Andrew Roberts: masterly

At the end of June 2012, United States Army War College posted on YouTube a video of a lecture by British historian, Dr Andrew Roberts. I think we can assume the lecture took place at very much the same time. The lecture was entitled Why Hitler Lost the War.

Before even clicking to start the video I believe I spot something in the image below that emphasises to me Andrew Roberts’ Englishness. I think he’s wearing a Free Forester tie. Free Foresters is the name of a distinguished English Cricket Club.

Before we address the rhetor stuff let’s get one important thing out of the way. This talk is absolutely fascinating, and I wholeheartedly commend it. It makes me want to read The Storm of War, his book on which some of this talk is based.

Roberts has manifestly researched the subject to within an inch of its life, and has such a comprehensive command of it that he’s easily able to shoot the lecture from the hip. This man is a very fine speaker, and regular readers of this blog will know what therefore comes next. I am going to get super-picky – when they’re this good I always do.

Referring again to that still image of the video you will see that he has pointedly come out from behind the lectern, and placed a tiny piece of paper on its corner. That piece of paper is the target of my pickiness. It is his crib sheet.

I know what’s on it: a series of signpost words or phrases that indicate the path he wants the lecture to take. So far, no problem; I don’t so much mind its existence, but what it causes.

Very soon I can predict each time he is about to glance at it, because the smooth flow of the narrative has begun to fragment. He glances and moves on, but the fragmentation is still there for a sentence or two till he is back in his rhythm. This a sure sign that the speech is modular, a compilation of tried-and-tested modules.

Again I have no quarrel with that, modular structures work very well, but time and trouble has to be spent in building and refining bridges between the modules in order to smooth over the joins, maintain the narrative thread, and obviate the need for a crib sheet. If I were advising him I would concede that bridges can fail, particularly when adrenaline has a nasty habit of robbing you of some of your capacity to think on your feet, so his crib sheet might still be desirable. Nevertheless I’d suggest that he put it in his jacket pocket. Its very presence would reassure him, suppress the adrenaline, and make it redundant.

And there is another more prosaic problem with his crib sheet. On two or three occasions during the talk he produces The Storm of War, in order to read out where he has quoted things others have written. (In passing, this is one of the short list of circumstances where reading during a speech is not only acceptable but commendable.) When he does so he shows us that he needs reading spectacles (don’t we all). But understandably he doesn’t bother to use his glasses to glance at his crib sheet, and that could be causing each glance to be slightly more problematic. That crib sheet needs to be made redundant.

I told you I was going to get super-picky; but I now have a final bouquet to bestow. His finish, his final sentence, is masterly.

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