEO of EMI and the current chairman of the BPI, which represents music companies. And, for good measure, the explorer Tristan Gooley. Without doubt, this was more terrifying than almost anything I’ve done for a very long time. I would rather face Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight than on University Challenge. So, yes, I do – occasionally – get nervous. And, no, I am not going to tell you how I got on!


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