Tariq Ali: smh

Sometime recently (it was during the recent General Election campaign: you’ll find you can glean that) the Oxford Union hosted a talk and Q&A by Tariq Ali, and I had my interest and memories stirred.  Ali was President of the Oxford Union in the mid-sixties, and spent much of the rest of that decade leading marches, protests, even riots. His name was seldom out of the papers. He was one of the leaders of the now-defunct International Marxist Group, a brand that made the Workers Revolutionary Party look like wishy-washy liberals.

I wanted to see whether the years had mellowed him. I know of several firebrand Trots from those days who have since performed philosophical u-turns; but from the little I’ve seen of Ali in the past half-century I get the impression that he is not one of them.

He begins by announcing that he had intended to speak about his book on Lenin but had changed his mind. He then speaks about his book on Lenin.

I was not surprised to see that one who had addressed so many protests, marches and suchlike was quite relaxed here, shooting this entire speech from the hip. On the other hand I was delighted to learn that his speaking skill is not merely a byproduct of doing a lot of it. There are indications that he has put in some thoughtful work, and one piece of evidence is to be found at 35:18, where he makes gestures accompanying a comparison between the political left and right. He is doing the gestures in mirror image, so that when he says ‘left’ he is indicating our left. It is these small things that single out expert speakers.

Actually he doesn’t speak exclusively about his book: he eventually moves on into rambling around matters of today.

I actually find myself quite liking him as a person, even though he is profoundly misguided. He comes across significantly less strident than he did in the sixties, but then so do we all. He disappoints me with a dreadful piece of cheap and gratuitous (though well-timed) ad hominem. I’ll put it down to senility – he’s a little older than I. Smh.

Smh is one of those tla (three letter abbreviations) to be found on Twitter. It stands for ‘shaking my head’ and I’m smh quite often during this speech as he trots out preposterous assertions. Nevertheless he’s entitled to his opinions.

If I were advising him I would warn him about one thing. He always did seem to take himself too seriously, and when you reach our age that comes across as pomposity. He needs to watch that.

More than once in this blog I have castigated hosts of speeches, conference halls, all sorts of auditoria, for not having a clock on the back wall with which speakers can time themselves. Tariq Ali over-runs, and it emerges that he has been carefully watching just such a clock, thoughtfully supplied by the Oxford Union. It just isn’t working properly.


Anne-Marie Waters: undisciplined passion.

In September, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) will elect a new leader. One of the names currently being bandied about as a front-running candidate is Anne-Marie Waters. The mainstream media characterise her as ‘far-right’, which is an interesting description for one who has repeatedly tried to stand for Parliament as a candidate for the Labour Party, and ‘bigot’, which is modern parlance for holding views at variance with whoever is misusing the word.

On 28 February she took part in a debate at the Oxford Union. The motion was This House Believes Islam is a Religion of Peace. Waters was one of the speakers in opposition.

She opens a little untidily, with an unprepared section referring to speakers and apparent comments that have preceded her. We have to guess at the precise nature of those comments. I have no particular quarrel with this as a technique for opening as it indicates, for one thing, that she has been listening. A beautifully parsed series of opening sentences will never quite convey the same sincerity, or determination to get to grips with the truth.

Sadly the untidiness, in the form of a malapropism, spills over into the beginning of what appears to have been prepared. She says “theocracy” when she means “theology”. It’s a small thing, but when you use big words it pays to check them. Particularly when you are speaking to university students, some of whom may even spot the mistake.

Almost immediately afterwards she really gets into her stride, with a catalogue of the factors and occurrences that cause people to be uneasy about Islam. It’s quite a list, carrying a very powerful message, and one of her opponents tries unsuccessfully to interrupt it. She moves on to discuss Saudi Arabia, which she calls “the birthplace of Islam”.

(Later in this debate, one of her opponents tries witheringly to point out that when Islam was born Saudi Arabia didn’t exist. That’s the equivalent of denying that Stonehenge was built in Wiltshire: technically correct but indicative of the feebleness of the rest of your case.)

