Graham Stringer: apologetically formidable

The Oxford Union held a debate on the motion “This House Has No Confidence in Her Britannic Majesty’s Police Force“. It is by any measure a sensitive subject so I intend to cover four of the speeches in the debate.

I have already examined a speech by Anthony Stansfeld, and I shall be covering one by Damian Green MP both in opposition. The proposition speeches were from Graham Stringer MP and David Davis MP, and today we examine the former.

My word, but that’s a very clever opening! He immediately conveys sorrow that he finds himself on this side of the debate. He takes no satisfaction in criticizing the police force.  Also he tells us that he had expected to be debating with the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester who has failed to appear – perhaps because he is currently under criminal investigation. In the process of telling us this he has also added the ethos that he is a Member of Parliament for Manchester.

I have watched this opening several times and am convinced that he is sincere. If not this would have been not just very clever but desperately devious, because his case is virtually home and dry in less than two minutes. Nevertheless he hastens to tell us that this is not the main burden of his argument. That comes perilously close to paralipsis, and less than a minute later there’s an example that comes even closer.

Graham Stringer is a formidable debater. His apologetic demeanour camouflages great skill.

He proceeds to recount some very telling, Manchester-based, examples of appalling police negligence. He gets quite impassioned during this process, so much so that words tumble over themselves and certain sentences come out wrong. It doesn’t matter: these are Neil Armstrong moments that illustrate the strength of his feeling.

He closes with a reiteration of his sadness to be criticizing a force that contains so many fine and conscientious officers. I sense the audience with him all the way. He is good.


P.S. Stringer told us that one of his opponents had failed to show up, yet the opposition had the full complement of speakers. That possibly explains Sam Barker. Barker had puzzled me. He is young, possibly still a student, and all the signs are that he is prodigiously talented as a speaker. He has good stage presence, yet his speech, despite being quite skillfully fashioned, is pretty hollow. It has a Face, “Who do you call?”  but not much else. Could it be that he has stepped in at the last minute to fill the gap has thrown a speech together largely in his head and shot it from the hip? David Davis obviously enjoys the effort, and is right to do so.

Sam Barker: remember the name. I am sure we are going to come across it in future.

Anthony Stansfeld – gelded by paper

The Oxford Union held a debate on the motion “This House Has No Confidence in Her Majesty’s Police Force“. It is by any measure a sensitive subject so I intend to cover four of the speeches in the debate. By the way, in case there be any doubt, the Majesty in question is Her Britannic Majesty.

I shall be examining speeches by Anthony Stansfeld and Damian Green MP in opposition, and Graham Stringer MP and David Davis MP in proposition. I start with Anthony Stansfeld

What an extraordinary opening sentence! What was he trying to achieve with it? It has nothing to do with the matter in hand. Was it a clumsy attempt at ethos, waving his PC credentials at his audience through his association with a conference on Female Genital Mutilation? He could merely have told us that he was a police commissioner.

Oh dear! He’s reading, and not very well. His audience is instantly switched off to a measurable degree – listen to the onset of coughing.

At 1:05, just as the camera cuts away to David Davis looking underwhelmed, Stansfeld suddenly sounds more genuine. He is recounting, interestingly and relevantly, how he led an investigation into the Hong Kong police some years previously. We see Davis’ face turn back to him in interest, but we have to wait till the camera cuts back to Stansfeld to find that he has lifted his eyes from the script and temporarily is shooting from the hip.

That half-minute passage is infinitely stronger than what preceded it and, sadly, what follows it, because having concluded his Hong Kong story he pauses and returns tediously to his bloody script. We can’t see him but I can imagine David Davis yawning. Right there you have a really dramatic example of what I bang on about in this blog ad nauseam. Too few people know how easy it is to dispense with any paper assistance whatever forever.

If I had advised him I would have kicked the FGM reference into the long grass and opened with the Hong Kong story, which is powerful ethos; and then I’d have created with him, and stories that I would probe out of him, a structure wherein he could have shot the entire speech from the hip. That would have made a strong and compelling argument, instead of the insipid series of bromidic recycled platitudes that he reads to us here. Camera shots of the audience show them to be no more whelmed than David Davis.

What puzzles me is Stansfeld’s service background. In my experience the British armed forces are very good at getting their people to speak well. I have worked with many retired service personnel and merely had to steer them towards a more civilian- or business-friendly focus. All I can assume is that since becoming a Police Commissioner he has been infected with Civil Service politically safe blandness. In public speaking that amounts to castration.

What a pity!

John Waters: The People’s Pervert

On 30 May, 2015, John Waters delivered a Commencement Address to students at Rhode Island School of Design. I am indebted to a reader of this blog, and friend, Duncan Goldie-Scot for drawing it to my attention.

I discourage speakers from trying to get a laugh out of a hierarchical hello [hh]. This is because, by their very nature, these things nearly always crop up on heavyweight occasions. Here we have a speaker who is of the same mind. He has obviously been brought in to be as subversive as possible, yet he delivers his hh dead straight. He beams at the audience’s applause immediately the hh finishes, but he doesn’t monkey with it during the saying.

