Katy Clark, a study in neglect

In November 2013 The Oxford Union held a debate on the motion, “This House Believes Socialism Will Not Work”. A couple of weeks ago we looked at a speech by Dan Hannan in proposition to the motion. Today let us see what Katy Clark, a Labour member of the British Parliament, had to say in opposition to the motion.

The short answer is that she said almost nothing, but took nearly ten minutes to do so; and what is particularly telling about that is that she opened with a claim that she has spent a great deal of her time considering what socialism is. I have no doubt at all that this is true, but she neglected to pass on any of her deliberations here. I find it difficult to find evidence of any preparation at all for this speech. The nearest she came to any substance (and it wasn’t near enough) was in reply to her opponents.

One of them had apparently spoken of Jamaica, and as she had lived there for a time she took the cue to tell us something about what she saw as the socialist struggle there. Except she didn’t. She listed a catalogue of reforms that were apparently attempted, but allegedly thwarted by the CIA. Matters got so serious that she and her family had had to leave. You would have thought that there was a story there, and there undoubtedly is, but she failed to tell it. All we got was a list of assertions, skimming across the surface like a pebble, no evidence, no statistics, no illustrations, no narrative, no substantiation.

That was one of the stronger passages.

I kid you not. Having done with Jamaica she reverts to her principle theme which essentially is that of voicing in dozens of different ways, “things can be done better”. 

John Redwood, from the opposing side, rises to his feet to interject a point. Instantly she is galvanised into what passes for action. She picks up a piece of paper and proceeds to list historical people and events that she claims represent the socialist struggle down the ages – such as The Levellers, The Chartists, The Tolpuddle Martyrs, etc. Again, the list is merely a list. Could she not find a moment to explain why any of them supported her case? Apparently not. [In the case of The Levellers, my memory is that Messrs Thompson, Perkins, and Church were holding out for things like the sanctity of private property – which may explain why Clark was not prepared to enlarge on them.]

That was the other stronger passage.

After it, she returned to more substance-free variations on the theme of “things can be done better”.

Members of parliament are busy people, not just in The House but in their constituencies. On her website is the legend, “working hard for North Ayrshire and Arran”, and I’m sure that’s true. Perhaps she did not have enough time to spend on preparation for this speech, or did not make enough time believing that she could motor-mouth well enough to busk it. There’d be some justification in that: she can motor-mouth, and the audience lapped her up. But knowing that you are speaking safe, dog-whistle platitudes to an Amen-Corner does not justify this level of neglect. I felt she did herself no favours.

On a slightly different point, she would do herself a big favour if she lowered the default home for her hands by about an inch. Holding them so high under her bust is unbecoming.

Why I like Prof Deepak Malhotra

On 23 April 2012, Prof. Deepak Malhotra delivered this talk to graduating MBA students at Harvard Business School.

I like this guy!

I like what he says and how he says it. Even if I didn’t agree with him I would like how he says it. He conveys just the right amount of conviction and authority without overflowing into dogma, and he achieves that with a judicious addition of sincere warmth. He is talking to the students about happiness, and begins by pointing out that even though they are at the very pinnacle of human privilege there’s a strong danger that they won’t proceed to be any happier than – say – underprivileged folk in starving and dangerous parts of the world. And he does that without launching a guilt trip.

He talks about the value of quitting a job, maybe being prepared to quit often. How are we supposed to know what occupation suits us till we try it? I find myself remembering a conversation I had with someone when in my twenties. My having listed the many occupations I had so far tried he drily asked me what I was going to do next. I eventually happened upon what was for me the best job in the world – but more of that later.

I’m a words person, and so is he. (I rather like the chance coincidence that this speech was delivered on the traditionally observed birthday of William Shakespeare.) His title for this talk is “Tragedy & Genius”, but he has gone back to etymological purity for both those words – I enjoy the obvious relish with which he explains them. He also uses the word, “Delta” unusually. Delta means different things to a classicist or a cartographer; but it means something else again to a mathematician, and here he uses it in this last sense. MBA students will certainly have studied profit margins, so he doesn’t bother to explain this meaning to them.

I like his blunt and assertive epistrophe on the word “genius” at 8:37. I like the anadiplosis with the word “conflict” at 21:05. Because he’s a words man I suspect he knows those terms, but both are deployed without a shadow of self-consciousness – in fact, probably unconsciously.

