Friday, 14 August 2009

Mango festival at Asia House


I should be flattered, really. Now that the blog is getting more widely read, I'm getting a lot of invitations to press launches, tastings, that kind of thing. I read them all, and I first check whether or not they're on in the daytime while I'm at work (they usually are) and whether or not they appeal (they usually don't). But one arrived in my inbox a month or so ago that caught my eye - something about a mango tasting, forwarded on from a fellow blogger who couldn't make the date. Steak tasting, check. Cocktail tasting, check. Mango tasting. Fine, sign me up.

And then some worrying signs began to appear. The girl organising the evening wanted biographies from each of us. "The bio will be printed and passed around to the audience, and also used to introduce you as panelists." Wait, audience? The word "panel" as well - I'd assumed it was a group of interested parties trying out different types of mango, and now suddenly it's Question Time? No, couldn't possibly be. I put it to the back of my mind.

Skip forwards a few days, and another email.

"We very much look forward to welcoming you at Asia House for our first event dedicated to mangoes and supported by the Pakistan High Commission. The event will start at 6.45pm but we would request you to come around 6pm for a technical check. Would that be possible?"

Bit weird, but yes no problem. I'm afraid I had no background in sound rigging or event organising, but anything to help. And so we turned up.


There was mild confusion at the door at Asia House because we (and by "we" I mean me and the other food bloggers invited to the event) didn't seem to be on the guest list. I spent a few moments frantically flipping through the clipboard at reception, but we were definitely not mentioned anywhere. I was slightly put out, and just pondering leaving and spending the evening in the fantastic Sam Smiths pub next door, when the event organiser appeared and ushered us upstairs. Phew, we're in! We strode up the wide staircase of this fine Georgian townhouse into a room full of around 150 or so chairs all facing a stage beneath a huge projector screen. I was ushered towards the stage.

"And so this is where you'll be sitting".

There's a pause. Eventually I turn to her. "Sorry, me?"

"Yes, the panel."

And then the full, horrific reality dawned on me. The panel. That was me. I was on the panel. ****. The previously excited banter between the bloggers gained a panicked note, as what we had "agreed" to became terrifyingly apparent. Through the sound check and run-through, the atmosphere of formal tension grew and smiles from everyone - bloggers and harried staff members - shrunk. "I normally come on to Eye of the Tiger, if that can be organised." I quipped in a vain attempt to lighten the mood. No reaction. ****.

Barely 30 minutes later, the audience of important-looking Pakistani ex-pats and paying guests arrived and we reluctantly took our chairs on stage. The chairman of Asia House introduced us all the best way he could (we are food bloggers, and we're not famous - and with the exception of Oliver Thring, who has written two superb pieces for the Guardian blog, we are not paid for our food writing) but really, I am not a public speaker. And I don't know much about mangoes. In fact, I don't even LIKE mangoes very much - they have a weird stale smell and the flesh is all slimy. And I now find myself sat in front of a quite substantial audience asked to make a pertinent comment about mangoes before the High Commissioner of Pakistan and a row of angry bored journalists from the Times and the Guardian and the Telegraph who audibly sighed as soon as they heard the word "blogger" and wanted to be out of there as soon as they possibly could.


It was excruciating. I waffled for about 30 seconds about Tayyabs being my favourite restaurant and how nice their mango lassies are and then stared desperately at the host to switch the focus to someone else. Essentially, I have nothing new or pertinent or relevant to say about mangoes. I just don't. I know people rave about them and I do occasionally see the attraction but... I shouldn't have been there. I didn't understand the format of the evening, I didn't want to be a public speaker and I don't give a flying crap about mangoes. And yet there I was, in front of 150 or so paying guests, expected to be entertaining and informative about a fruit I've eaten only a handful of times in my life. I wanted to fold in on myself and disappear.

So eventually it was over, and the "panel" stepped down from their stage and joined the hungry throngs at the buffet. I knew it had not gone well. Nobody was looking me in the eye, and the organiser was strangely absent. But how could it have gone well? This is not what I do - this is not what any of us do. I am not a public speaker and I am not an expert on mangoes. Surely, if you're organising an evening including a lecture on mangoes the first thing you need to do is recruit people who can do public speaking and people who know about mangoes. I have a day job, and blogging is a hobby. Humiliation in front of 150 people is not something I would ordinarily seek out - I would find it far easier to strip naked and stroll down Clerkenwell Road if that was what floated my boat.


The "panel" huddled in a corner of the room and nibbled on the buffet treats. "This pickly cucumber stuff is nice. What is it?" I asked out loud. "That's mango", was the reply. I quietly gathered my belongings and slinked out.

