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‘A change of mind’ by Tony Whelpton

John Ford | 11.10.2017

Review by John Ford, BSA librarian

'A change of mind' by Tony WhelptonThis remarkable book is unlike any other book concerning stammering that I have read. It is fiction, but its protagonist, perhaps even its hero, has some resemblances to the author. They are both the same age – 85 – and both were born in Nottingham. Both had to deal with that rare phenomenon, a late-start stammer, and at the same age. However, the author was never an MP, and it is difficult to believe that he has exactly the same remarkable collection of friends that appear in the novel. (I apologise at once if I am wrong).

Its subject, Maurice Summerfield, is “a very old man indeed”. When his stammer begins, slowly and hesitantly at first, at the age of 80, he is confused and angry and does not know what to do. But he has one great advantage, a sympathetic wife and two sympathetic children, not to speak of grandchildren, who devise a plan to help him. They believe that his stammer is mainly caused by a lack of self-esteem which despite great worldly success has been a problem for him throughout his life. They notice that in moments of stress when deficiencies in his character, some imagined and some real, are felt by him, he stammers more. In the background there is a scapegrace younger brother about whose misfortunes he feels much guilt.

When his stammer begins, slowly and hesitantly at first, at the age of 80, he is confused and angry.

He begins to see a therapist about his problems, but, more importantly, they devise a series of surprise lunches, all at the Radcliffe Hotel in Oxford, where he meets friends from the past with whom he has lost touch, who help his morale by making it clear how important their friendships with him have been and how much they admire his success. I was about to write ‘worldly success’, but they admire more than that: they admire his general kindliness and friendliness to everyone he meets.

Herein there lies a danger, because good people can be very boring in books. Perhaps the author is aware of this, because he guards against the problem in two ways. First of all he writes brilliantly effective dialogue, mimicking very accurately how reasonably prosperous and intelligent people actually speak in our society, whilst making the conversation perhaps a little more entertaining than it would be in real life. This is very difficult to do, and makes me wonder if the author has ever thought of writing a play.

Secondly, he is extremely good at depicting how those who stammer feel about it. He does understand and portray with great acuity those moments of stress which we feel both while and – most importantly - before talking. He is even good at depicting the distress we often feel after a stammer.

He is even good at depicting the distress we often feel after a stammer.

At the end of the book the author’s stammer is well on the way to disappearing. Even though this may well actually have happened to the author, such endings are rare in real life, because although lack of self-esteem can certainly exacerbate a stammer, it is rarely if ever its root cause.  He is also reconciled to his younger brother, in the one unreal and unlikely scene in the book. But this is a minor fault in a book which is full of vivacity and gusto and great fun to read.