Who's afraid of the big, bad speeches?
Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Exeter, Philip Hensher was among Granta 20 Best of Young British Novelists in 2003. The author of six novels, a collection of short stories and an opera libretto, he has won numerous prizes including the Somerset Maugham Award and the Stonewall Journalist of the Year. His 2008 novel, 'The Northern Clemency', was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Commonwealth Prize. A regular presence in the British media, alongside his Wednesday column for The Independent, he writes for The Spectator and Mail on Sunday.
Wednesday 29 December 1999
If you drop into the House of Commons any day of the week, you may sit for hours without hearing a single memorable phrase or sentence. It is easy to understand how those poor unfortunates, parliamentary sketch writers, are reduced to writing about people dropping their order papers and the ridiculous dress sense of backbenchers. There are no words worth writing down; because these days, everyone has something to say, but no real interest in how best to say it.
Whether this is much of a loss, I don't know. The University of Wisconsin, Madison - no doubt a very excellent institution - has joined the general millennial fervour and made yet another list, of the greatest public speeches of the century. It's a very curious sort of list. Most of the choices are there because of the importance of the occasion which called them forth. And there's a sense that only things we now agree with would find a place; it would be possible to make a case for the rhetorical excellence and powerful effect of Enoch Powell's "rivers of blood" speech, but no one would want to put it in.
Still, they've made some good choices. One might prefer President Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech to his inaugural address, despite the fact that the poor man was actually saying "I am a doughnut". There must, surely, be better speeches to be had out of Mrs Thatcher than her address to the Commons on the Falklands invasion - "We have been doing everything reasonable to secure a negotiated settlement." The unforgettable one was a speech in the no-confidence debate after her resignation in which she wildly agreed with Dennis Skinner's proposal she should become the governor of the European Central Bank.
But on the whole, it's quite a good selection. The key point to the great orations, surely, is an element of extreme corn. Reagan's beautiful speech on the Challenger space shuttle disaster, for instance, is not less moving even when you know that the lines about "slipping the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God" comes from the worst sort of popular poem.
Churchill is in the top 10 once, and ought to be in again; they've put in the speech of 13 May 1940, with the "blood, toil, tears and sweat". The unforgettable one, though, is the one from a month later, which begins in such disillusionment, and ends with the whole House getting out its handkerchiefs at the Empire saying: "This was their finest hour." Few people would have had the nerve to drop so magnificently into long paragraphs of blank verse, even in 1940.
We certainly used to have a taste for this sort of thing. Do we still? People used to flock to the sermons of a famous clergyman - John Donne, for instance - in much the same way that we go to the cinema now. And perhaps it hasn't quite disappeared; after all, every Englishman can recite at least part of Elizabeth I's speech to the troops at Tilbury. The public response to Earl Spencer's misguided speech at his sister's funeral shows how thin the universal veneer of cynicism is, how ready we are to be moved by a public statement of high emotion.
The nettle the list doesn't grasp, however, is that oratory needn't be a force for good. If the list's compilers had gone beyond English, would it have been easy to keep Hitler's terrifying perorations out of the list? Altogether, perhaps we are better off with the dry prose and forgettably- voiced sentiments of today's politicians.
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