I've just had one of the more surreal evenings of my life, in Birmingham. Well, just outside Birmingham - at the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre. It's a beautiful, tranquil venue - the former home of George Cadbury, the famous chocolate maker. The tranquility got probably its most unlikely interruption ever this evening.
The Centre is hosting a special conference on travel writing, with academics from all over the world giving distinguished research papers on this diverse subject. I'll be giving a rather less distinguished paper tomorrow, but it's early in the morning, so maybe nobody will notice.
This evening, though, was something else. The conference organisers had invited speakers who are also travel writers to give readings from their work. So, in the impressive surroundings of the Cadbury rooms, three academics did just that: an amusing recollection of times past in Spain; dazzling philosophical reflections on a journey across a desert; and a love letter to south Florida and lost childhood.
Then it was my turn, for 15 minutes of fame, or infamy. Like Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition, surprise was my chief weapon. Surprise, and the fact I was between the audience and the exit. Surprise, and the fact I was between the audience and the exit... and a small Womble in my backpack.
Reaching into the backpack, I began to speak: 'Before we start, I have to introduce someone...'
This would be Orinoco's toughest audience ever, with a collective IQ of twice infinity and a day of serious theoretical musings behind them. Whatever they thought was coming, they weren't expecting this.
And yet Orinoco got the same reaction he always gets from any audience, whatever age and whatever the occasion. Surprise, delight, laughter and cries of recognition all mingled in one happy noise. While we can't talk too often of Elisabeth Beresford's brilliance in coming up with the concept, the Wombles are also a triumph of design - unusual, cuddly, friendly, utterly lovable.
For the benefit of the non-British element of the audience, I explained who the Wombles are, what they do and why they have a link with travel and places. I read a short extract from Journeys from Wimbledon Common - the section about the Trans-Siberian Express. It got laughs in places I didn't expect, but that's all to the good. To finish, I invited Betty, the redoubtable conference organiser, to come up and shake Orinoco's paw and receive a message from him. For no doubt the first and surely the last time, the Cadbury Room resounded to Remember you're a Womble.
Academics who had never heard of me before - and will have forgotten me by Friday, if not Thursday - came up to share their Womble memories. One said he had misunderstood Mike Batt's lyrics, and thought Wombles were common (how rude: I covered Orinoco's ears). Another said he had thought Wombles were real (well, of course they are). And my fellow speaker for tomorrow said:
'That was splendid. Will you be using Wombles in your other presentation?'
Sadly not. If only everything in life was as reliable as a Womble.