Who's afraid of the big, bad speeches?

SPEECH-MAKING, we usually assume, has completely disappeared from public taste. We take little enjoyment in the art of rolling cadences, of high rhetorical repetition, of rabble-rousing in blank-verse paragraphs. And even if we liked it, we probably wouldn't be very good at it. The predominant mode of public discourse now is conversational, flat, pragmatic.

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
    Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

    That's a bit rich

    The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
    Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
    Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

    Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

    Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
    A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

    Britain's Atlantis

    Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

    David Starkey's assessment
    Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

    'An enormous privilege and adventure'

    Oliver Sacks writing about his life
    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
    Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

    Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

    Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests