They say you can’t take it with you. This used to refer to money and death, but now it refers to almost everything and hand luggage.

Having showered for two days with Travelodge soap – which produces all the creamy lather of a sticklebrick – I found half a tube of shower gel in the bottom of my bag this morning. As a potential explosive, it wasn’t allowed with me in the cabin, but I did get a proper clean before the flight, and left it in Edinburgh until my return.

The flight to Manchester was on a plane so small, my seat was under the wing, and I could watch the landing gear flinging up rainwater from the runway until we lifted off, and it tucked itself up out of the way. Very soon afterwards, we landed in Manchester with a clear hour until the flight onward to Exeter. The hour became two hours. Then it became two and a half hours.

The usual story of delayed planes: no information until the rescheduled flight, when you are given a revised time you cannot trust. A reminder that these machines have to be looked after because human life isn’t compatible with being 17,000 feet in the air. And the feeling that the passenger is an inconvenience in the smooth running of an airline. For me, the knowledge that the generous window that allowed me a shower, a snooze and the ironing of a shirt is getting smaller and smaller.

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Later…
We landed at Exeter airport a mere 2h40 late. As we boarded, the pilot offered this explanation for the delay: ‘Someone left something on last night, so when we got in this morning, the battery was dead. That took a while to change… And then we waited for you for forty-five minutes because Manchester Airport couldn’t find a bus to bring you here.’ Thank you Captain Smith. And thanks for nothing, FlyBe. Special mention here to Zoe from Avis who had me on my way with a friendly efficiency I haven’t hitherto associated with car rentals.

Into the briefing by the deepest dermal layer of my teeth. I drew the first spot – normally a weak position. But I hoped the experience of opening and warming up comedy audiences would hold me in good stead.

The room was hot. All the men who were speaking had ties on, and all who weren’t, weren’t. So I took mine off and stuck it in my pocket. I made a nice reference to being in Torquay, and settled in. I’m not a great fan of over-rehearsal, and declamation isn’t my style. I dropped a line but wove it back in. Then, disaster. I looked up, and saw the red light. How long had it been on? I didn’t know. The end was in sight. I rushed towards it. I have a line that usually gets a chuckle, but today got an agonisingly long laugh. I wrapped, sat down, went out and texted the two people I knew could cope, that I thought I had gone over time. Over time equals immediate disqualification. I felt sure that I had. Kicked myself for making such a stupid mistake. The cost, the planning, the support of my club, all squandered for a couple of seconds of stage time. I sat through the rest of the speeches, phone off, and through the agonising deliberations of the judges and timekeepers, thinking about how FlyBe could get away with three hours, and I couldn’t get away with three seconds. Three people would go through to the next round. Three out of six, or rather, three out of five with my disqualification. I wouldn’t be able to show my face at EBS next week, that’s for sure.

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‘Ian Hawkins.’ I’ve never been more amazed to hear my name. I am through to the next round. For all that it’s a good script and I deliver it well, there have been times in this contest when a cigarette paper has been the difference between success and failure.

I spent the rest of the day in a sort of confused, nervous euphoria. And in the hotel bar, chatted to a couple of microlight enthusiasts. Now they had some stories to tell!

My one to watch? Kwame Akpokavi. Another first-timer at this level. Instantly likeable on stage, he’s got a powerful message and great presence.

Tomorrow is the final of the UK & Ireland International Speaking Contest. Place your bets!

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