In a lecture to mark her last public speech, the writer and BSA patron Margaret Drabble discusses her experience of living with stammering.
This is an edited version of the lecture delivered on October 18, 2001, in the Gulbenkian Lecture Hall in Oxford, at the invitation of the Oxford English Faculty.
Picture of Margaret Drabble.The ability to speak fluently is a great asset in a literary career, and one much prized by publishers and publicists. Nevertheless, many of us find ourselves pressured or flattered or cajoled into making speeches against our better judgement.
I was not cut out by my natural talents to be a lecturer or a public speaker. From an early age - the age of three, I am told - I suffered from a stammer, at times severe, though now very episodic and temperamental. So I could take the line that both Arnold Bennett and Somerset Maugham took when asked to speak in public, at after-dinner gatherings, or to literary societies. Both were severe stammerers, and both insisted that they didn't speak, they wrote. I could argue, though disingenuously, that my objections to the modern commercial literary circus spring from the fact that I entered it with a handicap, and that I feel that, as a writer, I am being expected to display skills or abilities that I do not possess.
This is where King George the Sixth comes back into the story. Bertie, as George the Sixth was known, is recorded to have stammered from the age of six, and his biographer Robert Lacey relates that 'His brothers and sister were allowed to make fun of his stammer, ragging him without mercy after the style set by his father's quarter-deck chaff, and he withdrew still more tightly into himself.' Unlike a writer, he was not allowed to choose public silence. He had to speak. He struggled bravely, but, despite the help of an Australian-born speech therapist called Lionel Logue, he never overcame his dislike of public speaking, and especially of broadcasting. He rehearsed everything with Logue and dreaded last minute alterations to his text: the Sovereign's Speech afforded him an added difficulty as it had to be delivered sitting, not standing. Occasionally, he was able to be pleased with his efforts: in 1940, his diary records that he was very pleased with the way he delivered his speech on Empire Day - 'it was easily my best effort. How I hate broadcasting.'
Why did he find it easier to speak standing than sitting? Why do some situations make stammerers worse? Why do more men stammer than women? Why does anyone stammer at all? Why does nobody know the answers to these questions?
I don't think anyone has ever done a study of speech difficulties specific to writers, though I do have a correspondent who collects books by writers who stammer, and about characters who stammer. The list of orally challenged writers is distinguished and includes, arguably, Demosthenes and Virgil and Claudius and Caedmon, and with more verification, Camille Desmoulins, Charles Lamb, Henry James, Somerset Maugham, Arnold Bennett, Elizabeth Bowen, Philip Larkin, and John Updike. Several interesting questions arise, at least to my mind. Did any of these take to text because of their difficulties with parole? Was their literary style affected by the nature of their impediment? Why did or do some of them avoid public situations, while others seek them? Do writers stammer more when they speak in bad faith, or when they speak with sincerity, and does the self-knowledge imparted by these warning signals affect what they write and how they write it? Or what they think, and how they think it? Are you more or less likely to think in the words you cannot speak?
Doris Lessing's protagonist Anna Wulf, in The Golden Notebook, gives up lecturing on art for the Communist Party because she finds herself in bad faith: her set lecture takes a Marxist line about the individual and group consciousness, and she says 'About three months ago, in the middle of this lecture, I began to stammer and couldn't finish. I have not given any more lectures. I know what that stammer means.' (The Blue Notebook, p. 299 ) Real-life habitual stammerers may be less clear about what their stammer means, in general, or in its specific manifestations. John Updike has written in his Memoirs (Self-Consciousness: Memoirs, 1989: Chapter iii, 'Getting the Words Out') with much feeling about his own impediment, to which he bravely adopts the 'blessing-in-disguise' attitude - it has saved him, he says, from many unwanted public engagements. But not from all - 'It happens when I feel myself in a false position. My worst recent public collapse, that I can bear to remember, came at a May meeting of the august American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, when I tried to read a number of award citations - hefty and bloated, as citations tend to be - that I had not written. I could scarcely push and batter my way through the politic words, and a woman in the audience loudly laughed, as if I were doing 'an act'.
