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

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left