Harold Pinter (1930 – 2008)

In 2005 the late playwright, Harold Pinter, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Being too ill with oesophageal cancer to make the journey to the awards ceremony in Stockholm, and in lieu of the acceptance speech that would involve, he recorded the following piece to camera.

The title of his address is Art, Truth & Politics.

It doesn’t surprise me that he is using autocue. This was fourteen years ago, when speaking without notes was even more of a rarity that it is now.  It surprises me even less after he has explained how he writes. No one to whom producing words is so exacting and painful willingly speaks spontaneously.

For example at 02:10 he begins an epistrophe of such weight as to be tinged with purple. Passages like that are never spontaneous.

It isn’t unusual for authors to protest that their invented characters develop minds of their own, but Pinter takes this claim much further. He tells us almost that his creations invade his consciousness unbidden, and I fight the urge to write him off as pretentious beyond sufferance. I am stayed by the memory of a friend, a BBC drama director, assuring me almost 50 years ago that posterity would celebrate Pinter as the finest dramatist of his age. Today, though he undoubtedly still has his admirers, Pinter productions don’t exactly abound; nevertheless there should be plenty of posterity still to come.

The opening segment, with Art occupying centre stage, always has Truth flitting around the edges as a bit player but he brings Truth in general – and Truth in Politics in particular – to the fore at 09:45, segueing from The Birthday Party to Abu Ghraib

Thus begins a furious half-hour diatribe against George W Bush and US aggression, with Tony Blair and Britain cast as the obedient poodle. He is angry!

Eventually, at 43:15 he returns to the matter for which he earned his Nobel Prize – his literature. He recites his own poem, Death.

Requiescat in pace

Obianuju Ekeocha: what a privilege!

The National March for Life is an annual event in Canada, taking place in the nation’s capital of Ottawa. It is joined by thousands, and some of them attend the Rose Dinner that accompanies it.

In 2016 the March and the Dinner took place on Thursday 12 May, and the Keynote speaker was Obianuju Ekeocha.

In this speech, including its delivery – especially the delivery – there is nothing I can fault, though I will make a suggestion in due course.

The construction of the arguments is blindingly good. The narrative thread leads inexorably towards a single sentence which is introduced shortly before the end, but is then repeated and repeated till there is not the slightest doubt that it is the FACE of the speech.

Stop the killing

Yet the narrative doesn’t travel in a straight line. It meanders slightly and, in the process, highlights and scoops up secondary messages to become key to her primary message. There is an excellent example when she talks of the Rwanda massacre. Beginning at 13:16 she recounts how the victims were widely described as cockroaches. When you dehumanise people it is easier to kill them. That thread is left hanging till she reclaims it with huge impact much later.

Tempted though I am to offer more of the legion of such examples, it’s better that you should simply absorb the brilliance of his speech for yourself. There is so much to learn from it.

Likewise her delivery is stupendously good. Her pace, her timing, her phrasing, her instinct for speaking with her audience rather than to them, are as skilled as I’ve seen anywhere.

I am not altogether surprised. I do more of my distance coaching with people in sub-Saharan Africa than anywhere else in the world, and the talent I find from there is world-beating. I have long held the view that the key to Africa’s development is for the west to get the hell out of their way. The road to Africa’s hell is paved with the west’s good intentions. Ok it’s more complicated than that, but not much.

As to this speech I have just one suggestion, and any trainee of mine will already have spotted it.

She begins with a thank-fest and I don’t think she should, because she shows hump symptoms for the first minute or two. A thank-fest is important, laudable, desirable, necessary, all those things of course; but there is no divine edict that says you should open by thanking people, and a host of reasons for not doing so. I won’t bore you with them here: you’ll just have to take my word for it.

The thank-fest is like the titles and opening credits to a film. They usually appear at the opening, but not always. With some films there is an episode that precedes the credits. If Uju (I understand that to be her nickname) had started without any preamble by going straight into the significance of the music that had accompanied her approach to the lectern, broken off at an appropriate place after about two minutes, swung into her thank-fest including her greeting to the various dignitaries, and then returned to talking about the music I think she would have been far more comfortable, and therefore audience-engaging, for the opening five minutes. There are many reasons, but there isn’t room here.

