The book sustained me on long hours of coach travel around Cuba. A flawed but hugely enjoyable re-examination of Churchill's life. Buy it if you want from the Salut! Amazon link at http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/1444783025/salusund-21
It must be a long time since anyone seriously considered starting an after-dinner speech: “Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking ….”
Difficult as this may be to imagine, the phrase was once regarded as a viable, self-deprecating introduction, sure to break the ice with an audience.
Today’s professional speechmaking circuit is made of sterner stuff. The listeners may have paid for their places; they expect knowledgeable, revealing or amusing addresses in return. But the rewards can be considerable. While compelling speakers have always been valued, the best now find their value expressed in generous financial terms.
Eyebrows were raised when the former British prime minister Tony Blair was reported to have been paid for two speeches in the Philippines. After Mr Blair’s aides dismissed the figure as “greatly exaggerated”, one commentator took this to mean that the true remuneration was less than half, which he still saw as an affront to Filipinos, “poor people whose pockets have been picked long and hard by their own elite”.
But Mr Blair is not alone. From the United States, Bill Clinton and two former presidential hopefuls – Al Gore and Sarah Palin – have collected handsome fees for their insights and, doubtless, gossip. So did the late Ronald Reagan. According to one list, all were trumped by, appropriately, the billionaire Donald Trump. He received up to $1.5 million for each hour-long talk to property seminars.
Other politicians, industrialists, sports stars and even one man who ran a demolition business have made tidy livings from their eloquence or ability to entertain.
Sometimes, however, fine speechmaking comes free, or at least as part of what the speaker does anyway. The British houses of parliament and other legislative chambers regularly provide platforms for oratory of the highest order.
Many British Conservatives marvelled at the engaging delivery of the late Tony Benn, even though his socialism appalled them. In the past, it was not uncommon for left-voting parents to name male offspring Winston.
There is no strict need to add the surname of the British wartime leader. I shall nevertheless do so since the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, recently hailed Winston Churchill as “the greatest orator Britain has produced”. In his book, The Churchill Factor, marking this year’s 50th anniversary of the statesman’s death, Mr Johnson deals compellingly with Churchill’s grand political achievements (and the occasional spectacular failures). He also writes about his “mobilisation of the English language”. It was Churchill’s inspirational words, when war clouds hung over Britain, not the political declarations, that caused those babies to bear his name.
Mr Johnson, who shares Churchill’s lofty self-esteem and hopes one day to occupy similar high office, naturally acclaims the familiar paeans to military glory. He describes as “that immortal line” Churchill’s resounding tribute to the Royal Air Force after the Battle of Britain: “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.”
Churchill did not always invent the words and phrases that came to be associated with him. But as in the cases of two examples, the Middle East and the Iron Curtain, he certainly popularised them.
A speaker’s power to sway or mesmerise is rightly admired unless the gift is abused (think of Hitler). But no one is perfect and it is reassuring to learn of the occasion, early in his parliamentary career, when Churchill froze, unable to add another word on his theme of working class representation in politics.
Mr Johnson’s explanation – this was a speech from memory, not the heart – matters little. We may all take simple comfort that there was a time when words let even Churchill down.
* From my column for The National, Abu Dhabi: http://www.thenational.ae/authors/colin-randall