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