This year’s Birmingham Literature Festival more or less ended with a session, Speech!, about the city’s history of notable political oratory. There had been little expectation of a big turnout for the event, but a respectable number of people did go along, providing an audience of quality, as well as quantity. Both playwright David Edgar, and writer and actor, Sally Phillips, made elegant and informed contributions to a discussion which might easily have lasted much longer.
The event set me thinking about political speeches. The consensus seems to be that political oratory is a lost art, killed off by television, and a culture of sound bites, but I don’t buy that.
It is true that political success does not demand competence as a speech maker in the way that perhaps it used to. The open public meeting is long gone, more’s the pity. When politicians had to face their voters in town halls and community centres, up close, personal, and usually with a barrage of heckling, voter turnout was much higher, and discontent with the political class much less apparent than it is today. For that was politics as theatre, scripted, yes, but live, and always edged with danger. It was real.
These days it is possible to become a member of parliament without ever having to address any large audience that hasn’t been hand-picked. Fluency and confidence are necessary, but soaring rhetoric? Nice if you can do it, but it’s like playing the piano or ballroom dancing (two of Ed Balls’ hobbies). It’s not a ‘core competence’.
Nonetheless, speeches still matter. And that means either a natural ability to speak in public (rare) or the carefully honed skill of someone who works at it (difficult, but not impossible).
One of the most important speeches of recent times in Birmingham was that of Tariq Jahan. In 2011, as riots swept the country, 19 year old Haroon Jahan became a victim of those events. His father, Tariq, a lorry driver, stood on the pavement before his neighbours and peers, and made a speech of great dignity and power. He urged calm. He demanded that no other parents should have to endure the horror that had befallen his family.
It was, genuinely, a great speech. Not just because of what made it necessary, but because Tariq Jahan had the right words, and delivered them with pace, cadence and electrifying effect. In many ways it was almost an African-American style of speechmaking, with something of the pulpit about it.
The same events, but in London, threw up another example of working class oratory. Pauline Pearce of Hackney was more firmly in the British tradition. Like an old-style shop steward in an open air union meeting, Pearce condemned those whose arson and looting were irresponsible acts of nihilism or greed, and urged them, as fellow black people, to take their grievances seriously, and to work together constructively for a cause. In Pearce’s case she was notable for her raw, sweary passion – and her bravery. An older woman walking with a stick taking on a mob heady with the raucous, deadly carnival of riot is nothing if not courageous.
The only woman name-checked in the session at the BLF was Malala Yousafzai, who spoke from the same stage in 2014 on the occasion of being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. We are familiar with Malala’s facility with the English language. Her style of speech is calm, deliberate, each word carefully selected. It is the style most obviously exemplified by Nelson Mandela.
None of my examples are politicians. Mandela became one, of course, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Malala does, too, once she’s got the small matter of A Levels and a barely functioning Pakistani political system sorted. But their power as speakers predates high political office.
So what makes such different people great speechmakers? And do you need to be the author of your own words to qualify?
Speeches are about a particular kind of relationship between the speechmaker and the audience. In normal conversation, or in television interviews that seek to simulate normal conversation, there ought to be a sense of listening and thinking in real time. Hesitations, repetitions, and verbal punctuation (the ‘ers’ and ‘ahs’ and ‘you knows’) signal a constant flow between interlocutors. But speeches are not like that.
The speechmaker is, or by force of oratory, becomes, the centre of attention. He or she holds the stage, grips the microphone, is centred by the spotlight, at least metaphorically. The transmission is one way – from speechmaker to audience. It is a relationship of power and authority.
That is the case whether the words flow from the heart, and perhaps the pen, of the speaker, or whether they have been provided by a speechwriter, or even a team of speechwriters. Though I’d argue that a badly read speech (I’ve heard a few of those) is nothing more than a dull person reading some words. It doesn’t really qualify as speechmaking.
Whereas a good actor can invest his or her script with the electricity necessary to connect with an audience. President Reagan, after all, had the lead in King’s Row, a movie nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars in 1942. Speechwriters are perhaps the most self-effacing of all writers, for they would be failures if they became better known than those for whom they craft the words.
I made my first political speech in my teens. I have no idea what it was about. I used to go to student union meetings on my own, and sit silently, listening intently, trying to work out how to vote. One day, I put up my hand, walked up to the microphone, and spoke. I was shaking by the end. I don’t know whether it was any good. But I did it, and went on to do it many more times.
What I learned is that beyond those occasions where there is an immediate and urgent need for wholly spontaneous speeches – as in the riot-related examples above – by and large, a speech is an act of composition, whether written in full, or a structured improvisation based on notes. Sally Phillips, in an earlier session at which she was a speaker, described how as an actor working in a setting that called for improvisation (she cited her work with Steve Coogan on Alan Partridge as an example), she effectively ‘wrote’ her improvisations in advance. Perhaps politics really is showbiz for ugly people?
The speech is a form of creative writing, crafting words to have resonance and emotional reach. So next time you listen to a speech, get your lit crit head on, and judge it as you would any other form of writing.