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Let's count our blessings

Jack Webster | 30.09.2004

Jack Webster's after-dinner speech at the BSA Conference 2004 chartered his experience of becoming a journalist with a stammer, interviewing celebrities, discovering the Edinburgh Masker, and being voted UK Speaker of the Year 1996.

It is a pleasure to join in your dinner this evening. When l received the invitation, l can honestly say that I accepted ...without hesitation! And that was not always the case. Because until middle-age, I was dogged by a very bad stammer - a real strangling, distorting, contorting, twister of a stammer. Now I don't want to burden you with my problems in life but I'm going to give you some idea of what went on. We all have a story and this is my one.

At the age of 12 I was sent in from our village school in Aberdeenshire to Robert Gordon's College in Aberdeen. By the age of 14, however, I was shown the exit - asked to leave on grounds of academic inadequacy. Back home in my little village, in disgrace, I then developed a heart condition and the consultant said I might never work. Mind you, there are some unkind people who say I never have worked! So I was weak and tired and timid, with no school qualification and, on top of all that, this stammer. It had been there from the very start. So as you can see, at 15, I would have said that life was hardly a bowl of cherries. But I wouldn't have said that because I could never have got my tongue round a bowl of cherries. Yes, we all have our bogey words, don't we? The vowel sound of 'U', especially when preceded by the consonant 'N' used to hammer me. For example, nothing used to stymie me more than having to say 'nothing'. And we have all had our little tricks for how to get round those verbal pitfalls. Oh, we can be a devious lot!

I did, however, have one big ambition in life. And that was to be a journalist.

And there is always somebody ready with advice, isn't there? "Take a grip of yourself", I used to be told. So I took a grip of myself - and got all tensed up and tight. Then they said, "Relax"! How contradictory can they be? How can you get a grip of yourself and relax at the same time?

I did, however, have one big ambition in life. And that was to be a journalist. Eventually the heart condition stabilised and I was ready to look for a job. But the war was recently over and jobs in journalism were scarce. Even if I found one, my worry was fairly predictable, wasn't it?: With this kind of speech, would they take me on? And once there, would I be able to interview people, as a journalist must? How about speaking on the telephone, as a journalist must?

Well I got a start on a small local newspaper in the town of Turriff in Aberdeenshire. And I struggled through those early years. I had to be hard-working and dependable and people were generally understanding. Of course there was always the odd case - the girl who answers the phone in an office and you are trying to say who you are and who you want to speak to. And you hear the giggles - and you get angry. And, as you all know, when you get angry you speak better.

We have all had to develop a thick skin, even if it is not in our nature; we have had to develop a tolerance, which in the end has probably made us better people.

From that local paper I moved to the daily newspaper in Aberdeen and was then invited to join Lord Beaverbrook's great Daily Express, at that time the biggest selling daily newspaper in the world. By now I was showing that I could write and, still burdened with this bad stammer, I settled into a career I wouldn't have believed possible. And maybe this will give a glimmer of hope to those who feel that they are at a big disadvantage in life.

I went to work for a spell in the New York office of the Express, sailing the Atlantic on the great Queen Mary, flying on the very first Concorde and getting my way into the White House of Washington and the Kremlin of Moscow.

I was travelling to the far ends of the earth and into the homes and the company of legends of the century, from Charlie Chaplin, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope to the great Muhammad Ali, with whom I spent a week as his ghost writer.

In Beverly Hills I was meeting up with Sophia Loren and Ginger Rogers, while back home I was interviewing Mrs Thatcher and even the notorious Christine Keeler

In Beverly Hills I was meeting up with Sophia Loren and Ginger Rogers, dancing partner of Fred Astaire, while back home I was interviewing Mrs Thatcher and even the notorious Christine Keeler of the Profumo Scandal which brought down the Tory Government of 40 years ago. I always believed in interviewing people where they would feel most at home so it will not surprise you to know that I interviewed Miss Keeler in a London bedroom! I don't have time to tell you the rest of that story - but she didn't mind my stammer!

I once entered the private den of the richest man in the world, the American oil billionaire, Paul Getty. I found him in a plain, drab little room with his shoe and sock off and his bare foot on a stool, and in mortal agony with some gout-ish ailment of the big toe for which there was no immediate relief. I thought for the richest man in the world, there must be a moral in that story somewhere.