I could easily try to suggest actual precise places to situate the thank-fest, and ways to drop into and out of it, but what’s the point? She has dramatically shown that her own instincts would make judgements at least as good as mine.

I feel privileged to have watched that.

Tucker Carlson: Ship of Fools

Trump and Brexit, Brexit and Trump, it is almost spooky how these two polarising disruptions have shadowed each other on either side of the Atlantic. Feelings on both run frighteningly high, and for me it has meant that speeches delivered about one of them almost always have had resonances towards the other.

Tucker Carlson, Fox News talk-show host, has published a book called Ship of Fools which attempts to answer why USA unexpectedly elected Donald Trump. I haven’t yet got around to reading it, though I want to. Here he is, promoting the book at a talk hosted by the Independent Institute in Alameda, California, in October 2018.

The introduction by David J. Theroux, President of the Institute, raises reactions from the audience that leave us in no doubt that Carlson will be addressing a friendly audience. That is worth noting because California’s political climate has moved so overwhelmingly left that these people almost qualify as a persecuted minority. Carlson comes to the microphone at 05:40, the speech finishes at 36:06, and the Q&A that follows is worth watching also.

He is very skilled, very audience friendly, qualities that are not necessarily a ‘given’ with a TV personality. He comes across as relaxed, friendly, funny, and shoots the speech from the hip.

But the skill doesn’t end there, he neatly melds his warm greeting of the audience with reminiscences of growing up in California (he now lives in Washington DC). He throws in references to places, using their local nicknames. In the process he piles up good ethos, leaving them feeling that this famous man who comes into their homes everyday via the TV is definitely one of them. All his humour, and there’s lots of it, is thrown away – even to the extent of his appearing to try to suppress laughs and thereby actually stoke them. I don’t want to paint him cynical because though he’s good he has me convinced he’s sincere.

The narrative is brilliant, he sweeps you along.

As for the transatlantic parallels concerning the way our countries have been moving, I invite my fellow brits to listen to his summary of US education at 17:17, and cast their minds back a couple of weeks to the school pupils’ “strike”. I put that in quotes because of the number of teachers that seemed to be leading the march through London, and seemed quite comfortable with the appalling things being chanted.

Likewise his account, beginning at 29:50 of the Republican Party official who said that if Trump got nominated he’d see that they took it away, has pretty strong resonances with a referendum in the UK which everyone in the elite from the Prime Minister downwards said would be respected, till it came to it; and as of now from the Prime Minister downwards are busting a gut to find a way to stop it or steer it towards something else with a ‘withdrawal agreement’ that is all about agreement and not about withdrawal.

What Carlson is talking about is the cavernous disconnect between The People and their political representatives (and the mainstream media). The US has it: the UK has it. The US has an Orange Man who has made astonishingly good progress (about which the media remain very quiet). The UK should be on the brink of greatly increased freedom, but not if the elite can help it.

I think that is what Tucker Carlson’s Ship of Fools is about, which is why I want to read it.

Stefan Molyneux is sincere

I had seen and heard him in interviews, and had been impressed by his fluency, vocal use, etc., so I went looking for speeches by Stefan Molyneux.

I found two, both recent, and requiring very different deliveries. The first was in Melbourne, Australia, the video having been posted on YouTube in August 2018. The audience response and references to a protest outside suggest that this is in a university.

A shrinking violet he ain’t. I like the way he bursts into his opening: it’s appropriate for the environment. He’s not using paper of course, and that marks him out as a proper speaker, therefore worth watching closely.

I don’t want to spend too much time or space on this speech, with another still to examine, particularly as he has gone on record as thinking that the other is the best he has made. But before we move on let us admire his technical ability. I can find no flaw with the way he uses his voice. His resonance and enunciation are top flight; also he moves around the space very well so I am not surprised to learn that he studied acting. But …

There are two spotlights upstage, sticking upwards from the floor and rocking very slowly. Their beams intersect sometimes in line with the top of the cyclorama, framing the speaker with an inverted V and sometimes intersecting just above his head showing an X. Why is that even remotely significant? Because I noticed.

All right I concede that I have an obvious interest in how such things are presented, but still if he’s doing his job as well as he wants he should absorb everyone watching and not be upstaged by bloody lights. The casual, jokey nature of the talk is appropriate with this audience, but he is rambling a little too much, indulging in irrelevant histrionics, not keeping his narrative tight enough and actually allowing it to get a little flabby in places. Let’s now see how he did, less than three weeks ago, on 31 January at the EU Parliament.

The video kicks off with a financial appeal to camera. Fair enough: he has to eat, his work requires a lot of expense, and he has chosen the freedom of independence.

This speech, as expected in view of the venue, is far tighter. Many, most, indeed nearly all, would meet that need for discipline by equipping themselves with a script. I warmly applaud his empty lectern, and he’s right: it will be a better speech for being shot from the hip.

I would be prepared to bet that he has not learnt this, but is speaking spontaneously following a carefully structured route. I also reckon it’s modular: he has strung together modules which he has used many times and refined, and they form the backbone. He has a penchant for long lists — sometimes asyndeton sometimes polysyndeton, never apparently a mixture. A characteristic like that, which would be spotted only by sad idiots like me, is the sort of thing that emerges in modular speeches that have never been written down.

Let’s not beat about the bush: Molyneux is outstandingly good. A regular reader will know that the better they are the pickier I get…

He is probably as near perfect a speaker as I have seen (and I’ve seen a fair few). Why is that picky? Because, as I have observed before in this blog — though previously when people were striving for it, never before when they had reached it — perfection, being an absence of flaws, can be boring. Excellence, which flaunts its idiosyncrasies, brings excitement. Molyneux has ironed out his flaws and hidden his idiosyncrasies, and now injects excitement via performance. Here we have a simply brilliant piece of speaking, but are we watching the real person or a superbly sculpted persona? I think the latter, and that disappoints me — though only slightly.

Only slightly, because persona or not he’s completely sincere. He must be sincere: no one in today’s society synthesises the appallingly unfashionable and personally unprofitable philosophy he promotes, unless he’s sincere or insane. Some might try to persuade you that people like he are secretly funded by an evil plutocracy, but I don’t believe that, nor do they, and nor should you. He’s sincere.

Roger Scruton tragically paper-bound

I wonder whether it was it by happenstance or design that late last year the Oxford Union hosted two severely contrasting talks by philosophers.

The contrast is dramatic. On the one hand there was Slavoj Žižek, at whom we looked a couple of weeks ago, and on the other there was Sir Roger Scruton. The former an apparently neurotic firebrand of Eastern European peasant stock, the latter an apparently patrician-born, establishment pedagogue.

In fact both impressions are false. Žižek is the son of a middle-class civil servant. As for Scruton, he typifies a dilemma I often have on this blog. When I affix a link to his name, which I aways do, should it be to his own website where he tells the world what he is now, or to Wikipedia where others have described his life thus far? In Scruton’s case the difference in accounts is considerable, so I have supplied both links in consecutive paragraphs.

I have watched and heard several interviews with Sir Roger, and he represents himself very well. His arguments are clear, well-reasoned, and fluent. This is hardly surprising, because he knows his subject and is more than able to defend his adopted positions. You can see what I mean when he turns to Q&A at 39:50.

A speech is merely answers supplied to a sequence of imagined questions; so at the very most all he needs on that lectern is a bulleted list of questions, certainly not a script. If he had operated that way his delivery would have benefitted from spontaneity, and been not one jot less rich in language. His interviews prove that last point.

I would prefer him not to have even that, because speaking entirely without notes forces you into structuring your material in a fashion that is more disciplined than even an academic lecture. There are a few mind-wandering moments in this talk, and the camera catches at least one audience member’s mind absorbed in something else. This forty minutes could easily have tightened to little more than thirty and benefited thereby.

We with this video can pause, rewind, rewatch, etc., and it is worth doing for all the reasons that make his interviews so good. It’s just a pity both that his audience there in that hall could not do that or that they sometimes needed to, because what Sir Roger has to say needs to be heard and understood.

Dr Oliver Robinson again

Yes, he been on twice before, here and here. And, in case you haven’t picked up my personal interest, he’s my nephew. I have been following with some interest his progress as a speaker, and am impressed by this latest leap. I haven’t coached him: he read my previous critiques here, and we’ve discussed concepts, but essentially it’s his own work.