He is using slides. You can tell by the remote control in his hand; otherwise we would hardly know. Only a couple of times the camera zooms back enough for us to have a glimpse of what’s on the screen. And it doesn’t matter: we don’t need them! His structure is so clear and strong, his narrative thread so distinct, that for us the talk holds up easily with invisible visuals. Needless to say he needs no script, no notes, no signposts from the slides.

At 42:05 he invites questions without yet having closed the speech. My heart leaps! My trainees, or readers of The Face & Tripod, will know this is an obsession of mine. Put your Q&A at the end of the main body of the speech but before your closing – the book explains why. Speakers who do that are as rare as hens’ teeth, but he’s one of them.

I find it reassuring when I find this much mature wisdom in people the same age as my sons. It means there’s a chance – though I can’t judge them dispassionately – that they have it too. Also this speech causes me to examine closely my own feelings with regard to my work. What I find is the indescribable elation I feel when leaving at the end of a course; and I’ve stripped from someone the fear, inhibition, and a whole heap of other baggage that previously was holding them back. I shall never retire: I have the best job in the world.

I like that guy!

Douglas Murray is formidable.

It is brought home to you how international and friendly the Internet is when a reader from overseas is kind enough to write to you with links to speeches that she thinks would be worth examining in your blog. She recommended two speakers: both are countrymen of mine, both are men whose writing I have read and whom I have seen being interviewed; but I had previously heard neither speak. With sincere thanks to Chun Chan from the USA, today we shall be looking at a contribution made by Douglas Murray to a Cambridge Union debate on the subject of Israel and a nuclear Iran. I selected this having watched speeches from three links that Chun sent me, so already I know that Murray is no less assertive on his feet than he is on the page. He doesn’t take prisoners.

Murray is speaking against the desirability of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, and begins with irony, upholding his opponents as distinguished men in their field who demonstrate why Britain is a second-, currently slipping to a third-, rate power. The only one he names is Sir Richard Dalton who, having been British Ambassador to Iran, is packing some serious ethos. Murray shows himself to be unimpressed.

He cleverly uses references to Sir Richard’s speech to introduce an examination of Iran’s supposed intentions, dividing his focus two ways – what they say and what they do. This neat little bipartite section is very clearly signposted and delivered.

One of the items on his list of “what they do” concerns the rape of students. It emerges that one of the earlier speakers had referred to “mass-rape”, and Sir Richard had objected to the term. Murray indulges himself by witheringly speculating on the Diplomatic Service’s level of toleration of rape, and what sort of numbers constitute “mass” in its lexicon.

He is also pretty dismissive of the premise on which the debate is being conducted. He points out that whatever view is expressed by this house – or even by Britain itself – will make no difference. [This debate was back in 2011 and, as we know, there has recently been an international agreement made with Iran. The agreement is variously heralded as a diplomatic triumph or condemned as a spineless and catastrophic climb-down. Time alone will decide the correct description.]

Murray turns to Israel. His tone doesn’t change: neither his volume nor his pitch rise. But you sense a growing intensity. The audience likewise senses it, and goes very quiet.

While trying (largely unsuccessfully) to find some background to this debate I learned that though this speech had previously passed me by it had been described in some circles as ‘having gone viral’. If this is the case, you may have seen it before. Just in case you haven’t, I shall not spoil any more but leave you to watch it. He is formidable.

Nevertheless I have one thing to add. I personally have been told, by some who are definitely in a position to know, that the people of Iran are the nicest, kindest, most generous and welcoming people imaginable. It is their wretched theocratic dictatorship that is the problem. Listen to Murray to the very end and I am pleased to tell you that you will hear this point fleetingly yet firmly made.

Michio Kaku should be himself

Queensborough Community College CUNY, in their Presidential Lecture series, hosted in October 2009 a talk by Dr Michio Kaku entitled The World in 2030. There was a long subtitle which you will see at the beginning of the video but, given that Dr Kaku is a high-profile theoretical physicist and has fronted TV documentaries on the subject, I think we can see where this talk is going.

Kaku begins speaking at 5.34 after an introduction from Eduardo J. Marti. I am a little concerned with the noisiness of the audience. I hope it is going to settle down.

His opening is not original: it is not even the first time we’ve heard it on this blog. Christopher Monckton used it. I’m not complaining though: it’s a nice gag.

I think I do complain at what he says at 6:18. If I may paraphrase slightly he says, “I’m a physicist: we invented the laser”. It’s an implied false syllogism. It’s the equivalent of my saying, “I’m a rhetor: we taught Cicero how to make speeches”. We know that Dr Kako is brilliant in his field, but being phenomenally knowledgeable in one subject doesn’t necessarily mean that you are smarter than any reasonably well-read Joe in others. I feel we are being led towards that assumption here. It’s called sciolism and it makes me uneasy

Let us though turn to his forecasts for 2030, not forgetting that projections like this have a disastrous failure rate. As Niels Bohr observed,

Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.

