Magazine article The Spectator

Speaking Out

Magazine article The Spectator

Speaking Out

Article excerpt

I had to make a speech the other day at an Oldie magazine lunch. I forbore to wonder aloud how many of them would see in the millennium. I still can't quite get into the habit of insulting an audience although everyone assures me they like it. I suppose it's just cowardice. Making speeches never gets easier; it becomes worse as the realisation of how banal one's remarks are hits home more forcibly every time, with the cumulative effect of being struck by lead tennis balls.

If you are speaking with someone experienced it is worse still. In this way public speaking is like sex. The one who has been at it longer always makes the other feel inadequate. This time the lover - I mean speaker - after me was Roy Hattersley. There are two types of good speakers. There are the sort who are good because they have stolen other people's jokes. Jeffrey Archer used to do this shamelessly and remark afterwards, 'Oh, I hope you didn't mind that I changed the bit in the middle.'

Really viper cunning people, though, make jokes about you or your family. Hattersley told a story alleging that my father, as a Labour MP under Harold Wilson's premiership, ruined Hatters's career. Apparently, they had all been sitting round discussing the nationalisation of British Steel. Everyone was against it except Hattersley, who made a speech in a Yorkshire accent he described as even thicker than the one he has now.

The company of MPs burst out laughing, which Hattersley took to be a flippant and insulting reaction to his views. Afterwards, my father lolloped up to him and said, 'That was the best impression of the little man I have ever heard. What a brilliant mimic you are.' 'But I wasn't mimicking Wilson,' Hattersley protested. Later on, in the Chamber, my father began to shout, 'Hattersley's done the most marvellous take-off of the little man. You should have heard it.'

A few weeks after, Wilson met Hattersley at a conference. 'I gather you've been doing impersonations of me all over town,' he growled. Promotion came there none.

This reminded me of the first speech I ever had to make - the embarrassment quotient, that is. A friend of mine was involved with the Anglo-Argentine Society. It was a few years after the Falklands war. A special conference was being set up in Argentina at which Argentinians and Falkland Islanders would sit together for the first time post bellum. …

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