Jeffrey Archer: light relief.

Given the interesting time we inhabit it is not surprising, I suppose, that recent postings on this blog have been a little – shall we say? – earnest? You will also not be surprised to learn that my small stockpile of speeches yet to be addressed here are all likewise rather meaty.

What better escape to light relief could there be than to listen to the reminiscences of a best selling novelist? – whether or not we are conscious that the narrative thread we are following sits in a life tapestry that has been quite as dramatic as those we are escaping. Jeffrey Archer has thus far had an eventful life.

He chose, however, to restrict this talk at the Oxford Union to an author’s reminiscence; and I think I am rather grateful.

There are various ways of introducing impact early to a speech. Jovially castigating your audience in the manner of a strict schoolteacher is as good as any. He certainly makes the characterisation work, and reintroduces it at strategic points later.

My word, but he’s a fantastic speaker; and he knows to play to his strength. His strength is his skill as a raconteur. You may think that an obvious ‘given’ for a novelist, but it absolutely does not automatically follow. You may think that a hugely successful writer must inevitably be an expert speaker, but that does not follow either. On this blog we have sampled the speaking of some stupendously fine writers who were lousy speakers. I will risk boring you by repeating yet again that written English and spoken English are different languages and require different skills – subtly different, but different.

Furthermore, he is talking about himself; and that is a notorious minefield.

He uses no paper when he speaks: he shoots from the hip. That is not a difficult skill to learn but it does take a measure of well-directed application. He has taken the trouble to learn. So here we witness an expert story-teller and wordsmith. and he spans both languages. What a joy to watch this speech!

Do I have no negative comments? Well I’d prefer it if he didn’t fold his arms from time to time. It’s not because I’ve read somewhere that this is defensive body-language (though obviously I have, as probably have you). It’s because the rest of the time he seems completely in control of the show, but that seems to slip when he has his arms folded. I’ve worked with people who buck the trend and seem completely relaxed with their arms folded, but he doesn’t – not to me.

Oh yes, and I’m not crazy about his red elbow-pads. There I’ve said it.