Waters is a copy-book example of both the power and the weakness of impassioned, undisciplined speaking. As she nears the end of her speech she’s all over the place. I habitually point out to my trainees, as I would certainly point out to her, that you can see at Political Party Conferences how the grass-roots firebrands and the hyper-polished parliamentarians can learn much from each other. Passion is worth buckets of technique; but it’s still worth while for the impassioned to acquire technique, the better to express the passion.

Particularly if wanting to lead a political party.

Katie Hopkins works her audience.

How did I miss this speech by Katie Hopkins?  More than a year ago she spoke at a debate at the Oxford Union.  The motion was This House Believes Positive Discrimination Is The Best Solution To An Unequal Society, and she spoke in opposition. ‘Positive discrimination’ can be translated as ‘affirmative action’.

Katie Hopkins is a professional loudmouth, and I tend to enjoy loudmouths whether or not I agree with them. Put it down to my earning my living getting people to dare to open up. The hyperlink, on her name in the first line above, takes you to her own website. This link takes you to her Wikipedia page, which makes for stimulating reading. Here is one gobby broad, and I am fascinated to see how she handles an Oxford Union audience.

Straight out of the starting blocks she invites interruptions from the audience. For someone like her it’s a sound technique. A straight monologue takes a certain skill in construction, and if she hasn’t learnt that skill (and she hasn’t) then by creating dialogues she barely needs it. I have seen her on TV, chewing up and spitting out some of the best, so she is engineering this game to play to her strength.

These students don’t need asking twice, particularly when the asking was so defiant. Members of the audience begin popping up and down like fiddlers’ elbows. She laughs with some, flirts with some, dismisses some for studiously absurd reasons – “Sit down: I don’t like your top”, addresses some arguments seriously, others facetiously. It almost becomes a rite of passage in the hall to be insulted by the speaker. Even the President jokingly tries to get in on the act.

But what of the actual speech in the middle of all this? It almost doesn’t exist. There are a handful of sentences on a piece of paper on the dispatch box. When she gives herself a chance to do so she astonishes me by actually reading them. I am aghast, because what there is could be memorised by anyone who can memorise a telephone number. She’s taken a clever, unexpected line with her argument, and it would be child’s play to build a speech out of it – but she hasn’t the first idea how.

But by golly she can work an audience!

Jon Smith sits and talks with …

The Oxford Union, on 14 October, hosted a talk followed by Q&A from Jon Smith, football super-agent.

What I know about football (soccer) could be written in several languages on the back of a postage stamp, but my interest was quickened because the mainstream media suggest that football agents are shadowy lowlife, barely legal beings – bottom-feeders; and given that the mainstream media are almost unfailingly wrong about everything I wanted to learn more. I was also curious as to how and why the Oxford Union had gone out of its way to seek a talk from him. This last was quickly answered by the revelation that he had recently published a book of memoirs. When I had a radio programme, I remember book promotion campaigns as one of the best seams to mine for good interviews.

He is seated.

My mind rockets back more than half a century to schooldays and a class speaking competition. The teacher had surrendered his desk at the front of the classroom,  and we were all invited to use it. All the others enthroned themselves in his seat of power. I, choosing to stand, won. Although the teacher did mention that by standing I showed more authority than the others, I have always liked to believe that there was more than that to my victory.

In The Face & Tripod, I have a chapter entitled The Communication Paradox. This paradox is essentially in how unexpectedly often it is that otherwise good communicators have difficulty with public speaking. I discuss reasons and remedies. In particular I home in on the preposition ‘with’, and commend the mindset of speaking with your audience as distinct from to. Jon Smith is definitely speaking with his audience, and I have a suspicion that by sitting he is helping that.

I feel slightly chastened. When I began teaching and coaching public speaking, nearly thirty years ago, I was a bit of a maverick inasmuch as I sensed (correctly it turned out) that the fashion for formal oratory was on the wain. I was one of the earliest advocates of the conversational-sincerity school of speaking, but I have always stopped short of recommending being seated. Jon Smith is making me rethink. He is showing me that there are circumstances when it obviously works.

