How different history might have been if its great speech-makers had done an Ed Miliband

Imagine Martin Luther King in Washington without ‘having his dream’ …

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Ed Miliband was surprisingly insouciant on Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday when taxed by Sarah Montague over forgetting, or intentionally dropping, chunks of his keynote speech at the Labour Party Conference. “Let me tell you about the way I do speeches,” he said. “I write a speech and then use it as a framework for giving a sense to people of where I feel the country needs to go.” Well yeah, said Montague, but you said nothing at all about immigration policy. “It was”, said Miliband, defensively, “just a couple of pages of my speech that I didn’t use.

A couple of pages? As Tony Hancock might have said, that’s very nearly an armful. A couple of pages is longer than the Gettysburg Address. And (as Miliband would say) here’s the thing: the best bits of a speech are often the bits you think you could leave out as not madly important.

Remember how, in Shakespeare’s Henry V, the King tells his men not to mind that their army is short of numbers for the imminent battle against the French? The fewer the men there are, he says, “the greater share of honour” should they manage to win. He says he’d rather not, on the whole, “die in that man’s company/ That fears his fellowship to die with us”.

He could have left it there, but into his head pops the fact that it’s St Crispin’s Day. And on that not-very-interesting fact (Crispin who?) he hangs the greatest military harangue and call-to-arms in literature. What a mercy the King didn’t think: “This is going on too long – I’ll skip the Crispin stuff. The squaddies don’t want to hear about bloody saints…”

Or take Churchill’s speech to the House of Commons on 4 June 1940. It’s immensely long, full of boring statistics – troop numbers, army supplies, French generals, the perfidy of the Belgian king – and really depressing. He says that “what has happened in France and Belgium” is “a colossal military disaster,” before sounding more positive notes about the future. By the end of half an hour, when he turned to the question of invasion, you can imagine the Commons had had enough.

Churchill could easily have ended with the line “The British empire and the French republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil.” How close did he come to thinking: “Sod it – I won’t bother with all that ‘we-shall-fight’ stuff about beaches and fields. Too repetitive… I think I’ve made my point…”?

Had he dropped it, he’d have regretted it on the way home. As would Martin Luther King, if he’d decided, in the middle of his speech at the Lincoln Memorial on 28 August 1963: “Maybe I won’t bother with all the ‘I have a dream’ stuff. Maybe I’ll go straight for the ‘Let freedom ring’ finale. I mean, nobody wants to hear about other people’s dreams, do they?”

It could all have gone differently for John F Kennedy when he made his great speech in Germany in 1963. How much would he have regretted it, had he decided not to bother with the “Ich bin ein Berliner” line, just in case it meant “I am a faggot” in idiomatic Bavarian? Did Mrs Thatcher, at the Conservative conference in 1980, consider jettisoning the line about “The lady’s not for turning” because (a) it sounded a bit odd and (b) she’d no idea it was an allusion to The Lady’s Not for Burning by Christopher Fry, and nor had anyone else? But if she’d dropped it, no one would remember her speech at all.

Did Jesus Christ have a moment, during the Sermon on the Mount, when he thought: “Hang on – maybe I should leave out the line ‘Blessed are the meek; for they shall inherit the earth’ because I’m not entirely sure I know what I’m talking about here”? Was there, in fact, another page of his visionary speech that he just dropped, Milibandily, out of sheer perversity? There was no PR handout of the text, so two millennia of Christian belief might have been lost. The Leader of the Opposition should be less breezy in the future about what he chooses to leave out.


Courtship for the squeezed middle

I gave a party, a while ago, from which one male guest abruptly disappeared around midnight never to return. Someone explained to me that he’d been summoned to have sex with a complete stranger, somewhere within a half-mile of my home. It was my first introduction to Grindr, the, er, gay-courtship app.

Soon after I heard about Tinder, the hetero-hook-up app that uses Facebook to bring together libidinous and sexually desperate citizens who happen to be in the same area at the same time. Now, unbelievably, there’s Cuddlr. That’s right -- if you feel in need of a hug, you can contact groaning hordes of like-minded claspers and squeezers in the vicinity and away you go.

But would you go to such lengths to embrace a total stranger, on the understanding that there’ll be “no further expectation”? Isn’t a thinly disguised Tinder opportunity, only with a drink and a chat first? But if it’s real, can we expect to see ever-more watered-down forms of courtship? Will we next get Fondlr? Nuzzlr? Warm-handshakr?


Not really a ‘people person’ – or was he?

I went to the Late Turner exhibition at Tate Britain and had a brilliant time, lost amid the crashing waves of his Snow Storm, the blinding dazzle of Regulus, the black-and-flame glory of Peace: Burial at Sea and a score of other Turneresque assaults on the eye.  But one thing puzzled me. Turner’s lack of interest in painting human figures, except in the most sketchy, gestural way, didn’t stop him offering works that purport to show people.

Look at The Arrival of Louis-Philippe at Portsmouth, 8 October 1844, and you won’t find the French king anywhere amid the murky swirls and tiny wraiths. Gaze at Mercury Sent to Admonish Aeneas (1850) and you’ll be pushed to make out either figure (or any admonishing) in the foggy morning mist.  Apply a magnifying glass to the promising-sounding Neapolitan Fisher Girls Surprised Bathing by Moonlight, and you’ll see the tiniest hint of naked females, dwarfed by a huge tree, a lighthouse and an erupting volcano.

Was the artist teasing viewers, by asking them to discern puny human beings amidst the epic Sturm und Drang of his landscapes? Is this Turner’s version of Where’s Wally?