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

George Galloway: angry

Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.

That quote has been attributed to several people, including Ambrose Bierce and Groucho Marx, but it is generally a good piece of advice regardless.

On the other hand, as I tell my public speaking trainees, well directed passion is worth buckets of technique. In this posting I want to examine a speech delivered as recently as the 29th of January in the British Parliament. It was on the subject of the Iraq war inquiry. The speaker, George Galloway, gets very passionate.

Galloway is not noted as a shrinking violet. Many will remember his appearing before a US Senate hearing in May 2005 in which, not in the least over-awed, he hit back hard at all accusations. Here it is, if you want a reminder.

So what did you expect – an apparently mindless rant? He’s done it before, after all. No, Galloway is far too smart an operator to make that mistake here. This speech is tailored to this audience. It follows the second Cardinal rule in my book.

This is statesmanlike, passionate as all hell but statesmanlike.

These days, ‘statesmanlike’ is too often held to mean ‘bland’. And read from a script, God help us! But Galloway shoots this entire speech effortlessly and with complete confidence from the hip. And, incidentally, his diction is such that he loses not a syllable. He is as capable as I’ve seen. He is in the top 5% of speakers I’ve covered on this blog, and I tip my hat to him.

He observes all the arcane parliamentary niceties of terminology, quotes past legislators, and bestows credit towards even his political opponents when he deems it appropriate. He quotes wise saws and modern instances. He demonstrates that you don’t need a script to deploy elegant wordplay, like the distinction he makes between ‘false’ and ‘falsehood’.

For all that, this is mighty powerful! My own political opinions could not be more at odds with his, yet I am hard pressed to contest a word he says. He calls the endless procrastination over the Chilcot report a scandal, and so it is. He places the blame on Parliament, and so he should. But the Westminster bubble will ignore him as it ignores all inconvenience and will continue to do till the electorate properly exercises its democratic muscle.

It’s refreshing to see sincere passion in a politician, but I have to tell you that you ain’t seen nothing. My next posting is planned to be on a speech by a politician on the other side of the Atlantic. Passion? It makes this look like wafer-thin cucumber sandwiches and Earl Grey from bone china. Come back in a couple of days, and hold on to your hat.

Malcolm Rifkind concludes the Queen & Country debate

For a couple of weeks we have been working our way through the speeches that comprised a debate held by the Oxford Union to mark the 80th anniversary of probably the most famous debate the Union has staged. In 1933 the motion, “This House would under no circumstances fight for its King and country” was carried. What would happen when a similar motion was proposed in 2013? We have heard from Ben Sullivan, Ben Griffin and Gareth Porter for the proposition, and from Rory Stewart and Nikolai Tolstoy for the opposition. Now it is the turn for Malcolm Rifkind to conclude the debate with one more speech for the opposition.

As I prepare to watch his speech I find myself considering how many different ways he could choose to follow, summarise and conclude what has already been said, and to what extent he will vary his tone to blend with the decorum set by his predecessors. The golden rule, when in doubt, is to trust your own game. A seasoned performer as he is, and the decorum’s having varied so much already, I expect him to grab the proceeding by the throat and bend it to his will.

He starts by making the audience laugh. I know every one of the jokes, but then I am a great deal older than this audience. There’s a moral here: if you are addressing students you can afford to dust off and recycle material that you thought had completely run out of steam.

He also recalls that he has been here before, when he took part in the 60th anniversary debate on the same motion. I wonder whether he is going to recycle some of that material also. I wouldn’t blame him – if it works.

It is at 3:19 that he finally gets down to cases. “The choice we are being asked to make…” At this point he seamlessly moves into a higher gear. He claims that the other side had essentially condemned all wars, despite their attempts to qualify their declarations. He names justifiable wars, citing The Falklands and of course World War II. He hits us with a startling statistic to the effect that – the 1933 debate notwithstanding – when WWII broke out, of the 3,000 Oxford students eligible to fight, 2,600 volunteered.

He concedes that there are unjust wars, and he is the one that identifies the elephant that has been quietly growing in the room. All six of the speakers, he included, were against the Iraq War: it was unnecessary and illegal. Yet the previous Gulf War to liberate Kuwait was quite different, being unanimously sanctioned by the United Nations. His speaking tone and power have grown to oratorial dimensions; so it is highly unexpected when suddenly he introduces two more jokes, just as old as the others and just as successful at harvesting laughs. But he hasn’t finished with the serious stuff: he is still beating the drum for the war that is last-resort and just. He even cites St Augustine. But he is cleverly keeping the audience receptive by occasionally mixing in the unexpected laughs. He knows what he is doing.

So ends the debate.

The motion “This house would not fight for Queen and country” is carried.