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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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn bids for the NHS to rescue Labour

Ahead of tomorrow's by-elections, Corbyn damned Theresa May for putting the service in a "state of emergency".

Whenever Labour leaders are in trouble, they seek political refuge in the NHS. Jeremy Corbyn, whose party faces potential defeat in tomorrow’s Copeland and Stoke by-elections, upheld this iron law today. In the case of the former, Labour has already warned that “babies will die” as a result of the downgrading of the hospital. It is crude but it may yet prove effective (it worked for No to AV, after all).

In the chamber, Corbyn assailed May for cutting the number of hospital beds, worsening waiting times, under-funding social care and abolishing nursing bursaries. The Labour leader rose to a crescendo, damning the Prime Minister for putting the service in a “a state of emergency”. But his scattergun attack was too unfocused to much trouble May.

The Prime Minister came armed with attack lines, brandishing a quote from former health secretary Andy Burnham on cutting hospital beds and reminding Corbyn that Labour promised to spend less on the NHS at the last election (only Nixon can go to China). May was able to boast that the Tories were providing “more money” for the service (this is not, of course, the same as “enough”). Just as Corbyn echoed his predecessors, so the Prime Minister sounded like David Cameron circa 2013, declaring that she would not “take lessons” from the party that presided over the Mid-Staffs scandal and warning that Labour would “borrow and bankrupt” the economy.

It was a dubious charge from the party that has racked up ever-higher debt but a reliably potent one. Labour, however, will be satisfied that May was more comfortable debating the economy or attacking the Brown government, than she was defending the state of the NHS. In Copeland and Stoke, where Corbyn’s party has held power since 1935 and 1950, Labour must hope that the electorate are as respectful of tradition as its leader.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.