Theodore Dalrymple: finger-lickin’ talking head

In November 2013 The Oxford Union held a debate on the motion, “This House Believes Socialism Will Not Work”. We have recently looked at speeches by Daniel Hannan for the proposition and Katy Clark for the opposition. Today we turn again to the proposition to examine a speech by Theodore Dalrymple.

Before I go any further let me comment on that still picture that illustrates the video. He is about to lick his fingers the better to turn a page. Any regular reader knows what I plan to say about that, but first allow me to quote from my book The Face & Tripod.

“If you lick your fingers to turn (or slide) pages, it not only looks slightly naff but they dry out very quickly so you have to keep repeating the naffness. If you smear lip-salve on your fingers beforehand, you should not need to lick them.”

If you think it odd that someone who is as averse as I to using scripts should nevertheless offer advice on doing so, you haven’t read the book. There are occasions when a script is unavoidable.

This is not such an occasion – or shouldn’t be. That still picture tells you that, though a doctor who has probably presented many papers, Dalrymple is a talking head and has not properly learnt how to speak in public. Which is a pity because he has a lot to say that is worth saying.

I have for many years enjoyed reading his articles, and periodically dip into the kindle version of a collection of his essays entitled Anything Goes. I am currently 48% through it (O the joys of digital precision!). He is very widely travelled, and has experienced life at its rawest. He is widely considered dyspeptic and pessimistic, but humour hides not far below the surface. (A professed atheist who assumes a pen name with ‘Theodore’ in it has his tongue not far from his cheek.)

There’s humour in this speech, and the humour harvests laughs. His material is good, but it is written material. I have made the point many times in this blog that written English and spoken English are subtly but significantly different beasties.

Dalrymple is idiosyncratic. I like idiosyncratic. He is opinionated. I like opinionated. He has the wisdom to have resisted shop-window pieties like political correctness. He is able to express regard for his fellow man without lapsing into the moist-eyed misanthropy that is so fashionable.

I have never met him, but I would like to – not least for the opportunity to tear that bloody paper out of his hands and show him how easily he could do without it and how much better his public speaking would then become.

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.