Mr Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, I’d like first of all to thank you for admitting me to the Dundee Speakers Club – an acceptance all the more appreciated as you don’t really know me. So I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce myself.
Now usually when we’re introduced to someone one of the first questions we ask is: what do you do? This may seem like mere small talk but in fact the answer can speak volumes about the person concerned. Or at least we think it can. There’s a world of perceived difference, after all, between a barrister and a barista, between a traffic warden and a trapeze artist.
In the past when I’ve been asked this question I’ve found it difficult to answer; partly because I’ve done a number of different jobs, also because I didn’t want to create a false impression of myself by confessing that I was doing something to which I was totally unsuited.
Students nowadays often have a gap year before going to university. I, ladies and gentlemen, have had a gap life.
So how did this come about? The answer is that I was brought up to be a wife and a mother, my horizons no wider than the kitchen sink. I did go to university, it is true, but only to find a husband. I know this will sound shocking to feminists now but in those days, the 1960s, most female students were having engagement rings put on their fingers around the same time as mortar boards were being placed on their heads.
I wasn’t engaged when I graduated. So to support myself until I did get married I would have to work. I went to the university careers advisor. She found me a job with an insurance company.
Work started at 8.45am. At 8.47 each morning the section head went down to personnel with the name of anyone not yet in their place. We weren’t allowed to talk – unless it was about work, and even then only in a whisper. All the women in the company, regardless of their position, had to wear a blue nylon overall, like a cleaning lady. I had to get out.
There was a jeering slogan at the time, directed at the less ambitious graduates – Hurry moose tae Moray Hoose*. I heeded this call as a means of escaping the Dickensian drudgery of the Scottish Widows. And who can blame me? The only careers advice I’d ever been given at school was that the girls going to university should become teachers as they would then have the same holidays as their children. I ended up teaching Maths in one of the most notorious schools in Edinburgh.
I was a hopeless teacher – no patience and incapable of maintaining discipline. Two years later, battered and bruised by this experience, I hired a van, piled all my possessions into it and drove, Dick Whittington-like, to London where I did indeed find the gold of an oil company salary, but still no job satisfaction.
Until one day – seven years later – I realised that life didn’t have to be like that. I jacked in the job and headed for Paris. I worked for a while, a la George Orwell, as a short-order cook in a restaurant where everybody screamed at each other all the time in a white-hot frenzy of impatience; then as an artist’s model and an English teacher until my French was good enough for me to get a job as a translator with an international engineering company. I worked on projects which took me to Baghdad and to Kuala Lumpur; I worked on the Channel Tunnel, Eurodisneyland, and a nuclear power plant in China. Life had become interesting, even exciting.
In the meantime my relationship with the French had deteriorated. I had become entangled with a neighbour in a plumbing dispute which developed into a lawsuit of such byzantine complexity and eye-watering expense that the only solution for me was to escape, again – to Zanzibar this time, with VSO, where I worked on one of those misguided projects which can be better described as hindrance rather than aid.
Subsequently I moved further afield: to Malaysia where I spent two years in Melaka as an educational advisor; then to Vietnam where I worked for another couple of years as a
journalist with an English-language newspaper in Ho Chi Minh City.
At the time Vietnam was ranked as the most stressful country in the world for an expat to live – so good preparation for my next port of call, Sudan, which, when I went there in 1999, the London Evening Standard had just included on its black list of countries not to be visited on any account. I had been appointed director of an educational charity which had been set up by a rum set of characters, including a tobacco baron, the wife of the Sudanese Minister of Agriculture, the sixth richest man in Africa, an elderly Anglo-Egyptian university professor straight out of the pages of Graham Greene, and the British Ambassador. Imagine a scenario in which Save the Children meets Fawlty Towers and there you have it.
While in Sudan I wrote a book about life there and was lucky enough to have it accepted by the first publisher I pitched it to. When I left Sudan the publisher was keen for me to write more so I went to Palestine where I spent six months living in the West Bank and producing my second travel book.
After that I returned to the UK, and took up an academic life. I did a Masters in Consciousness Studies and then another Masters in Creative Writing. The outcome of this was a third book, a novel this time, based on a case from the early history of psychoanalysis. I’m currently working on another.
I should mention at this point that when I was at school there were two subjects that I really hated. They were geography and history.
So it’s ironical that when I at last have a satisfactory answer to the question: what do you do? the answer is: I’m a travel writer and a historical novelist.
*Moray House – a teacher training college in Edinburgh