This incident might seem to endorse Anna Wulf's 'Bad Faith' self- interpretation, but Updike also offers apparently contradictory interpretations - he says that fear, even of an electrician on the telephone, activates the defect in his speech, but that anger tends to cancel it. He says 'some hasty wish to please' often betrays his flow of speech - yet claims that his speech eases 'when I feel I am already somewhat known and forgiven.' 'I stutter', he says, 'when I am "in the wrong"', but he puts the phrase "in the wrong" in inverted commas. Conclusively, he claims that 'The paralysis of stuttering stems from the dead center of one's being, a deep doubt there.' Fear, bad faith, doubt, a sense of social inferiority? All these he suggests as possible interpretations.
Speaking for myself, on a more frivolous level, I know that my broadcasting and lecturing style, if not my prose style, has been curiously affected by my choice of vocabulary. Like most stammerers, I know that there are some words with which I am almost certain to have difficulty. On innumerable occasions I have substituted the phrase 'US' for 'America' or 'TV' for 'television'. This is clumsy and inelegant, but not disastrous. More problematic is the need to say 'lady' instead of 'woman' - this understandably causes offence and lands one in a pit of political incorrectness. Then there is the problem, when broadcasting- to confess to one's producer, or not to confess? To conceal and to remain in denial, or to tell all in advance? When doing Desert Island Discs recently, Sue Lawley was trying to corner me into saying that I had been introduced listening to my chosen Brahms serenade while in Venice, as she knew perfectly well from her researcher's notes that I had, but I simply couldn't get that beautiful word out. Circumlocution followed circumlocution 'in Italy, by the canal, in the home of the Doges, in the Bruges of the South, in Toni Ballerin's great aunt's flat' - these substitute phrases all sprang to mind and to my lips - and of course in reality it didn't matter what a mess I made of the word, because the BBC can always edit the tape, cut off the hesitations and stumblings, and make it sound fine. As the BBC could have done, now, on most occasions, for George the Sixth. (Though there is a moral dilemma here- is it right to adjust and mechanically to perfect one's defective speech? Is it an act of denial, an act of betrayal? Is it worse than airbrushing out one's wrinkles?)
Henry James was a master of circumlocution and elaboration and paraphrase. Did his baroque speech infect his prose, or was it the other way round? I don't know the answer to that.
Live speaking on or off the air is different from broadcasting from a studio with a technical safety net. One might assume, from what I have been saying, that people like myself should avoid live public speech at all costs - but this brings me to one of the most surprising aspects of this whole tangled speech business. And this is the fact that many people who stammer seem actively drawn to public speech, and some of them are very good at it.
Last summer I taught for two weeks on the island of Skyros, in a holistic health and holiday centre established twenty years ago by Dina Glouberman, whom I met there for the first time. Dina also stammers, and had clearly, as a therapist, thought deeply about the issue. In July, she sent me an email full of interesting suggestions, which contained this key passage: 'Stammerers tend to have high expectations and do jobs that require them to speak in public, which you would have thought they'd have avoided - also they tend to have a strong Hurry Up driver inside. I remember a description of a stammerer driving, and getting nervous about the person in the back and wanting to go faster, and so getting in a mess and finally causing an accident.'
