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.