I was baffled. I just couldn't fathom how they envisioned the evening panning out or why anyone would pay for my cringeingly amateurish comments. Why invite three bloggers as well? Why not a mango importer, a scientist to offer some comments on the nutritional value of mangoes, and an after-dinner speaker or food author to add some witty balance? The answer, I suspect, is cost. I didn't charge. And you get what you pay for.

Still, you live and learn. I'd be interested to read how the other bloggers (Niamh Shields of eatlikagirl was the third victim) felt about the evening, and (with a due sense of trepidation and dread) even the audience. Perhaps - just perhaps - I'm being too paranoid and we all came across as exciting and informed and everyone, including the cynical dead-tree journalists, had a good time. But my instincts are screaming otherwise.

30 comments:

Helen said...

That bit about eye of the tiger makes me laugh out loud. I really think they should have been clear about what you were letting yourselves in for. Then at least you could prepare something, or pull out!

catty said...

LOL yes agree with Helen, you should have pushed on the Eye of the Tiger point, that would have been a grande entrace. But anyway, how awkward an evening! At least you survived. And hey, everyone can relate to mango lassies :)

Signe said...

Hilarious to read, but I can imagine it must've been mortifying to be there...

Great post Chris, will remember to include you on my panel of dragonfruit experts ;)

Martin said...

Sounds horribly awkward, what on earth were they thinking?! The credibility of mangoes on the world stage takes another battering...

Boo said...

How excrutiating! I'd have struggled to even come up with the Tayyabs lassi comment, you did well.
What were they thinking?

Lizzie said...

Oh god!

That "pickly stuff" comment made me guffaw out loud. Oh Chris. I'm so sorry.

(But I am also so very glad I couldn't go.)

Ollie said...

You're too hard on yourself, Chris, but you're right: they misjudged the panel for the evening pretty seriously.

Hilarious write-up, though. And may I correct a factual error? I guffawed at the 'Eye of the Tiger' remark.

Graphic Foodie said...

Oh. My. God.

That is a situation and a half, eh. Good for you for sticking around.

Bet the taste of mangos will leave a bad taste in your mouth for a while to come!

Krista said...

Cracks me up!!! Did they follow up with you afterwards??

Chris said...

Ollie: Right you are. Thanks for your support.

Krista: Had a very brief chat. I have a feeling this isn't the last I've heard of it though.

Helen said...

Sorry I've just read it again! Ha ha ha ha. Oh mate. I'm so sorry all over again. Like Lizzie said though, I'm sooooo glad I couldn't go!

Rachel said...

So are you ready then to give a talk on the history of the barley bannock at the Caledonian Club next week?

Su-Lin said...

Wow. Um.... yeah, yikes! Uncomfortable...

The Good Shill said...

It sounds mortifying, but I'm confused. You say you received an email which said "The bio will be printed and passed around to the audience, and also used to introduce you as panelists." That seems to pretty clearly describe the eventual setup.

I'm guessing they assumed each panelist would be interested in and have something interesting to say about mangoes because you agreed to be on a panel discussing mangoes in front of an audience, no?

Chris said...

The Good Shill: I can see what you're getting at, but until I arrived at Asia House on the night, I had no idea that the "panel" consisted of just us, that there would be an audience of 150, that we would be expected to speak by ourselves infront of the High Commissioner of Pakistan (!!), any of that. They were VERY cagey in the emails about the exact setup, and when they asked for the bio details I assumed everyone else (including the audience, which I didn't realise was different from the panel at this point) was getting the same treatment.

I suppose if anything I could be accused of not interrogating them more beforehand about what exactly I would be expected to do, but they didn't offer any of this information up front either.

foodrambler said...

Oh god that sounds awful! But does make for hilarious reading - can't help laughing!

fingersandtoes said...

How weird! When I heard about it I had assumed there were other people on the panel and you were just part of the "blogger contingent".

Niamh said...

Oh dear. I didn't find it quite as bad as this, but I was utterly unprepared for the setup too, and certainly don't consider myself a mango expert. I felt really uncomfortable when I realised it was a ticketed/paid for event. As Ollie said, they didn't gauge the panel very well.

The cucumber question was absolutely hilarious though, I recall nearly dying choking with laughter. In my defence, I knew it was green mango! :)

Helen Yuet Ling Pang said...

You poor thing! I would have died on the spot if I had turned up. Luckily I couldn't make the event. I love mangoes, but don't think I could talk about them as an expert to a paying audience!

Douglas Blyde said...

You poor chap - why did they do this to you? I would have thrown an invoice in the Special Delivery post, post event...

The Good Shill said...

Hey Chris,

Thanks for responding. Personally, I never thought mangoes were worth the effort. That giant seed is at least half its weight!

Kavey said...

It WAS a very odd event, wasn't it?

And, whilst I think the three of you did the best you could given the set-up, I too found myself wondering why they had decided upon a panel three random (but very good) food bloggers rather than looked for individuals with more expertise or affinity with the mango!