Since he previously appeared here we have lunched together; but there were far more interesting things than speaking to discuss, mainly his latest book called Paths Between Head and Heart, which I had read and which he is promoting in this speech at Watkins Books.

The link to the video arrived in an email from him, declaring that he was speaking without script or notes. Like a wasp to beer I was drawn in.

When I first started coaching people in public speaking it was still de rigueur to stand in a power-pose, and orate. Bit by bit, in the decades since, the fashion has moved to what I term ‘conversational sincerity’. I much prefer it, would love to claim that I had influenced it, but actually it was going to happen anyway.

Here we find Olly, paperless as promised, in ‘conversational sincerity’ mode, and taking flight in the process. The freshness, spontaneity, and enthusiasm for his message is infectious. True his shooting from the hip makes it a little rough around the edges here and there, but the net gain in audience engagement obliterates that cost. The more he speaks without paper the smoother it will get, but in the meantime who cares anyway?

For about a quarter of an hour his structure is chronological, as he traces the history of scientific enlightenment and spirituality. (Who would have thought that the 1680s, the decade of the Glorious Revolution, was also so significant in this story?) Chronology is an easy structure to work, but by being linear, a single dimension, it can cause a speaker to lose thread. A simple aid is to introduce cross-structures that intersect this timeline, but that’s a detail.

At 18:00 he begins talking about expansion of mind and, suggesting an elastic band as a metaphor, he makes the point that to expand anything you need to pull its extremities in opposite directions. Thus any expansion involves tension between opposites. (What a devastating argument against ‘Safe Spaces’ in universities!)

This introduces a chart that he has in his book, a wheel containing opposites facing each other across its centre. He produces a printout of that chart; and this is his visual, the only one. Had he been in a lecture room it would have been a slide, but he manages perfectly well holding it up in front of himself. The rest of his talk is essentially exploring briefly some of the dialectics in the book between those opposites.

I was slightly unsettled in the talk by the frequent cross-fades betraying edit points. The edits were very skilfully done, with seamless joins in the audio, but what was edited out? Interjections or questions from the audience which threatened to lengthen the video unnecessarily? Who knows?

I found it unsettling also when he described a discussion he had with his father, as it took me a second to realise that the other party to that dialogue was my own brother.

It is an excellent and stimulating talk which ends a few seconds after 35:00. The rest is Q&A.

On Amazon the book has seven reviews, one by me, all positive and 5-stars throughout.

Slavoj Žižek is a tonic

In late 2018 the Oxford Union hosted a talk from Slovenian philosopher, Professor Slavoj Žižek. On this blog I have been known to quote Tom Lehrer’s definition of a philosopher, namely –

someone who goes around giving helpful advice to those who are happier than he is.

Let us see.

Within seconds of his starting I doff my rhetor hat to him. 

I have very often been asked by trainees to help them rid themselves of mannerisms that they have been told are a distraction. My standard answer is that they should be their natural selves, that their mannerisms are personal and natural to them, and if they try to eliminate them they will probably fail but if they succeed they will find them replaced by ‘anti-mannerisms’ which, being unnatural to them, will be a greater distraction. Therefore they should battle not the mannerism but the distraction. Be more interesting and your audience will not be distracted.

Žižek has tics. He has a shedload of tics. What is the collective noun for tics? Whatever it is Žižek has a big one; yet he appears to pay them no heed. His focus is entirely on his message and how to convey it, leaving no room for wasting any energy on irrelevances like tics. Bravo to him for that!

At his opening there are a few seconds of tic-enhanced searching through his papers while he marshals his thoughts. Thereafter he makes me wonder why he even bothered to bring the papers as he never again consults them. Another reason to doff my hat to him.

Does Tom Lehrer’s definition hold water? – are we happier than he? He repeatedly professes himself pessimistic, so we probably are. In particular I was happy I saw this speech.

I didn’t always understand the concepts he promoted, and when I understood I didn’t always agree; but being who I am and doing what I do, I am a sucker for when a speaker shows this level of commitment to his message.

I enjoyed it immensely.