Immediately thereafter the subversion begins. He launches into an ethos the equal of which none of us is likely to have heard before or will hear again. Waters is studiously one of a kind and wants us to know it. He quotes an epithet attached to him by the press, “The Prince of Puke”. Also did you think I dreamed up that title above? It is lifted, untampered, from this speech.

There is an interesting detail, though. He concludes the ethos by quoting that People’s Pervert title, and then, “I am honoured to be here today with my people”. This is instantly greeted by whoops and applause from the students. Waters returns another beaming smile; but whereas the beam that concluded the hh was full of triumph and delight, this one is rather shy.

He launches into an account of his extraordinary career, “I wanted to be the filthiest person alive!” That pretty well sums it up. His message to the students is that they should in their work be true to themselves, however mad and artistically disruptive that might appear to the rest of the world.

The students lap it up, and presumably the school staff booked him with their eyes open, but I wonder how the students’ parents are enjoying it. I foresee family arguments wherein a need to support themselves fights against a compulsion to create things for which the world is not ready. Some of these students will earn good and secure money designing for large corporations, others may travel today’s equivalence of painting feverishly in the South of France, fighting against mental illness, cutting off an ear, dying penniless and leaving a legacy of work that will keep auction houses in a manner to which they want to be accustomed. Most will hover somewhere in between, jealous of the ones on the extremes.

That is the nature of art and the tragedy of artists. I’ve known many: even some fairly mad ones. You might expect the most outlandish, the ones that fearlessly produce stuff that seems to make no sense at all or that outrages your sensibilities, to be hard-nosed and thick-skinned. Not so. In my experience, the crazier they are the more insecure. And that takes me straight back to the shy smile that John Waters gave the warmth of the students’ welcome. He’s been hugely successful, but I see vulnerability. Perhaps it is that which helps to make this speech not just funny but so appealing.

I just wish he hadn’t thought he had to read it. Also, if you are going to say “Prince of Puke” and People’s Pervert” you need to learn how not to pop the microphone.

Warwick Davis: a throwaway master

Oxford Union recently hosted actor Warwick Davis. He spoke about himself and his career for half an hour, and then there were questions.

A regular reader might by this time be a little alarmed, because very recently – when we examined Stephen Fry being asked to do a similar thing – I declared what a difficult and mine-infested task this usually is. I was slightly less frightened here than I was for Fry, because Davis has an obvious theme – his diminutive stature. The biggest difficulty for most celebrities is in finding such a theme, because without it they are left with merely boring everyone with what a warm and wonderful person they are. Nevertheless, obvious theme or no, this is still not an easy thing to do. Let us see how Warwick Davis managed.

He calms me immediately by throwing away a couple of one-liners on the subject of how small he is. No one will doubt that he’s used these before, but who cares? It’s all good audience-relaxing stuff, and the most effective way to relax yourself as a speaker is to relax your audience.

Davis goes on to show that he is a master at throwaway humour. He never begs laughs, which is why he consistently gets them. After a very short opening he launches into the story of his life, beginning at the beginning with his birth. Predictably – and who would quarrel with it? – his shortness continues to provide a very funny theme.

There is never a shred of self-pity, nor does he ever imply the cliché that he is the laughing clown hiding a broken heart. Any shortcomings [I spotted the pun too late, but enjoyed it enough to leave it] about his size are thrown away as effectively as his humour; in fact he enjoys telling us that he had a very happy childhood. With his schooldays he is hilarious about how abysmal he was at all sports, and there is a wonderful episode about his efforts at woodwork.

When he was eleven his grandmother heard on the radio how the producers of the Star Wars movies were looking to cast short people; and that was how little Warwick became an Ewok. His life changed pretty fundamentally from then on.

Chronology – particularly when it’s your own life-story – makes for a very easy structure, and of course Davis uses no paper. He shoots the whole thing from the hip, his eyes constantly on his audience, constantly engaging them. When the camera gives us a chance to look at the audience, we see in the nature of some of the smiles and the sparkling of eyes that he is not just funny: he is a sex god. Actually, early on, he trots out a minuscule, macho one-liner that you will have to be nimble to catch because he throws it away with lightning speed.

We have learnt that he has been around movie actors since childhood. Actors make for a tricky audience if you ever try to be funny socially, so he has had plenty of time to hone his raconteur skills. Also he now presents on TV, including a quiz show, which sharpens up the repartee. His timing is stunning.

The speech is a little bit of a sandwich. The narrative thread is very strong up to and including his joining the Star Wars cast. In the middle the thread weakens slightly with a stream of stories of his time in movies, even though some of them are still very funny. It’s quite difficult to imagine how it could be otherwise, as these episodes are inevitably disjointed. But he’s enough of a pro to know the value of a strong ending.

He checks that he has enough time, and then moves into a closing about how Political Correctness, and the current offence industry, makes it more difficult for strangers to relate to him honestly. Though this has a serious undercurrent, his treatment of it is still funny, and it brings him to a very good finish.

