Monday, 25 January 2016

A lesson in public speaking from the Archdeacon (maybe)

Very few of us enjoy public speaking, but for many of us there comes a time when it cannot be avoided. Here is the most important lesson that I have learnt.

One of my uncles was a clergyman, who worked for almost all his life in the East Midlands, in what I will call the Diocese of L---. And it was a lifetime’s work, because clergymen never stop. Long after retirement age they are still stepping in when needed to cover weddings and funerals, and still carrying out pastoral work. When my uncle died at a ripe old age, some years ago, we went to his funeral and, as you may imagine, it was a big affair. In fact it is the only time I have ever seen a funeral advertised on the noticeboard at the church gate as, “Here! Today! At 3.30! The funeral of …!”, for all the world as if it was a Hollywood premiere. The church was packed with fellow clergy and the faithful, many of whom clearly regarded “Parishioner” as an occupation and probably entered it as such on their passport. So it was a knowledgeable congregation; and if you have spoken in public, you will know that it is a great deal easier to do so in front of a hundred strangers than in front of twenty people who have known you for years and who you are going to meet again and again in the future.

The officiating clergy were, therefore, rather nervous, knowing that everything from their phrasing to their frocks was subject to the merciless criticism of their peers. (Don’t for a moment expect to find anything approaching charity within a church.) Given the years of service that my uncle had given, it would not have been unreasonable to expect the Bishop himself to turn up to give the address; but he was unavoidably detained elsewhere, allegedly, and had accordingly sent along his archdeacon as substitute. Well, maybe he wasn’t actually the archdeacon (I do not have the order of service in front of me and anyway I do not wish to make identification easy) but he certainly looked as if he ought to be an archdeacon. And he effected a miracle.

As soon as he rose to speak, everyone in that church relaxed. He had such confidence, such serenity and such poise. We knew at once that he wasn’t going to stumble and stutter over his lines; he wasn’t going to say anything awkward or inappropriate; he wasn’t going to make us feel embarrassed or upset. I don’t know exactly how he did it, because there was nothing especially imposing about his appearance, but he had a definite presence. All he did was rise and take half a dozen steps, and by then, before he said a single word, we had all sat back, our shoulders were no longer up around our ears, and we settled down in contentment to listen. We knew we were in safe hands.

And so what I learned from the archdeacon of L--- was this: if you appear to be nervous, your audience will, through sympathy, become nervous too. They will be tense and anxious, and because of that, they will not listen and they certainly won’t take anything in. They will be more concerned about you as a speaker than about what you are saying. Of course you will feel nervous, everyone does, but you mustn’t look nervous or act nervous. So, when it happens that you have to speak in public, do what I do and pretend to be the archdeacon of L---, and by the time you open your mouth, everyone will be attentive and receptive. And then there is a better chance that, instead of squirming awkwardly, people might actually remember what you say.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Morning is broken

Slowly and dimly become aware that I am no longer asleep.

Wonder what day it is. Can’t remember.

Try, and fail, to remember something that happened yesterday.


Wonder what the weather forecast was for today.

Decide that it doesn’t matter because it is almost certainly going to rain.

Wonder whether the cat has peed on the kitchen floor again.

Reflect on the possibility that someone else might clear it up.

Dismiss the idea as implausible.
Become aware of mild nagging pain.

Decide that it is the first symptom of terminal illness. Spend some time imagining all bodily functions failing one by one.

Would it be better to stay in bed for the rest of my life (however short)?

Perhaps I am hungry. If only I could remember what day it was I would know what was for breakfast, eggs or not.

Remember some daft line about a flask of wine, a loaf of bread and thou beside me singing in the wilderness. Willing to forego all of that for a cup of tea.

Cautiously extend right leg and flex toes. Usual cannonade of small arms fire as joints crack.

Repeat with left leg.

Surprised there is no reaction.

Turn head carefully (in case it falls off) sideways and see empty pillow.

And suddenly all is well in the world. The sun is shining and the birds are singing fit to burst!

OH is already up, will have cleared up after the cat and will shortly arrive with tray of tea.

(And it turns out to be Wednesday and scrambled eggs for breakfast).

Friday, 24 July 2015

Maurice, by E. M. Forster

From time to time I lapse into thinking that I should be reading literature rather than books. I am mindful that there are a number of serious authors with whom I have never successfully engaged, Henry James being the most prominent example, and I went to look for Portrait of a Lady, intending to give it another go. I was sure that we had two copies on the shelf; we may have been married for more than 25 years, but it doesn’t do to rush into weeding the collection to remove duplicates, which is something I did only last summer. It looks as if I managed to get rid of both copies by mistake and a shame-faced search of the Oxfam bookshop did not reveal either of them.

So I went for E.M. Forster instead, another author that I have struggled to like. And I still struggle to like him. I found Maurice rather hard going. Given that it was not published until after the author’s death, when he was safe from criticism of the subject matter, there was little reason for him to be so coy – this is the only book I have ever read which had me thinking wistfully of D.H. Lawrence (yet another author with whom I fail to see eye-to-eye). The effusive introduction to the Penguin Classics edition – and it is a bad sign when I feel I have to read the introduction in case there is something I have missed – went on and on about how beautifully written it is. I agree that it is artfully written but that isn’t the same thing at all. It was all much too “Francesca da Rimini, niminy-piminy, je ne sais quoi” for my taste. 

I bought Howards End at about the same time as I borrowed Maurice from the library, and it is staring balefully at me from the pile of unread books on the corner of my desk.  It doesn't bode well that I was so eagerly anticipating Maurice's end; it may be a while before I engage with Forster again.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

A long way from Verona, by Jane Gardam

This was another book I sneaked in while I was simultaneously reading Ken Livingstone’s memoirs. Although a very different read, it was chosen for the same reason as Goodbye Mr. Chips, in that it is fairly short and relatively undemanding.  I have always enjoyed Jane Gardam’s books, and a longer-term project is to read her “Old Filth” trilogy again; I read the final book quite recently, but it was too long after I read the other two and I couldn’t pick up all the threads as I would have liked to do.

A long way from Verona is an early book. It is too simple to say that it treats of a schoolgirl’s life during the Second World War – that makes it sound very straightforward and a period piece, whereas it is much more penetrating – and much funnier – than that. I suppose that Jane Gardam is often thought is as a women’s writer, which is as unfair as such a label usually is, but I would be interested to hear a man’s view of the book. My schooldays came a while after those of the book’s protagonist, but some of the pleasure was in the depiction of school life, the sudden friendships and fallings-out, the pang of recognition of the stifling atmosphere of a single-sex school and the spinster teachers.

Perhaps I should be comparing it to Goodbye Mr. Chips... It is only now that I realise I had chosen two school-based books to read successively. But Jane Gardam is infinitely more to my taste than James Hilton and much more complex; it is dated in that it is set in a time that most of us do not remember, but it certainly isn't out-of-date.