Michael Holroyd: Might it be possible to overestimate the wisdom of Roy Jenkins?

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My chief anxiety following the shock – the very agreeable shock – of being elected President of the Royal Society of Literature seven years ago centred on one special task that lay ahead of me: the task of making speeches. I am attached to the written word which people assured me was quite a different language from the spoken word. My apprehension was made all the greater by the fact that my predecessor was Roy Jenkins, one of the best speech makers in the country. How on earth could I come near his performances?

I am a believer in magic and so, in the hope that our late president would assist me from beyond the grave, I focussed my initial AGM speech on Roy Jenkins himself, hoping to borrow something of his skill and fluency. I prepared my spontaneous effects – a rousing joke here, a hidden apercu there – very cautiously. Within a few months I had completed my slender script and tried it out before a mirror, stop-watch in hand, very well aware that an audience of writers must not be kept away too long from its drinks. It was, I later thought, a good demonstration of Einstein's theory of relativity. Though only a few minutes had passed according to my watch, I looked several years older afterwards.

And now I am several years older and giving my last presidential address, I decided to look back at the addresses Roy Jenkins himself gave during his years as president. What I discovered came as a great shock to me.

The speeches he gave that I remembered so well, those eloquent and witty addresses: they never existed. He rose to his feet, he stood in front of us; we applauded and thanked him and then he thanked us. A more polite and engaging affair you could not imagine.

The only address he actually made was a pun about authors concealing their addresses in reference books – a symbolic pun, I now see, about his concealed addresses to us. What he did redoubles my belief in magic. He gave us, I now see, a wonderfully surreal performance that left us all believing we had heard something of compelling eloquence and conviction, something that stiffened our sinews and summoned up the blood.

Taken from a speech by Sir Michael Holroyd at the Royal Society of Literature's annual general meeting at King's College, London

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