Two nice surprises yesterday, three if you include the speed with which The Spectator backed down and apologised, as per yesterday’s blog.

First, speaking at a conference I fully expected to be a bit of a drag, but really enjoying it.

Second, bumping into someone on the train back – most of you will know (of) her when I tell you who – and having a really good natter that made the journey speed by.

The conference, in Manchester, was a gathering of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA). Now there are a few words in that title somewhat guaranteed to make you think it could be a long day, full of moments wondering ‘why did I agree to this?’

In fact, it was a well-organised event, with a great bunch of people running it, and a lively q and a which mixed the serious and the not so serious, topped by the woman whose question was simply ‘can I have a free copy of your book?’ You have to admire the front, so I said yes. When I asked if she meant novel or diaries, she said both. On their way, madam.

These are the people, local authority finance directors in the main, who will be asked to implement some pretty tough choices in the coming years as the impact of the global financial crisies continues. They asked me to speak about leadership in tough and challenging times, and certainly the assumption was that there are tough and challenging times ahead.

There was considerable scepticism about the current nature of the cuts v investment argument. I think I was able to explain that these were the early skirmishes of a political battle in which Labour are seeking to establish key differences with the Tories, and smoke out the Opposition on policy.

CIPFA had published their own ‘manifesto’ and I snaffled a few copies to post on to Labour’s election manifesto design team. Simple idea. Square document, brightly coloured, with text on the right hand page, handwriting on the left with specific proposals, with left/right becoming right/left after the centre spread. No pictures, but that did not detract too much because the design was strong.

I know a manifesto has to stand or fall according to ideas, but how it looks matters too and the delegates admitted they were drawn to reading the handwritten printed material more than the text. Spin, or good communication?

Nice surprise two came as the train pulled out of Manchester, and actress Helen Worth (Gail from Coronation Street) sat down across the way. United in shared irritation at an Aussie businessman talking really loudly on his phone, and able to recollect the day when TB visited the Street, where later we held a Labour fundraiser, we got chatting.

Neither of us could remember the exact year, which got us talking about how long the programme had been going – almost half a century – and how long she had been in it. Here I was genuinely shocked … 35 years. I was also shocked to learn the Street stars are not allowed to do other work. Yet she still loves it as much as when she first landed the part four (fictional) marriages ago.

I have not watched the Street (you see, I go back to pre ‘Corrie’ as shorthand) regularly for a while, but I think she was quite impressed by my knowledge of characters and plot lines way back when. As Fiona will tell you, when we first met, I was a ‘never miss’ Street fan. Work and other stuff just got in the way.

She travels up and down from her home in Chelsea, and even the travel is bearable, she says, because she loves what she does, and it’s a ‘good job.’ It is great to hear that from someone who has done the same job for so long.

We talked about all sorts of things, from theatre to politics, families to books, including my next one, which is about an actress. She became the fourth person to see the draft of the cover. She liked it. I liked her.

So a good day all round, and then to bed, reading Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami, before the texts started coming in saying Michael Jackson had died. Sad. Is it possible to be shocked and unsurprised at the same time? I think so. But it’s sad all the same.