I became passionately interested in the American composers of the 20th century - the George Gershwins, the Cole Porters. Back in the Sixties I was interviewing Irving Berlin in New York. And I remember climbing to a 4th floor apartment on Madison Avenue and spending an hour and a half with the great Richard Rodgers as he sat there and told me how he and Oscar Hammerstein had written those famous musicals, from Oklahoma and Carousel to South Pacific and The Sound of Music. He looked just like a dapper businessman, except that there was a grand piano in the corner. It was one of those gems of experience that stay with you forever.

Back in London, I was walking through one of those wood-panelled corridors in Westminster one day when I realised there was only one other person in that long corridor. He was coming slowly towards me. I was about to come face to face with Winston Churchill. I slowed my pace to take all this in. Because I knew that here was one of the great legends of history, a man who would be spoken about in the same breath as Cromwell, Pitt, Gladstone, Disraeli. And he had been a hero of my childhood - the man who saved us from Hitler. He came past, nodded and smiled. And I turned and watched him disappear along that corridor. I have to say I found it impossible to fit the legend of Churchill into the shrinking frame of one apparently ordinary human being. I suspect it has ever been so with famous people, whether it was Shakespeare or Henry VIII. They all had to be reduced to the flesh and blood shape of the person standing beside you. On this occasion I could only try to absorb the moment, knowing that I had just been in contact with one of the greatest men who ever lived. Churchill was, of course, the great orator, who also had a stammer.

Those images come floating before me now in a kaleidoscope of memory.

But through it all, I was still struggling with this inability to speak. And through all that list of famous people I was meeting and interviewing I had trouble with only one person - Johnny Cash. As I interviewed him, he made much of his compassion for the human race, not least those poor chaps banged up in jail. In the hotel lobby afterwards, I happened to overhear him giving a cruel impersonation of my stammer to amuse his entourage. Enraged by this, I confronted him and asked where was his compassion now. Was it only for murderers? Did he have none for people struggling with a stammer? The best I can say for him is that he blushed. I knew that I had exposed Johnny Cash for the hypocrite he was.

Yes, the stammer was still there. And I so admired good speech.

As a boy, I used to go along to our village hall to listen to our local MP, who happened to be the man with the golden voice, Churchill's own protege, Robert Boothby. On one occasion I heard not only Boothby but his close friend, Compton Mackenzie - the man who wrote books like Whisky Galore - those men who were without doubt two of the greatest orators the world has ever known.

But that didn't help my problem. I had been to therapists, psychologists and the multiplicity of quacks who used to come from America with big publicity that they would cure you of stammering in a week. Some people may have benefited but I was not one of them. By the time I reached middle-age I had quietly conceded that I was stuck with this for life.

Through it all, I tried to keep a sense of humour. I know it is very difficult for stammerers to see any humour in stammering. I don't know about you, but I even felt embarrassed in company when watching Ronnie Barker in Open All Hours.

Edinburgh masker

Then one day I went to write an article about yet another lady who allegedly had a cure for stammering. She was a lady called Ann Dewar from Edinburgh, a speech therapist who had collaborated with her husband, Dr Bill Dewar of the Physiology Dept at Edinburgh University, to create an anti-stammering device called the Edinburgh Masker. Well, I had heard stories like this before - but at least I would investigate and try to keep an open mind. Now, I always knew that I fared better if I stuck my fingers in my ears and blotted out the sound of my own voice. I thought I was just cutting out the embarrassment. But apparently there was something more scientific to it than that. Speech is a circuit, between brain, voice-box and ear and somewhere along the line, the stammerer develops a faulty circuit. In layman's terms, if you can break the circuit, you go a long way to breaking the stammer. Well, that was the theory. I think it had been tested by people standing beside a waterfall.

So how did the Dewars put it into practice? The apparatus consisted of a small disc taped round your voice-box, attached to a battery in your pocket and then to two discreet ear pieces. Every time your vocal cords moved there was a buzz in your ear, precisely blotting out your voice. So you couldn't hear yourself. I went to see the Dewars and, in my presence, they tried out their Edinburgh Masker on a teenage boy who had the worst stammer I had ever heard. He agonised over every single word. Well, I could hardly believe the result. For the first time in his life, speaking slowly, he managed to get out every word. He had entered a new world. I couldn't wait to get my hands on this device.

My stammer wasn't as bad as his. But it was bad enough. Mrs Dewar herself had a beautifully modulated voice. She said that, behind my stammer, she detected that I too could have a good voice. She was determined to do something about it. Mrs Dewar, I may say, was an Australian, a dare-devil who used to fly her own plane around the Outback, before she came to Scotland. So I said to Mrs Dewar "Can I have a go at this?" Well, I took off like a I had never spoken before. The words began to flow. This was something that actually worked. So I acquired an Edinburgh Masker - and I began to test myself out on making speeches. It gave me the confidence to pick up the rhythm of speech.