Kaku tells us what the scientific leading edge is close to being capable of making, and then makes a leap of faith to assume that the market will want it. The market has always been more fickle than that. Very many years ago I was told a story that may be apocryphal. It concerns tomato soup. As we know, tomato soup is warm and thick and red and satisfying but doesn’t taste of tomatoes. A big manufacturer of food products developed a tomato soup that did taste of tomatoes and then tested it with consumer panels. They gave it the thumbs down. They agreed that this new product tasted of tomatoes, but it didn’t taste like tomato soup. Leading edges can easily become bleeding edges.

Such future projections then should not be taken too seriously. To be fair, Kaku treats the subject light-heartedly, but amusing diversions have legs for ten minutes at best. He pushes this for three quarters of an hour, and I don’t think it holds up.

One problem is his delivery. It is slick and professional; but it is distinctly a performance. The Holy Grail of holding your audience’s attention is to make each person there believe that you are speaking personally to them. Like the real Holy Grail it may be an unattainable goal, but it should be your target. One way of getting closer to that target is to speak in a tone that could be perceived as one you would use when speaking to your family. I don’t think he speaks to his wife and children like that. This is Speech Mode which is like a costume a speaker dons, and which causes an invisible screen to separate him from his audience. He should dare to be himself.

He closes with a joke about Einstein and his chauffeur. It rather reflects what I have been saying. If Kaku had a chauffeur who had heard this speech often enough, that chauffeur could deliver it for him. All he’d need to do is don the costume.

Eben Alexander met God

In November 2013 Westminster Town Hall Forum in Minneapolis presented a talk by Eben Alexander. He called it The Nature of Consciousness. Five years earlier almost to the day Alexander, an eminent neurosurgeon, contracted an intensely vicious variety of meningitis which put him into a coma for a week. His doctors gave him less than 2% chance of surviving, and even if he did survive he was sure to be a helpless invalid. They even gave up on the antibiotics, and at that point he began to pull back.

During that coma he had a Near Death Experience which he later recounted in his book, Proof of Heaven. He is now returned to complete health. As an eager seeker-after-truth, I read the book last year. I also read a review which scornfully dismissed the word ‘proof’. The reviewer was probably a mathematician; he certainly wasn’t a rhetorician. In rhetoric ‘proof’ means merely an offering of evidence. Alexander, as befits a neurosurgeon, offers a great deal of evidence along with a range of scientific arguments and suggested explanations.

If asked whether he convinced me, I would heroically retreat behind the mantra that Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev gives the seeker-after-truth. I do not know. I am sure that he himself is sincerely convinced; and he gave me quite enough food for thought to make me interested to hear him speak.

That still picture is not Eben Alexander but Tim Hart-Anderson who introduced him. Alexander begins at 2:00 and ends at 32:00. The rest is essentially questions. Gold star for precision of timing!

Till I saw this speech I had only the account in his book as evidence for his return to health. Now I can confirm that he looks pretty damn chipper!

For a minute I detect quite severe hump symptoms, so I am pleased when he asks the audience for a show of hands from anyone who has not read his book. Little devices like that are very good hump-busters, and I rather suspect this is there for that and no other reason. He doesn’t appear to do much with the information.

Once into his flow he is good. He is relaxed, fluent, personable, audible, and he shoots almost entirely from the hip. 

Nevertheless, if he consulted me, I should like to do some work on his material. There are some very good bits and a few rather loose bits. The overall message is strong and, I was pleased to find, devoid of airy-fairy mumbo-jumbo; but principally it’s the overall shape that I feel needs pulling about for added coherence.

There’s an excellent hanging thread at 6:00, but a curiously messy section when at 7:55 he refers back to “those three erroneous thoughts…” I had to replay the previous half minute twice before I began to see what he was getting at, and even then had to play it a couple of times more before I could find three distinct thoughts in the jumble of words. It merely needs a tightening up of the words, and perhaps enumerating with fingers, but that section needs something.

