Coming to a podium near you
In common with other members of British Jewry enjoying a certain media presence, from Maureen Lipman to David Baddiel and Vanessa Feltz, I am the recipient of invitations to speak to all manner of communal groups.
These tend to come towards the end of the calendar year prior to that in which I am desired as a speaker, which means that I am currently bracing myself for the autumnal avalanche of telephone calls, letters and emails. Can I therefore set out some do's and don'ts, some rules and guidelines of etiquette that seem to me to amount to little more than common sense?
The first is to give plenty of notice. Although I am 68 years of age, I am not retired. I hold a university chair (which means that I have teaching and other duties) and I have a number of other salaried and non-salaried appointments.
So, although I can occasionally fulfil a mid-afternoon slot as a speaker, this is usually going to be difficult, if not impossible.
Then there is the matter of expenses. As a general rule, I do not charge charities a commercial fee but please remember that I am not a charity myself. I do expect my out-of-pocket expenses to be paid. This might sound so elementary that it does not need to be said, but I think it does. Some months ago, I was invited to motor across Greater London and into one of the Home Counties to take part in a communal panel discussion - a round trip of some 75 miles. My polite request for a contribution towards my petrol costs was met with disbelief. But, according to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, the true mileage cost of this journey was just under £34.
Please remember that I am not a charity myself
Where the total mileage is significantly greater than this, I prefer to use public transport. I don't demand to travel first-class, but I do insist on a modicum of comfort and convenience. Asked to address a small provincial community, I was encouraged to book with a slower but (admittedly) cheaper train operator, which would have meant that a journey of some 90 minutes would have taken more than three hours, with a return terminus arrival time of 12.45 am. When I had to make it clear that, in that case, I proposed to take a taxi from the terminus to my home, my clueless host suggested that perhaps my wife could motor there and meet me when I arrived.
I don't mind staying overnight either in a moderately priced but clean hotel or in someone's guest room. As an Orthodox Jew, I do mind being served treif food.
And so we come to the subject of my talk. If I am asked to speak "on a subject of my choice" I'm afraid I take this request at face value. I regard it as grossly discourteous to be assured that I can speak on a subject of my choice only to be told that the subject I have proposed is "not suitable", or that a certain communal macher, who was sure to be present, would be offended were I to say this or that.
I have even been asked to submit my remarks in advance, "for information". Well, I sometimes do lecture from a script but, as often as not, I speak without notes (something I learned from one of my teachers, the late, great Oxford historian AJP Taylor).
In any case, if I did condescend to submit my comments in advance "for information", be warned that on one infamous occasion I sent a completely doctored version, minus the ad libs that proved (in the event) the highlight of the evening.
I am often asked to provide a short biography for the chairman or woman to read out. I'm happy to do this but, for goodness sake, please study my text and articulate it in an unflustered manner.
I do not take kindly to the titles of my books being announced in a garbled outburst, or to my academic qualifications being mangled.
Believe it or not, I hold two separate doctorates, a DPhil and a DLitt - and not, as one ignorant chairperson alleged, a "DPhil in Liturgy".
Sometimes events do have to be cancelled. This is understood. But please tell me at the earliest opportunity. I have recently "blacklisted" a synagogue that failed completely to tell an eminent colleague of mine of the cancellation of her speaking engagement. This was nothing short of unqualified rudeness.
Wishing you all a Happy New Year!