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.

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
    Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

    Look what's mushrooming now!

    Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
    Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

    Oeuf quake

    Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
    Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

    Terry Venables column

    Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
    Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin