I was rather early to my woodland talk. It was held in the first floor restaurant of a department store in Chelmsford, and by the time I'd factored in some time to spare in case of delays on the A12, some more extra time in case I couldn't find the multi-storey car park, and a further allowance in case I got lost looking for the department store, it added up to a lot of spare time. The A12 was running smoothly and I didn't get lost, so I didn't actually need any of it.
Department stores are not my usual habitat for talks. Village halls, community centres and the odd school, yes. Even the occasional garden centre or church. Department stores, no. This one was part of the Co-op, who run a weekly coffee club in the cafe as part of their community engagement programme. If any of the communally engaged members should happen to do some shopping on the way out then so much the better, I suppose.
A coffee shop isn't the ideal venue for a talk, in that there was no black-out so the slides were rather dim. The Co-op had provided a screen and extension cable, so that the only equipment I had to carry was my projector. They had also provided a sound system, with a very strong steer that I should use it. There was no opportunity to practice with it first, and I just had to try and follow the organiser's instruction to hold the microphone so that it touched my chin. Remembering the absolute shambles of a lecture I once attended by a former Reith lecturer, who had refused to take part in any kind of sound check beforehand and who was inaudible approximately fifty per cent of the time, I hoped I would do better than that.
One elderly lady approached me as I stood awaiting my turn to perform, and I thought she had come to ask me something about trees, but she wanted to know whether they had to pay for their fish and chips in advance. But once I started talking, they all listened with polite attention and no talking or fidgeting at all. There was no conveniently placed clock, and I didn't like to look at my watch while I was talking, so was pleased that having been asked to talk for about half an hour I came in at twenty-eight minutes. Afterwards some people came up to say that they'd enjoyed it, and one said that I had a lovely speaking voice. That's nice to know. Nobody ever likes recordings of their own voice, and I always think that my message on our telephone answering machine sounds like a cross between Mrs Thatcher and Sarah Ferguson.
I had a lucky escape on the way back up the A12. Somewhere near Kelvedon I passed a Range Rover parked on the hard shoulder, with quantities of brownish-grey fumes gushing from underneath the bonnet that looked too much to be steam, and smelt like smoke. Settling down at the kitchen table with a mug of coffee when I got home, I saw the breaking news in the East Anglian Daily Times that the A12 was closed due to a vehicle on fire on the north bound side. There was a photograph of the Range Rover with more smoke pouring out of it than when I passed it, and two lines of stationary traffic behind it. Shortly after that it was engulfed in flames, to judge from the picture on the website in the afternoon. I must have got past it no more than five minutes before the police shut the road for the next hour and a bit.