Ellie Levenson: Never mind the speeches, watch the applause

Michael Howard and his potential successors will want to ensure they judge their clapping well
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The Independent Online

Two years ago, when I attended my first ever party conference, I was sitting with the rest of the press during Tony Blair's speech. Just next to my aisle seat, standing, was Alastair Campbell. Whenever Blair made a salient point or delivered a well-placed soundbite, Alastair would start to clap. He had a very composed clap, a slow and controlled clap with long gaps between each one. A journalist sitting next to me, knowing it was my first conference, whispered to me that Alastair was doing this to indicate to the party faithful when they, too, should start clapping. I was just about to join in when the journalist turned to me again. He gave me a friendly smile, but whispered firmly in my ear: "Journalists don't clap."

I was rather taken with the Alastair Campbell clap. It seemed to me authoritative and measured. I've been cultivating the Alastair clap myself, practising at theatre curtain-calls and political speeches, and occasionally in the privacy of my home. I have perfected it now, I think, and can clap in a crowded room full of clappers and still my clap can be identified as a separate, controlled clap that stands out from the rest.

And this week, as the Conservatives take their turn on the party conference stage, many of us will be focusing on the clapping and the audience reaction, as much as the actual speeches. Commentators will be scanning the audience and asking the following questions: Does Michael Howard get a longer clap from his party faithful than Tony Blair from his? Which politicians clap which other politicians? Which are the words that get the claps? and Are the rumours about party officials who don't clap in the right places finding themselves being sacked when they return to work the next week really true?

This attention to the applause is not, however, just an excuse to avoid thinking about the substance, or lack of substance, in the speeches. For clapping can have a number of meanings as Steven Connor, Professor of Modern Literature and Theory at Birkbeck College, points out in his essay on clapping, 'The Help of Your Good Hands'. In Peter Pan, for example, clapping is used to assert belief. Children are encouraged to clap to show their belief in, and to save the lives of, fairies. This works, too, during political speeches. We clap to affirm and we clap to convince ourselves that we believe - be it in choice, or equality, or giving less control to Europe, or whatever it is we are clapping at whatever time we are clapping, trying to ensure these ideas, like Peter Pan's fairies, don't die.

Though handclapping is often associated with the childish pleasures and excitement - think 'If you're happy and you know it clap your hands' - it takes young children quite some time to learn how to clap properly, and demands a high level of concentration and co-ordination. And if you clap at the wrong time and misjudge the moment, clapping can be hugely embarrassing - you become the solitary clapper in a hostile audience, breaking their concentration and marking out your appreciation of what is happening on the stage as singular and ill-timed. However, when it works, clapping can be the ultimate expression of group appreciation - clapping together gives a sense of community and a common goal. It is for this reason that Michael Howard, and all his potential successors, will want to ensure they, too, judge their clapping well and do so at the appropriate places - not to do so indicates contempt for the crowd and those around them.

But clapping wasn't always an expression of one's beliefs or one's excitement. Connor points out that in the Old Testament the clapping of hands is associated with anger and insulting contempt. For example, it is said of Job that "Men shall clap their hands at him, And shall hiss him out of his place".

Similarly, clapping has a sinister edge in folklore, where a clap of the hands or a thunderclap is often associated with magical actions, the summoning of spirits or a transformation - as Connor puts it, 'a sudden, paroxysmic concentration and release of vital force." Perhaps this would be just what the Conservatives need - after a shock fourth place in Hartlepool, a transformation, a sudden paroxysmic concentration or a summoning of spirits could be just the ticket.

One thing all speakers in Bournemouth this week will be hoping is that they do not receive a slow handclap. Last week, a solitary protester at the beginning of Blair's speech tried to initiate a slow handclap and failed. In 2000, the normally fragrant Women's Institute succeeded however, slow handclapping Tony throughout a speech on traditional values. But such a reception is difficult for an audience to sustain- a great deal of control is needed to maintain a slow handclap, and it usually disintegrates or speeds up.

Luckily for us commentators, we can interpret clapping whichever way we feel inclined. For as Connor points out, clapping can be taken to mean whatever society wants it to mean. It is both associated with excess energy - "going like the clappers", and with its depletion - "becoming clapped out". By the close of conference on Thursday, I wonder which we will judge the Conservatives to be.