I’ve never met an actor who didn’t think he was brilliant at public speaking, and I’ve met precious few who actually were. I still say it’s wildly difficult to make a speech about yourself, but Warwick Davis managed it wonderfully. I take my Rhetaur hat off to him because, having examined and admired the speech, I’m now – if you’ll excuse me – going to listen to the questions and his answers.

Redmond O’Hanlon: still crazy after all these years

There is a quotation attributed to Danny Kaye –

Life is a great big canvas, and you should throw all the paint on it you can.

I had a school friend. In fact we were together at two consecutive schools. That means we spent the best part of a decade being educated at the same establishments. On balance I’d say he was marginally less naughty than I, though it was a close thing. In half a century since then I have periodically caught sight of his distinguished career as a naturalist, explorer and author, throwing more paint on his canvas than would be good for most people’s health. He is Redmond O’Hanlon, and having one day online caught sight of a video of his making a speech, I had to go and look.

For heaven’s sake! Whoever posted this video could have chosen a better still picture.

The absence of ethos tells me that either he has been introduced or that he is so well known to this audience that introduction and/or ethos is redundant. The easy-going opening, together with his casual garb, rather reinforces the opinion. A warm decorum is established: he and his audience are comfortable with each other. If I am wrong and he was previously unknown to these people, I doff my cap. Nothing can relax an audience more quickly or thoroughly than a speaker treating them like old friends. The tactic is not speaker-proof: unseemly over-familiarity can be counter-productive. O’Hanlon has got it right.

There follows a stream of fascinating and delightful anecdotage.

It is idle and wrong to assume that if you have been to interesting places and seen interesting things and had interesting experiences then anecdotage just falls into place. To be a raconteur requires real skill.

You have to play to your strength. Peter Ustinov, for instance, was a superb mimic and used that ability to make his stories sparkle. O’Hanlon has written several successful books recounting his travels, so he is practised at painting word-pictures to make his stories come alive. Nevertheless, as we have observed very many times in this blog, writing is not the same as speaking and being good at the one does not automatically make you good at the other.

O’Hanlon has one particular quality on his side: he is prepared to make a fool  of himself. He waves his hands around, he makes silly noises, and the audience enjoys it. But still, lest any reader thinks that I’ve revealed a golden secret, that tactic is not speaker-proof either. I don’t know whether he had to die a few times before he got it right, or whether it was always a natural ability, but he’s got it right now. This is a lovely piece of speaking and great fun to watch.

Speaking personally I am delighted to find that age has not wearied him nor the years condemned. More importantly, he remains as charmingly bonkers as I remember. That is (you might say) satisfactory.

Shmuley Boteach persuades with powerful histrionics.

The Oxford Union held a debate on the motion:  This House Believes Hamas is a Greater Obstacle to Peace Than Israel. Shmuley Boteach spoke on the proposition.

Rabbi Boteach puts in a ten second pause at the beginning. An opening pause is very powerful. Counter-intuitively it actually gets the audience’s attention and is a good reducer of nerves. Ten seconds is huge, and I think it works for him.

An overt gag at the very front of a speech is not a good idea. As soon as the audience become aware that this is a gag, there is pressure on them to laugh – which paradoxically makes it less likely that they will do so. It’s a good gag, well told, and deserves a bigger laugh, but now you know why it doesn’t get it. It would work better a little later in the speech, but it would have less point then: its point now is the injection of poison into the Middle East. Boteach’s skill as a speaker is already abundantly clear, so I have no doubt that he had a debate with himself along the lines of the early part of this paragraph. He knows all that stuff and simply made a policy decision.

Halfway through his second minute he launches an extended symploce on the words “as if you […] bad people”. No sooner has that run its course than he is into anaphora – “if a Jew did that…”. Does he know these obscure terms? I have no idea, but as I made clear in this posting it’s not necessary to know the words to deploy the figures of speech..

He delivers with histrionic fervour. This is theatre! He doesn’t have quite the operatic tone of Cornel West, but being less distracting he is probably more persuasive. He is phenomenally persuasive

Please do not infer that I think this performance is just artifice. There is no doubt in my mind that Boteach means every word from the depths of his soul.

And as a speaker he is outstanding.

Daniel Hannan inspires at Runnymede

Brian the Rhetaur:

This month, June 2015, sees the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta. Here we have a chance to revisit my critique of a speech Daniel Hannan made at Runnymede. Also you should go here to watch a new video he has made at and about Runnymede

Originally posted on Rhetauracle:

[Having twice before covered speeches by Daniel Hannan, here and here, I have felt reluctant to return to him too often. Meanwhile I have been sitting agonising over two recent speeches, wondering which to include in this blog. I can’t decide between them, so I shall critique both in consecutive postings…]

On Friday 13 September, 2013, The Freedom Association hosted a lecture at Runnymede entitled

Magna Carta: the Secular Miracle of the English Speaking Peoples.

It was delivered by Daniel Hannan; and my being currently about halfway through his excellent book How we invented freedom & why it matters I have to say that choosing him for this lecture was not merely inspired but downright inevitable. Not only is he a magnificent speaker, not only has he studied Magna Carta’s historical significance in considerable depth but there was no danger whatever of his breaking the first Cardinal…

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