He says that he has not time to recount in detail his actual near death experience, but clearly he has to say something about it. At 11:30 he reaches the part where he became “a speck of awareness on a butterfly wing”. Only two paragraphs ago I absolved him of airy-fairy mumbo-jumbo, and now that phrase…? I can only excuse him and me by stressing that it is something in the matter of fact way he recounts it both here and in the book that makes it not seem at the time like airy-fairy mumbo-jumbo. Nevertheless he makes the point very strongly in the book that the experience he had was more real than reality yet so blindingly bizarre that words become inadequate. He met God, though he dislikes using the word. (If you think this is all getting a little crazy, I have to tell you that it seems to make perfect matter-of-fact sense in the book and to a lesser extent in this speech.) For two or three minutes, at any rate, the speech does become less coherent and the remedy would not be easy to find.

Explanations for his experience are absurdly easy to conceive, but as a brain surgeon he is very well placed to counter them. In his book he swats them like mosquitoes, but seems to sense that this audience does not need that. Back to his speech …

It hardens up immeasurably when he quotes two distinguished men of science, Sir James Jeans and more particularly Wilder Penfield. The latter having conducted thousands of neurological experiments over very many years had firmly concluded that –

The mind is not in the brain.

In my opinion that sentence would have made a far stronger title (Face) for the speech than the rather mundane and prosaic The Nature of Consciousness. It is so provocative! It provokes an inevitable and deafening question. Where the […] is it then?

I do not know.

Daniel Hannan eviscerates socialism at Oxford

As in my previous posting I said I would, I return immediately to Daniel Hannan for the second of a pair of speeches that he delivered in 2013. This was in November in a debate at the Oxford Union in support of the motion, This House Believes Socialism Will Not Work.

When delivering the speech at Runnymede for my previous posting he was among like-minded friends, probably exclusively so. This time, if not in the lions’ den, he certainly was going to have to work hard to sway them to his point of view.

A brave opening! He points out that Hitler called himself a socialist, then immediately pre-empts Godwin’s Law accusations by himself citing Godwin. He could have chosen to remind the audience that Oswald Mosley was a Labour Minister, but the Hitler example was undoubtedly the stronger. He describes the opening as ‘high-stake’ and so it is.

Just as with the Runnymede speech, the material that he shoots from the hip is flawlessly constructed to carry his narrative, illustrate and exemplify his points, pour in a wealth of supporting data; and it ends in a blood-quickening peroration that concludes with words from Milton. We expect no less of Hannan.

I shall not dwell on the delivery flaw I highlighted in the other speech, but even with the added energy that he is using to drive today’s message you will spot that the flaw is still there (at 4:05 that word is “commissars”). This proves that it is caused not by lack of application but by slightly misapplied application.

Apart from my merely enjoying his speaking, therefore, what is my reason for presenting him twice in two postings? There occur in this speech examples of an important lesson for any speaker, particularly one speaking in a hostile environment. Hannan is interrupted a few times.

There is one golden rule when dealing with any member of the audience who raises his head above the parapet and speaks. Maintain courtesy at all costs. You may have read, heard, or witnessed examples of comedians who have destroyed hecklers with ruthless put-downs and found the prospect of imitating them hugely exciting; but you are not a comedian and (more importantly) even if you are, this is not a comedian’s audience.

Heckling is not very common nowadays; but the courtesy rule applies just as much to your dealings with the idiot who tries to use your Q&A as his soap-box. Audiences are not stupid, and will quickly cotton-on to someone being a pillock. They will be wholly on your side right up to the moment that you tell that pillock he’s a pillock; and then they will immediately change sides. Even if they have started yelling at him to sit down, or slow-hand-clapping him, do not let your courtesy slip or you will lose your audience. By all means remind him of the importance of sticking to the matter in hand, or any other such remonstration, but do so courteously. Let others take whatever steps are required ultimately to shut him up.

By the way Hannan’s interrupters do not have microphones, so – though one of them goes on a bit – I cannot tell if they are being pillocks; but I can tell that he maintains his courtesy.

And there is another little kindred lesson to be learned from this speech, and one that has nothing to do with the speaker. If you are in a debate, or panel discussion, or any such adversarial environment, you maintain apparent strength not only through courtesy but through remaining impassive. Discipline yourself to keep your powder dry: exhibit nothing other than rapt attention while others are speaking. If you doubt me, watch closely the next TV debate you see. If anyone while others are speaking is shaking their head, looking incredulous or indulging in any form of face-pulling, you will see they are weakening themselves. Robert Griffiths, one of the opposition speakers, does himself no favours with that mocking laughter at 6:20.

I may return to this debate in due course to look at other speakers; but for a while this blog will remain a Hannan-free zone. Unless, of course, another important lesson emerges…

Daniel Hannan inspires at Runnymede

[I posted this in January 2014.  This month, June 2015,  sees the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta at Runnymede, so this seems an appropriate time to revisit the speech. Also you should see a new video Hannan has made at Runnymede.]