He is instantly likeable, sincere, articulate, coherent, everything I would wish him to be. From the moment he starts I want to learn more. That is the equivalent of the author forcing you to turn pages. My notepad is discarded: I am too interested in what he has to say to give a damn about how he says it. And remember: I know nothing about football.

This talk is brilliant. The book is called The Deal: Inside the World of a Super-Agent. I can’t wait to read it.

And the Q&A is fascinating too. I suspect you would never guess his answer to the question, “Who is the most powerful man in football?”

Michael Dobbs. The hit man shoots from the hip

I calculate that on 14 June, 2016, the Oxford Union hosted a talk and Q&A by Lord Dobbs, aka Michael Dobbs, author of House of Cards. On 18 August a video of the talk was published on YouTube where I found it. The descriptive text on YouTube doesn’t give the date of the talk itself, but repeatedly during the video there is reference to the EU referendum being nine days away.

I must be one of the very few people on the planet to have sampled none of Dobbs’ books nor so much as an episode of any of the television series of House of Cards, though obviously having heard of them. This is not through deliberate choice, but simply because they came along at times of my life when I was not reading much fiction nor watching much television. I have no doubt that this is my loss; but it does give me the advantage of approaching the following with no preconceptions.

My immediate impression is one of a charming, affable bloke with very good audience approach. I have read that The Guardian once described him as “Westminster’s baby-faced hit man”. I can see the baby-face, but must take the “hit man” on trust. Of course, his being a Conservative The Guardian would see him as the enemy.

He quickly commits a basic speaking error, which every one of my trainees would pick up. His opening humour is too overt, so he is exerting pressure on his audience to laugh. This, counter-intuitively, is why they don’t – or at least not as much as he wants. They are good stories but he needs more covertly to sneak this stuff up on them, at least cutting out the funny voices. Never be seen to beg laughs, particularly at the beginning.

Two-and-a-half minutes in, which is standard, his hump recedes and he’s on a roll. It’s a very good roll. His first section concerns himself, his early career in politics as Mrs Thatcher’s Chief of Staff, his being eventually cast into the darkness by her and almost by accident turning to writing House of Cards. He has clearly done a great deal of speaking and it shows. This material has been thoroughly road-tested, so he shoots it confidently from the hip. Although he has travelled down this route more times than he can count, his actual words are spontaneous. That says to the audience all the right things about him  – sincerity, command of subject, etc. That’s why we listen to him; and it’s worth listening because it’s an intriguing story.

Next he turns to an interesting treatise on the subject of political leadership. This is likewise shot from the hip, and fascinating. For twelve years he worked closely with one of the very few political titans of our age, so his views on the subject are more than valid. That concludes the speech.

At 25:20 he threw himself open to Q&A, and I certainly thought he had thoroughly seeded the lion’s share of the questions. The EU referendum was nine days away: he had mentioned it prominently at the very beginning of his talk, and again at the end, saying that he would be happy to talk about it later. Surely we would now see a tsunami of questions on the subject. I was overlooking the gigantic popularity of his books and the TV series they have spawned. For half an hour all the questions were about House of Cards and about writing, culminating in an hilarious account of his wife’s opinion of the sex scenes.

Finally the chairman of the meeting actively solicited questions about the EU referendum and at 55:00 there began questions whose answers I, armed with hindsight, found riveting.

Though I would not hasten its coming, when the day arrives when I can sit with time on my hands I look forward to reading House of Cards or watching a TV boxed set.

Ephraim Mirvis ranks with the best.

The Oxford Union very recently played host to a talk from Ephraim Mirvis, Chief Rabbi to the Commonwealth.

I was eager to watch this, not just wearing my rhetor hat. I find it refreshing periodically to bathe my mind in the waters of matters spiritual. Though I harbour a gnawing uneasiness towards organised religions of all colours, I think it is good for us to suspect that there is some entity greater than us. To listen to a spiritual teacher whose apostolic succession covers many millennia can therefore surely not be time wasted.

 He is shooting from the hip. What did I expect?