Yes, I thought, yes. Dina Glouberman is right. We are not all passive victims who have public speaking thrust upon us by a maniacally fluent Angus Wilson hero figure - some of us actively and somewhat perversely seek situations which we know will create difficulties for us. There are some powerful illustrations of this. Hilary Mantel, in her fine novel of the French revolution, A Place of Greater Safety, gives an impressive portrait of the journalist, orator and demagogue, Camille Desmoulins, who, according to her suggestion, may have needed to reach a certain pitch of excitement before he became fluent. His handicap spurred him on - to his death, you could argue. In this passage, Danton reflects on his friend Camille's speech pattern; 'In the old days, [Camille] claimed that his stutter was a complete obstacle to successful pleading. Of course, when one is used to it, it might discomfit, irritate or embarrass. But Hérault has pointed out that Camille has wrung some extraordinary verdicts from distraught judges. Certainly I have observed that Camille's stutter comes and goes. It goes when he is angry or wishes forcibly to make a point; it comes when he feels put upon, and when he wishes to show people that he is in fact a nice person who is really not quite able to cope...'' (p.402).
The novelist Elizabeth Bowen...loved the telephone...and enjoyed lecturing for the British Council and the BBC. The British Council...described her as 'a most successful lecturer with a most successful stammer' 'not at all disturbing...endearing rather than distracting'
Nearer home, and less dramatically, the novelist Elizabeth Bowen, (who could not pronounce the word 'Mother', her own mother having died when she was thirteen), nevertheless loved the telephone, which many stammerers avoid, and enjoyed lecturing for the British Council and the BBC on milder subjects such as landscape and literature. The British Council in an internal memo (1950) described her as 'a most successful lecturer with a most successful stammer' 'not at all disturbing...endearing rather than distracting' (V. Glendinning, 1977). Those were gentle days.
A more energetic example of wilful speaking may be found in the form of Jonathan Miller, one of the best, most fluent, wittiest and most sought after public speakers of our time. He is a dazzling performer, after the Cambridge manner - he tends to end each lecture not with a conclusion but with a query or even with an unfinished sentence, as Dr Leavis used to do. His technique is superb, but how much of his eloquence springs from avoidance? When a bad word looms, find twenty other better ones to take its place - that seems to be his highly successful solution. Yet even he can get into difficulties. He admits to being forced on occasion to omit from certain discourses names or titles which would illustrate his point because they begin, inconveniently, with impossible consonants. You can't improvise or substitute a name, or only up to a point. (Jonathan, I might add, is, like me, a co-patron of the British Stammering Association, which is represented here this evening.) Interestingly, Jonathan Miller seems to be much happier with parole than with text. He has published a fair amount of text in his time, but most of it is image or speech related, and his books tend to be heavily illustrated.
What makes anyone stammer? Left-handedness falsely corrected, overweening ambition, muddled brain hemispheres, stress, or a weakness in the speech production mechanism? I repeat, nobody knows. Stammering has reasonably been called 'the most complex disorganisation of functioning in the field of medicine and psychiatry'. When I asked an analyst for suggestions as to causes, she said that maybe it was a way of drawing attention to myself and to what I had to say. Oh yes, came my immediate (though silent) angry reaction - like a club foot, or a hare lip, or an unsightly birthmark are ways of drawing attention to one's appearance? The last thing a stammerer wants to do is to stammer, and Somerset Maugham quite legitimately, in Of Human Bondage, handicapped his hero Philip with a clubfoot instead of a stammer. (Though it has to be said that clubfeet are more romantic and Byronic than speech impediments.)
On cooler reflection, however, I very reluctantly concede that this analyst may have had some kind of a point. A stammer is not a physical disability, nor even a motor disfunction, and that is that. All those cruel experiments with vocal cords and the slitting of tongues and the binding of left hands were a total waste of time. The nice elocution lessons I went to as a child in Sheffield were largely a waste of time, though I did learn some good poetry through them. The problem - and it is a problem, not a blessing in disguise, for most of us - remains a mystery. Maybe there is, in some of us, a deep confusion between the need for attention, and the means of obtaining it. A birthmark is a physical accident, and we carry it from birth, and from before birth. But speech is learned, and we do not stammer in the womb.