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 Rule in my book, The Face & Tripod. He was never going to limit himself to speaking about Magna Carta: he was always going to drive an impassioned message on the subject.

I don’t expect regular readers of this blog to expect me to do much here except use up my year’s supply of superlatives before 2014 is a week old. Indeed this is a copy-book example of speech-making. Unless you happen to be a student of speaking you could well stop here and just enjoy a fabulous lecture. Nevertheless if Hannan were consulting me there is one facet of his delivery on which I should dearly like to work.

He is speaking in the open air (never easy), competing with the sound of falling rain and periodic passing aeroplanes, and I am certain he is not amplified. He has a microphone clipped to his tie but I believe that to be only to supply a clean audio feed for this video. This means we are hearing him from a range of about eight inches. His audience is rather further away than that, and it is the way he is projecting that persuades me that there is no PA system. It is a very tough test of vocal delivery. Can you spot what he is doing wrong?

His vocal projection is that of the super-conscientious. His enunciation is excellent without suffering from death-by-consonants. So what’s my beef?

He commits disproportionate syllable stress. If you have a look at this posting (and I hope you do) you will see where I have discussed it before and save me having to repeat myself too much, except that here I have a recording for illustration. Before I begin citing illustrative examples, though, I invite you to look briefly at 11:29 in the video. There you get an idea of the distance of his audience. Remember, you and I are hearing him from only 8 inches away so you need to imagine how much of what we hear will have been dissipated on the way to his audience.

Here is a far-from-comprehensive list of syllables (and sometimes whole words or even phrases) that are faint, or in some cases almost inaudible. Unless otherwise stated, they are at the ends of the words or phrases. 4:12 “victory”; 5:88 “Englishmen”; 7:30 “foundation of modern freedom” (almost all of that was lost); 8:40 “not the king’s law”; 11:05 “as it were” (I had to replay that to check on what he said); 18:40 “authoritarianism” (I think).

Just as with Bill Stuart-White in that posting of mine in August, this flaw comes not from laziness but from a laudable desire to be expressive. There are occasions when Hannan deliberately goes very quiet for reasons of drama, and I have no quarrel with that – though I urge him to turn up the sibilance when he does – but he still needs to make every syllable heard. It’s something I discuss at length (along with my own journey down this very same path!) in my little booklet, Every Word Heard.

I have devoted five paragraphs to picking nits off nits. I wouldn’t have bothered, except Daniel Hannan is about as good as they get. When you have worked hard enough to get that close to excellence, people like me owe you the homage of showing you how close you are.

William Hague reads to the CBI

William Hague, British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, gave an after-dinner speech to the CBI at Grosvenor House, London, in May 2012.

One of my first posts on this blog concerned a speech he had made at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. I was underwhelmed by it, because he had been merely a talking head for a dreary FCO Press Release. Sadly, although I have given a link for you to see that critique, I shall be deleting it very soon. The video is no longer available on YouTube – perhaps the FCO were mortally stung by my comments.

Hague is one of the finest speakers around, and I should dearly love to post a critique of him in glorious full flight. Shall we see whether he did justice to himself at this dinner?

For nearly three minutes at the very beginning we are treated to his outstanding speaking ability. He settles and primes the audience, firstly thanking the previous speaker – not with hollow platitudes but with specific references to what he said – then moving seamlessly into reminiscent anecdotes about Boris Johnson. It is masterly. He does it with brilliantly judged humour that is suitably self-deprecating and superbly timed; but the real proof of the pudding is in the effect on the audience. He has them hooting with laughter which, this early in the proceedings, is notoriously difficult. You need to be as good as a stand-up comedian to do that, and he is. And of course all this is shot from the hip.

Again seamlessly, and starting from around 2:45, he gently moves us from that stunning opening to what he is here for. His eyes gradually go down to the script his Civil Servants have prepared and by 3:30 he is firmly on the political message. The transition is interesting, because little flashes of the real man continue to peep out before being suppressed below the persona of the Statesman.

Whether it is because of a residual legacy of that brilliant opening, or because he had more personal control over the content of this speech I don’t know; but even when the transition is complete and he is merely reading the script he is a little more animated than he was in that dreadful previous one on this blog. Nevertheless I feel my interest levels dropping steadily. He is reading to the CBI, and it might as well be a bed-time story.

William Hague being required to read a speech is like Frankel being harnessed to a milk-float. He’ll make the delivery process more exciting, but the product will be just as bland.