Especially weird as they had, according to that media list at reception, a number of food journalists in their audience.

Still, the green cucumber thing was both amusing and endearing and I quite liked the food they offered up after that odd tasting session.

Oh and another thing, why did the organiser, sitting on stage and watching the staff slowly hand out tasting plates to all the audience, wait until nearly everyone had a plate (and more than half the audience had already eaten their samples) before she instructed the audience "not to eat them yet"? Oh dear!

Still, thanks to Niamh for passing on the contact info such that I could attend - not being on the panel I found it less stressful and vaguely more interesting, though only vaguely. I'd have been gutted to pay for it!!!

Miss Eva Lai said...

wow... that's an enjoyable read. The people who work for Asia House are going to love you putting Asia House pictures to your blog! And the AHouse customers are so going to look forward to their public events. Not only did people pay for the tickets to hear you speak, A.House has corporate benefactors/ sponsors effectively subsidising the events- there're firms who pay £5000 a year, £10,000 a year, even £25,000 a year to support these events financially. To make yourself feel better after the humiliation, you could have a chat with sponsorship departments of corporate firms. ...I have already told staff at KPMG and PriceWaterHouseCoopers about the eventfulness of Asia House from January 2009 onwards....

Miss Eva Lai said...

I have got my diary here - on 9th July 2009, I got a phone call from the House of Lords, when Lord Nazir Ahmed talked to me cordially and also said to me he had no idea why an Asia House member of staff decided to sign people up to the Launch of the Young Pakistani Professionals Event at the House of Commons on 14th July. He said he was very concerned about this, after being invited by a councillor and not Asia House, and decided to talk to the High Commission of Pakistan about it. Then they eliminated the problem and the Launch event seemed like it went well... my member of Parliament Rt Hon Stephen Timms was present and last time I talked to him about the problems at Asia House and beyond and all associated issues, the conversation lasted for 45 minutes. People from Timms' office call me up more often than my friends call me on the phone! Even Gordon Brown sent me a letter in July about all of this, from 10 Downing Street

Chris said...

Miss Eva Lai: Well, I think it's fair to say you've stumped me. Are you saying you've had problems with the staff at Asia House before?

Miss Eva Lai said...

hi Chris. Yes I have had PROBLEMS with Asia House staff before, but when I worked there as an intern last year in May - August 2008 everything was fine, and I enjoyed all of their cuisine events.
I will give you the colourful details of the stories privately. In May 2008 I wrote 4 pages to my Member of Parliament about problems at Asia House and all the other problems that started there because of it all. I have also received substantial correspondence from Right Honourable Fabian Hamilton MP (House of Commons) about his concerns over what seemed to be Asia House problems. Also Baroness Flather, Lord Nazir Ahmed;... Earl of Home the Chairman of Coutts and Co. wrote back to me twice because he was concerned.
By the way, do you know how I found your blog?? In Google I typed in 'glad Asia House' and I found your blog!
Your blogs look delightful with lots of pictures so I will check them out later! I sang a song to Gordon Brown because of Asia House which got 1000 hits by now and this is why I received a thank-you letter from Gordon Brown in July 2009. It also has people laughing hysterically at every party that I go to.
Have a good day x

Chris said...

Miss Eva Lai: Thanks for the kind comments. I think I speak for everyone when I say I'd love to hear the song you sang for Gordon Brown! Is it on YouTube?

Miss Eva Lai said...

Sorry I mean it was in May 2009 that I first wrote to my Member of Parliament as a result of enormous problems that I identified that all started at Asia House (4 pages to him). He replied within 2 weeks. That's 2009, not May last year. Like I said, his staff call me up more often than my friends call me up. Nice song that I sang, huh. That's why people can't stop laughing

Eva Lai said...

Chris my dear, hi again, I note that you say you find it easier to strip naked and go down Clerkenwell Road naked than to be humiliated by Asia House. I also find it easier to run down the road naked than to go through experiences that I have already had to go through. To be honest, any further humiliation cannot possibly add to the humiliation that I have already suffered from. Thus I propose that you and me actually strip naked and walk down the road together, this would help my heart to heal, as it cannot possibly add to my shame and distress. However, we would have to apply to the police (in advance) for permission to be naked in public, due to the Public Order Act. I bet Professor Simon Wesseley (King's College London) would love this as a desperate way of overcoming difficult feelings- he is against methods of getting over things that do not work (Counselling!!)
lol
lol
lol
Perhaps Professor Wesseley would be interested in publishing such endeavours of humiliated people that allow themselves to come to terms with shame, ...and he can place articles about it in Journals of Psychology...
lol

Eva Lai said...

So you write a blog about stale slimey things , and you get a naked woman as a result- Not bad??