I had always had rhythm in my body. I was a fairly good ballroom dancer. In fact, in my youth, I used to fancy myself as the Fred Astaire of Aberdeenshire! People who read my books said they got caught up in the rhythm of my writing. There was a certain flow to it. But the rhythm of speech had always eluded me. Now I was discovering it and soon I was able to discard the Masker altogether.

I may say it never occurred to Dr and Mrs Dewar to take out a patent on their invention. They wanted only to help people to be able to speak. In this rather sleazy commercial world in which we live, how splendid that we still had people of that calibre in our midst. Of course, you couldn't use it all the time. With the ear piece, you couldn't be on the phone. And in conversation it would be difficult. But for standing up to address a company, it was perfect. It was a means towards an end. As a result of this, I got a bit of a taste for speaking. I went on to address gatherings all over the world - 1000 members of the WRI in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 1000 bankers at their dinner in the Grosvenor House Hotel. I was giving talks about my life on board the QE2 in mid-Atlantic, in New York and Los Angeles. I now had the confidence to write and present on screen television documentaries, based on books I had written. I did a BBC series called Webster's World, about my own life.

Somewhere along the line, I was heard by members of the Association of Speakers Clubs - and they submitted my name on the list of nominations for the title of UK Speaker of the Year. There were other names on the list. David Dimbleby. Trevor McDonald. Tony Benn. So, with that kind of competition, nothing would come of this. But life is one long tale of the unexpected. I received a phone-call one day to say I had won the vote. They knew about my stammer. And this was a recognition of what I had achieved in overcoming it. I put down the receiver, looked at myself in the mirror and observed that throat and those lips which had for so long contorted into shapes of the unpleasant. There was now a lump in that throat as I received this confirmation that I had largely conquered my stammer. I don't know if you are ever completely cured. Because sometimes it lurks in the shadows, waiting to pounce. Previous winners of this award included Peter Ustinov, Terry Waite, Edwina Currie and Betty Boothroyd, the Speaker of the House of Commons. So it was a boost to my morale. And more important, the story was told around the world in the Readers Digest. So thousands of stammerers took heart! They wrote to me and asked a question which is no doubt in many of your minds tonight: Where can I get an Edinburgh Masker?

This part of the story is not so good. It was manufactured by an electronics company in Penicuik, near Edinburgh. But the volume of demand was not enough to make it viable. So it was discontinued. But the company willingly passed on its expertise to a company in England. I tried out their product and, unfortunately, my set at least did not come up to standard. As far as I know, it went out of production. Which is a great shame.

I received that Speaker of the Year Award at a glittering banquet, a magnificent night, when of course I had to get up and make an acceptance speech

I am out of touch with what is happening in the stammering world today. But with or without that Edinburgh Masker it does prove that there is always hope. As I said, until I was middle-aged, I simply could not have got up and spoken to you tonight. But it happened. I received that Speaker of the Year Award at a glittering banquet, a magnificent night, when of course I had to get up and make an acceptance speech. I did harbour an unthinkable thought that, on that night of all nights, the gremlins might come back to haunt me. But they stayed away. And in that speech, I told a very distinguished audience about the day I received the phone call to say I had won. I told them that, as I looked in the mirror that day, a broad smile broke across my once-troubled face. Then I punched the air, gave out a whoop of delight and knew that at long last I had learned to do what comes naturally to most people. At long last, I had simply learned how to speak. The sense of freedom was immense. There will be others here tonight who have had the experience. And for those who are still engaged on this long and lonesome journey, your day may lie just round the corner. And even if it doesn't, I think it is worth remembering that there are worse things than having a stammer.

I look back and remember my heart trouble when I was a boy. But I'm still here at 73. I have learned to appreciate life - and have had a wonderful life, even when I was struggling with speech. When down in the dumps, I used to pause and look at the sun and the moon and the stars, the green fields and the animals. I would breathe in the fresh air and feel I could be a lot worse off. So let's look on the bright side. Let's count our blessings. It's a great privilege simply to be here and to have our health. Let's enjoy the camaraderie of tonight and all the other days and nights ahead of us. In other words, let's get on with the rest of our lives - striving to improve wherever we can - but in the end, trying to make the best of whatever kind of hand it is that the fates have decided to give us.

Speech given at the 10th BSA Conference, University of Stirling, September 2004

Copyright © Jack Webster 2004