The Tories who jeered Ed Balls's Autumn Statement stammer are as bad as playground bullies

As a fellow stammerer I know this mysterious condition has nothing to do with getting your facts wrong and everything to do with the tricks of uncertain speech.

Share

I couldn’t bear to watch the red-faced Tories braying with stage laughter at Ed Balls on television on Tuesday. I had to switch off.

Photographs in the press have brought it all back in its painful immediacy. I couldn’t bear to listen to Ed Balls speak about his stammer on the radio this morning, either. I sympathise too deeply. It brings back too much misery. I don’t automatically classify Tories as bully boys, but the sight of chaps ganging up to laugh at a speech impediment is unacceptable. Gentlemen don’t do that. Playground bullies do.

Public speaking can be a nightmare for those who suffer from a stammer, and stammering, as all those who share the mysterious and deeply unpredictable condition know, is exacerbated by stress. Ed Balls has chosen a stressful life and you could say he has only himself to thank for that, but speaking in the House on a day of high political significance could hardly be more demanding. The problem is, once you have fluffed one word, you may panic, and continue on the same unhappy trajectory with increasing anxiety. This has nothing to do with getting your facts or your argument wrong, it is all to do with the tricks of uncertain speech. The speaker is not being disingenuous or playing for sympathy, he or she is caught by the moment.

The worst performance I ever gave, speech-wise, was a lecture in Stratford-upon-Avon, for which I had what I still think was a very good script, but I was jetlagged on my return from Australia and perhaps further troubled by finding myself in the home of perfect performers. I began badly, and continued badly. The memory still worries me.

The last time I saw Ed Balls in person was at a tea party in the House of Lords, to which he had come to give his support to a meeting of the British Stammering Association. There we were, hosted by Baroness Whitaker, in a motley group that included the novelist David Mitchell, myself, and Nicholas Parsons. Some of us found it hard even to say our own names.

Of course, there are degrees of speech difficulty, and some of us on occasion can be as fluent and articulate as anybody, but we were united by the knowledge that at any moment in public or private we could unexpectedly find ourselves at a loss – trying to buy a railway ticket, let alone attempting instant analysis of a complex financial statement. It was a pleasure, we agreed, to be able to speak freely and openly, among friends, of what methods of cure we had tried, what triggered episodes, why we thought we’d begun to stammer in the first place.

“Among friends” – that’s one key to fluency, as the BSA would emphasise. Politicians have to cope with enemies, all the time. That’s part of the job. Balls can be as aggressive as his opponents. But I’ve yet to see him jeering at other people’s impediments.

Dame Margaret Drabble is a novelist. She is a patron of the British Stammering Association

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior QA Engineer - Agile, SCRUM

£35000 - £50000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior QA Engineer (Agil...

Marketing Executive - West Midlands - £28,000

£26000 - £28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Digital Marketing Executive (SEO, PP...

Retail Business Analyst

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our retail client ...

Senior C++ Developer

£400 - £450 Per Annum possibly more for the right candidate: Clearwater People...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: We are winning the fight against extreme poverty and hunger. It's time to up the ante

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
David Cameron addresses No campagn supporters in Aberdeen  

Scottish independence: Cameron faces a choice between destroying his country or his party

Matthew Norman
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week