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Remembering Lionel Logue

Richard Oerton | 01.03.2011

BSA member Richard Oerton recalls his own experiences with King George VI's speech therapist.

Lionel Logue (Picture: Logue family archive)I must have been about eleven, and Lionel Logue about 67, when my father first took me to see him. I had a severe stammer and I should have been grateful to my father, who was a solicitor practising in north Devon: the train journey to London was long and tedious and Logue's fees were probably substantial. (During one of my visits, my father wrote him a cheque for too small an amount and was gently corrected.) But he knew that Logue had helped King George, and decided that he could help me if anyone could, so there I was.

I vividly recall Logue's kindness. In my experience, it has not been entirely unknown for speech therapists to criticise their patients' efforts, almost as if they are trying to bully them into fluency. Logue wasn't like that. Quite a slight man, with white hair and rather delicate features, his voice was always slow, warm and friendly, still with a trace of an Australian accent, and he gave me nothing but encouragement.

On that first visit, he paid close attention to my breathing and, having done so, told my father that he was sure he could help me. In this, I should disclose at once, he was wrong: my stammer did not improve noticeably under his care (nor, for that matter, was it ever to do so under anyone else's), but he did his best. Breathing was, in his view, very important. Like most people, he said, I breathed only from the upper part of my lungs. I must breathe also from the diaphragm. Apart from giving me more wind, the resulting movement of this lower part of my lung would "work against a nerve centre", so calming me down.

Of course he never talked about his relationship with the Duke of York, who came to the throne as King George VI after the abdication. However, my father, who had no time at all for the Duke of Windsor, did venture to say on this first visit, "Aren't we all lucky that what happened did happen?", and Logue agreed to that.

Logue's therapy approach

He believed that stammering was often triggered by a traumatic experience - one of his patients had started to stammer as a child after being sucked into a swimming pool outlet - but I could produce no obvious trauma myself. I have seen Logue's view about this described as psychoanalytical, but of course it wasn't. A psychoanalyst would have wanted to uncover the unconscious meaning which the trauma had for the child at the stage of emotional development when it happened, and I'm sure this was not Logue's approach. Nor indeed was his approach, at least to me, in any way an overtly psychological one, except in the sense that it radiated warmth and reassurance. It seems that he encouraged the King to swear: he never suggested this to me, but I can see the psychological purpose behind it. Oddly enough, I decided quite instinctively to tell one of my own children to shout swear words when she had an episode of stammering which proved to be brief. It is said of some psychotherapists that they heal their patients more through their personalities than through their techniques, and I suspect that the patients whom Logue helped were helped mainly in this way.

I vividly recall Logue's kindness.

By my second visit, I had succeeded in changing my breathing in the way he wanted, and he was pleased. From then onwards, I must have seen him, at irregular intervals, for about five years. To begin with, I went with my father or my mother, but later on I went by myself. When I first saw him, he was practising in Harley Street, but later he retired to a rather grand block of flats called Princes Court, opposite Harrods, and I saw him there.

Richard OertonAll this was some sixty years ago, and I have forgotten most of what happened during these visits. I believe that he offered a few techniques, such as starting a word softly and slowly, but I think his main concern was to give me the experience of fluency: he got me to read aloud, sometimes from newspapers (he favoured editorials in the Daily Express), and sometimes from exercise cards which he had prepared. I recall, for example, being made to intone, "This, that, these, those", "Lip, lap, lop", and similar sets of words, many times. And there was one exercise which sometimes reduced me, to Logue's delight, to helpless laughter: "Benjamin Bramble Blimber borrowed the baker's birchen broom to brush the blinding cobwebs from his brain".

My school, when the therapy began, was an independent preparatory boarding school in Chichester - anyone who feels affronted by the privileged education which this implies may be comforted to know that I hated nearly every minute of it - and on several occasions I was allowed to take the train to London on my own in order to see Logue. I think the school had reservations about the whole thing: soon after I started seeing him, the headmaster told my father that Logue's efforts seemed to have made my stammer worse rather than better. When my father reported this to Logue, he spoke briefly about the pettiness of some schoolmasters and said that it was bound to be worse during a period of transition.

Between visits I was supposed to do breathing exercises and word exercises, and to read aloud to someone. In term time this was done under Matron's supervision. I looked forward to my visits to her room because she often had a piece of toast left over from her tea: at school I was perpetually hungry and I can still remember the joy with which I consumed this dry toast. Once she gave me a book by Somerset Maugham to read aloud and I came upon the sentence, "They both married whores." I paused on this and asked, "What on earth is a whore?" - pronouncing it, because I had never heard the word, "wore" instead of "hore". Matron didn't attempt an explanation but said, "That isn't a very nice word, and actually that isn't a very nice book." She found me another.

Later years

I went on to public school but my father died while I was there and I left at sixteen. My sporadic visits to Lionel Logue continued, and for a while I stayed at a hotel in Cromwell Road, the Vanderbilt, where the charges were fortunately much lower than its name would suggest, and walked from there every few days to see him in Princes Court. He was kind, welcoming and encouraging as always, but every so often he would stop talking, put his hands between his legs, grimace and double up with pain. After a while the pain would recede and he would continue. Once he apologised, but added, as if to reassure us both, "But I know I'm teaching as well as ever I did." And once, when I said I hoped he would soon be better, he replied dismissively, "Oh, this isn't going to get any better."

Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue in The King's Speech (Picture courtesy of Momentum Pictures)This period of more concentrated treatment ended by mutual consent, but a little later I went with my mother to see him again. The door of his flat was opened by a nurse, who said he was too ill to keep the appointment. Then there was a scurrying and Lionel Logue himself appeared in pyjamas and dressing gown, trying to push in front of the nurse. "Oh," he said, "I want to see him. And his mother." But the nurse hustled him away. My mother, reasonably enough perhaps, though she seemed not to take in the pathos of what had just happened, complained that our appointment should have been cancelled before we set off from Devon. I myself was moved and saddened to have caught this glimpse of him. It proved to be the last. Not very long afterwards, listening to the wireless, I heard a news bulletin, its first words: "The death has been announced of Mr. Lionel Logue ...".

From the Spring 2011 edition of Speaking Out, pages 8 and 9.