We can't all be orators like Cicero, you know. Image: Getty
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Bitter experience has taught me never to wing it when giving a speech . . . so I decide to wing it

This is my default way of dealing with things. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

It is 8.30am. Never good. An out-of-town number, no name attached; it could go either way but probably not the way I’d like. The voice on the other end, businesslike but with a charmlessness that borders on menace, asks me, without so much as a query about my health, let alone an apology for calling me so early, to confirm my name and address – and it presumably has a load of other questions.

“Hang on a moment,” I say. “Before I tell you who I am, would you mind telling me who you are?” He names a company unfamiliar to me.

“I’m afraid I am none the wiser. Could you tell me the nature of your business?” I ask, although I am beginning to have a shrewd idea what this might be about. He repeats the name, slightly less charmingly than before, and adds that this company has already sent me many letters, none of which I have acknowledged.

“In that case,” I say, “we are at an impasse.” I haven’t seen any of these letters and tell him so. “I refuse to deal with someone of whom I have no knowledge and you refuse to identify yourself and tell me what your company does. We are stalled.” Then, with a voice that makes me think of a bailiff in a bad mood – a bailiff, moreover, who has gone down to the kitchen in the dark with the idea of getting a snack to cheer himself up but has instead trodden on an upturned drawing pin with his bare feet – he suggests I look
his company up.

We hang up on mutually suspicious terms. I think I know roughly what I will find if I look up his company name, because I did not come down in the last shower, but at the moment my mind is on higher things – I have to go to Birmingham City University shortly to talk for about an hour and a half on what constitutes my income stream, apart from the column you are holding in your hands at this moment. That is, book reviewing.

I have written before about my lack of delight and competence in addressing an audience. I begin to sweat uncontrollably – a ludicrous phrase as one can’t tweak one’s sweating rate once it starts, but in my case it gets visibly out of control and this makes me lose the thread of what I’m saying, which makes me sweat, and so on.

I was asked to do this in October by the writer Ian Marchant, whom I have never met but whose books I have praised and which bespeak a geniality and world-view that would be a pleasure to encounter in person; there’s a couple of long ’uns in it for me, plus travel expenses, and crucially it was five months away, which is like never.

Around this time last month, I woke up in the night with a jolt and remembered this gig, then decided that the date had probably been and gone, that everyone had forgotten about it and that it had all blown over. This is my default way of dealing with things. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. A couple of days later, I got an email from an ac.uk address, asking me if I was still on. I sighed inwardly and said yes.

Why do I do this? Long ago, I realised that to fill up 40 minutes with continuous scripted speech would involve writing somewhere between 4,500 and 5,000 words, which rather takes the gloss off the money I’ll be earning, and bitter experience has taught me that it is unwise to go into the room with half a page of notes and a vague hope that one will be able to wing it.

So I decided I would spin things out by reading George Orwell’s horribly timeless but very funny piece “Confessions of a Book Reviewer” (“In a cold but stuffy bed-sitting room littered with cigarette ends and half-empty cups of tea, a man in a moth-eaten dressing grown sits at a rickety table,” and so on) and then . . . well, wing it.

In the end it was pretty much as I expected. I was feeling sick all the way up (“If he has recently had a lucky streak he will be suffering from a hangover”) and toyed with the idea of pulling the communication cord; instead I wrote a couple of pages of notes in a crabbed hand.

This turns out to be illegible and I sweat like a pig while talking but calm down and do much better when answering questions from the keen and intelligent audience. One good thing has come out of it all: on the train back, I realise that I’ve completely forgotten the name of the company that called this morning. But I have a horrible feeling it’ll be calling again.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Russia's Revenge

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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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