I have mentioned the British Stammering Association, which campaigns to improve awareness of speech difficulties in schools and in the work place, and would like to conclude by drawing our attention to the current expectations of fluency in the National Curriculum - expectations which, if articulated, would certainly have made life even more taxing for a child like myself. Of course it is desirable for children to be able to express themselves with confidence and fluency, but, for some, this is simply not a realisable goal. Those who place 'an unthinking emphasis on oracy' - I borrow that phrase from Cherry Hughes, the Education Officer of the BSA - simply do not know and cannot imagine what it is like to open your mouth, and not to know what, if any, sound will issue forth. One may long to be able to speak fluently - one may even long to be asked to read aloud in class - but one may not be able to do it. There are many horror stories of children in school being bullied not by fellow pupils only, but by teachers 'pull yourself together, speak clearly, don't mumble' are not very helpful injunctions to a small child, and they would not have been very helpful to the adult George the Sixth. Children suffer torments through their disability, and employ immense ingenuity in trying to outwit themselves. Some speak better standing, some sitting: some are more fluent if they slow down, whereas others need to get a running jump at words they dislike. Some achieve a measure of security by rehearsing endlessly, others are better if taken by surprise by words on the page. Some substitute, some avoid, some deny, some improvise. All would be daunted the Key Stage Three speaking requirements of the National Curriculum, which are listed thus:
The teacher should ensure that pupils can speak fluently and appropriately in different contexts, adapting their talk for a range of purposes and audiences, including the more formal. To this end, pupils should be taught to
A. structure their talk clearly, using markers so that their listeners can follow the line of thought
B. use illustrations, evidence and anecdote to enrich and explain their ideas
C. use gesture, tone, pace and rhetorical devices for emphasis
D. use visual aids and images to enhance communication
E. vary word choices, including technical vocabulary, and sentence structure for different audiences
F. use spoken standard English fluently in different contexts
G. evaluate the effectiveness of their speech and consider how to adapt it to a range of situations.
And all this, one is meant to achieve by the age of fourteen.
This speaking by numbers or letters would have been beyond me then, and is beyond me now. I have been struggling for more than forty years to express myself, and I am secretly hoping that this public declaration of public silence will unlock my throat, so that, at least in private, I will be safe at last - but if it doesn't, who cares? I have nothing to lose. Never again will I have to worry about lecture titles, or interactive sound systems, or microphones, or missing aeroplanes, or missing audiences, or the lack of visual aids or literary jokes to enhance my argument.
I intend to end this lecture with a quotation - with a striking, portentous, pretentious, and somewhat mystifying quotation from Nietzsche. It is always a good idea to know how to end a lecture - unless, of course, one is Jonathan Miller. And a quotation makes a good ending. One of the ironies of my speaking life is that I actually speak better - as did Angus Wilson - from notes, without a text, but as I have grown older, the anxiety of doing this has increased, and has made me speak worse. Hence this text, and this concluding quotation.
I found this quotation in a very good little book from the BSA library, by the prolific writer David Compton, who says his attention was directed to it by a friend in Devon. I hand it on, in turn. (Stammering: Its Nature, History, Causes and Cures. 1993) Compton says that although Nietzsche presents this episode as a riddle - it seems to have been associated with the death of his father - any stammerer will know what he means by it. Here it is. It is from Thus Spake Zarathustra, in the translation by Alexander Tille:
And verily, the sight I saw, its like I had never seen. I saw a young Shepherd, writhing, choking, quivering, with face distorted, from whose mouth a black and heavy snake hung down.
Saw I ever so much loathing and wan horror in one face? My hand tore at the serpent and tore - in vain! I could not tear the serpent from his throat. Then a voice within me cried: Bite! Bite!
Bite off its head! Bite! - thus cried the voice of my horror, my hate, my loathing, my pity, all the good and evil in me cried out?
The Shepherd bit, as my cry counselled him: he bit with all his strength! He spat the snake's head far from him - then sprang up, no longer a shepherd, no longer a man, but one transfigured, light-encompassed, one that laughed!
© Margaret Drabble, October 2001
From the Summer and Autumn 2002 editions of Speaking Out