Actually I always expect experienced speakers to shoot from the hip: it is easy, safe, and makes for an immeasurably better relationship between speaker and audience. Too often I am disappointed. In this case I would have been astounded if Mirvis had been using any sort of memory assistance. He is a Chief Rabbi who has elected to explain the five fundamentals of the Torah. What sort of Rabbi would he be if that needed prompting? Nevertheless merely a random dip into past postings on this blog would show lamentably frequent examples of speakers letting down both themselves and their audiences with use of paper.

Mirvis is good. So good, that I happily put down my notepad and just listen.

Almost immediately I learn the distinction that he makes between the words ‘God’ and ‘Lord’. So startling is this discovery that for a few seconds I am guilty of tangential thinking. [I explain to my trainees that when an audience member’s mind goes off on a tangent it often means that the speaker has triggered it by saying something special; though while he is still speaking he needs to curtail that tangential diversion and bring the straying mind back to him – there are ways!]

Beginning at around 06:55 Mirvis has a message which culminates in a story that draws from me a genuine LOL. This is rare. Having been around for a few years, circled the block often, studied for my living all descriptions of entertainment and all types of audience, I very seldom laugh out loud. I get amused easily enough, but I tend to show it quietly. Mirvis made me laugh out loud. I might on reflection take issue with the message, but I tip my hat to the skilful delivery of the story.

Mirvis speaks till 36:25, and thereafter it is questions. I am very glad I watched all of it.

John Major: copper-bottomed nonsense

A few weeks ago The Oxford Union played host to the Right Honourable Sir John Major, KG, CH, PC, Prime Minister of The United Kingdom from 1990 to 1997. He delivered a speech in favour of Britain remaining within the EU, after which there was a Q&A session which you can find here.

Here is a little experiment. I invite you to watch the speech to the end of the story about Boris Yeltsin – that is roughly the first 30 seconds of Sir John speaking. Now pause the video, reflect for a few seconds on what you have heard and then tell that Boris Yeltsin story to your computer screen, the nearest chair, the wall, anything. I venture that you will have no problem doing so.

Unlike Sir John, you didn’t have that conversation with Yeltsin; you probably haven’t been Prime Minister of the United Kingdom; you haven’t delivered anything like as many speeches as he has; you probably haven’t told that story before; yet you can tell it now without the aid of a script.

Then why can’t he?

Well obviously he can, but he doesn’t. He looks at his script twice during that 30 seconds. It’s conditioned reflex: his eyes are drawn downwards by invisible elastic every few seconds throughout the speech. That lousy bunch of papers is his comfort blanket. It’s pitiful; and this is a man who from his experience should be a masterful speaker.

At 6:02 he surveys the room and asks the rhetorical question, “What sort of country are we?” And then he has to look at his script for the answer. He really needs to get a grip!

I have said often enough on this blog that I looked forward to the referendum because in the campaign I eagerly expected some really well reasoned pro-EU arguments. I was drawn to this speech for that very reason. Fat chance! It is a series of outrageous claims, all of which could be easily blown out of the water once you had decided where to start on each. I could give you scores of examples, but here’s one to brighten your day. You’ll find it at 25:25…

Commonwealth immigration is entirely unaffected by our membership of the EU.

…see what I mean – where do you start? This speech is a load of copper-bottomed nonsense, which curiously happens to be the very phrase he used about something when regurgitating from his script at one point.

It’s worth remembering that after signing the Maastricht Treaty in February 1992, Sir John solemnly informed the British people that it set a high-water mark in terms of Euro-federalism. Let us pause while we reflect upon the subsequent onward federalist rush represented by the Treaty of Lisbon et al, with Gordon Brown’s lame wittering about ‘red lines’, and then shall we permit ourselves a hollow laugh? How on earth can Sir John keep a straight face when he tells us that David Cameron has secured immunity from ever closer union? The EU doesn’t obey even its own treaties, let alone casual assurances to nuisance Prime Ministers.

The funny thing is that he seems a personable sort of chap, really, and I’m sure he is sincere. The question we have to address therefore is how gullible Prime Ministers are allowed to be.