Robert Peston in conversation
I had barely finished putting the notice in the shop window before people began pouring in to reserve their place for this event. Word spread and within a couple of weeks we had sold all the tickets for the 300-seat venue - and this, three months ahead of the date. Such was the interest in Robert Peston's visit that we could have sold this event twice over.
Those people lucky enough to get a ticket, and who fought off the flu bug to be there on the night, were treated to a fascinating, entertaining and stimulating evening at Woodbridge Community Hall.
We were a little late in starting as Robert had got caught in traffic, driving up from London to speak to us. But he was raring to go as soon as he got out of the car and after a few minutes for photographs for the local newspaper, I was finally ready for the stage curtains to open and to introduce our speaker.
Robert Peston is a journalist of over 30 years, working on national newspapers such as the Independent, Financial Times, Sunday Telegraph and New Statesman. He was the business editor at the BBC during the financial crisis of 2007-8 and most recently he has taken on the role as the Political Editor for ITV with his own weekly show Peston on Sunday. He is a familiar face - and voice - to us all. He has also written a number of books.
The titles of these books are getting increasingly hysterical, though, I suggested. First there was 'Brown's Britain'. Then 'Who Runs Britain?' That was followed by 'How Do We Fix This Mess?'
And now 'WTF', published in November 2017.
The book is subtitled 'What have we done? Why did it happen? How do we take back control?' so I didn't feel the need to spell out the initials. "It's short for Where's the Furniture," Robert interjected, and the audience laughed.
In the past 12 months we have seen Brexit, Donald Trump become president of the USA, surprise results in European elections, and the Grenfell Tower tragedy. All this in a climate where artificial intelligence threatens jobs, social media rocks democracy and the gap between rich and poor grows larger.
So what prompted Robert to write this book at this time?
His answer to this and subsequent questions was lengthy and spoken with his distinctive drawl.
He explained his close relationship with his father, who died recently. They used to have long and animated discussions about politics and Robert said how he missed those debates. The book is introduced and concluded in the form of letters from Robert to his father, and he hopes it is something to honour his memory.
Robert also spoke of how he felt shocked by recent events. As a journalist, "from the top of my head to the tips of my toes", he said he had always prided himself on being in touch with popular opinion, yet this time he had to acknowledge that he had become remote, part of the privileged metropolitan liberal elite.
I had read this book twice, taking many notes, and I had watched Robert interviewed about the book on internet clips, so I felt that I had researched well ahead of the evening.
He responded to all my points by turning to the audience and addressing them directly. This is very acceptable from my perspective - the speaker is there for the audience, and I am merely present to prompt them, and keep them 'on message'. Yet two or three people mentioned to me after the event "he didn't look at you, did he?" They seemed quite put out.
When Robert finished answering each point, he would turn to look at me for the next question and he had quite a glare! But I knew from a previous phone conversation and from our brief meeting before we started, that he was a warm, gracious and appreciative speaker, and there was no need for me to be intimidated!
Robert elaborated on his comment in the book where he said that the people who voted for Brexit and Trump are "on the right side of history". He talked about the inequalities in Britain, the gap between the rich and poor being greater here than anywhere else in the west. He spoke about his suggestions for ways to remedy the situation today, highlighting the need for a 'wealth tax' among other things.
I asked him about the leadership we need to be in place to encourage and facilitate those radical measures.
He squirmed a little at this point - he couldn't possibly comment on who a good leader might be, he said. And he went on to say that our current raft of politicians are the least impressive he has seen in a generation. In the book he points to the good qualities of Gordon Brown as well as John Major. Indeed his comments throughout the evening were admirably balanced, as befitting a journalist - he could see policies on both the left and the right which were to be applauded, as well as those to be criticised.
All too soon our conversation needed to be brought to a close to allow time for questions from the audience. It was clear there would be much to follow up on with all that he had told us. We only had time for four questioners, however, as Robert gave each one a lengthy and considered response.
After a very appreciative applause we both left the stage, and moved to the signing table where a long queue had already formed. Robert, here, was just as impressive. He gave warm and attentive responses to each person, was prepared to have photos taken, and listened carefully to any comments people wished to make while knowing when and how to move them on politely.
By 9.30pm the evening was over, and Robert was on his way back home with some snacks for the journey home - sushi and bananas had been requested, but I'd also provided some local chocolate, beer and apple juice. And as a gift, we'd presented him with a beautiful book called 'The Italian Gentleman', particularly appropriate considering how very stylish he looked for our event. A short time later, I received a text:
Hi Catherine, thank you for having me in Woodbridge tonight and doing such a great job as interviewer. I loved the event. Also the supper is delicious and the book completely wonderful. You have been such generous hosts. Best wishes Robert
What a nice man!
And when I got home, there was a bunch of flowers on my doorstep from a friend who had come to the evening's event. The flowers were beautiful and she had written a note describing how she had enjoyed the evening:
What a splendid evening - entertaining, highly informative, thought-provoking and utterly fascinating.
I hope you were able to enjoy it as much as we all did.
As ever, your seamless professionalism created an environment in which Robert Peston (and audience) felt comfortable. Your targeted questions were succinct but of substance, and made for a very interesting response from Robert. I am now keen to pick up and read the book as I now feel it will not be ‘beyond my ken’!
Thank you for ensuring this was such a successful event for all concerned. Your skills, ability and talents are extraordinary. Verity
People are so kind and thoughtful! I received other messages by email, text and in the shop in the hours and days afterwards. Here are a few of their comments:
I want to thank you for an excellent evening. Robert Peston was fascinating to listen to - and the event was superbly chaired. And what a wonderful turn-out! Viv
Thank you so much for organising and interviewing Robert Peston in Woodbridge last night. It’s so good to have such an opportunity in our local community, thank you. Jane
Thank you so much for last night. We thought you were brilliant! and he wasn’t bad either. Michael
It was great to see so many people packed into the community hall and it gave such food for thought. I'm sure we could easily have listened for a further hour and know several of us have gone on to talk about the content and will continue to do so. You came across as highly polished and professional, asking very pertinent questions which certainly got him talking. Well done! Christine
Well done, Catherine ! We enjoyed this evening very much. The couch on the stage worked well. Gwen
Well, I thought it was a triumph! It all seemed to go really well. You were excellent. The sound was top notch. You have done a brilliant job organising it and I am sure the evening was very much appreciated. Graham
The East Anglian Daily Times featured the event in a couple of editions, though I wasn't thrilled with my photograph!
And my interview with Robert Peston, which I carried out on the phone with him some weeks before the event, featured in February's issue of 'Suffolk' magazine, which you can read here.
I would also like to take this opportunity to thank Barretts of Woodbridge for once again providing the stylish and comfortable on-stage furniture. They are incredibly helpful and allow me to take my pick of their shop floor for these events - I would have liked to have taken these particular items home with me and received a number of comments from like-minded audience members too!