Every year famous people are invited to serve up life-lessons to a new crop of American graduates to fortify them as they enter the big world. The Americans are known for their ‘commencement speeches’.
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This was my second visit to the conference. Three years earlier I had visited as part of preparation for the European Speechwriter Network conference that also took place in Berlin.
Advent is here. It’s good news – peace on earth, good will towards men. But I remember the end of November for my feelings of unease. A countdown to Christmas, yes, but also, for us, the self-employed, a countdown to the tax deadline at the end of January.
Time to find the bank statements. Open up the envelopes of uncategorised receipts. Put the monthly figures into accountancy software. And, most importantly, work out where to get the £2000 – £5000 to pay the tax man. And then another £500 to the accountant.
Not good news when we also have to pay for Christmas presents, parties and dinners.
Yesterday I attended the memorial service for Fred Metcalf.
Fred was a gag-writer and for many years the speechwriter for David Frost. The service took place at the Actors’ Church in Covent Garden. Afterwards there was an ‘open-mic’ and guests were invited to say a few words about him. Because the tributes were all from family and friends, (and Fred’s public life had been dealt with in the service), I decided not to deliver the speech. But I wanted to post it here:
I first came across Fred in a book.
It was Bob Monkhouse’s Complete Speaker’s Handbook.
I’ve been asked to take part in an initiative led by university academics into whether there is a crisis in political speech. The group wants to encourage a better understanding of the theory, history, use and reception of political rhetoric in this country.
I’m not sure what I think about this. One rhetorical way to deal with this is to write down my thoughts.
Ever since I read the Heath brothers book Switch, How to Change when Change is Hard, I’ve been reluctant to get into the business of analysing social trends.
In my first weeks I joined the Oxford Union. Michael Gove ran the induction.
Huddled on the floor in the Gladstone Room, the young freshers were invited to come up and speak. Nobody moved. Eventually he coaxed a few. I thought of something to say, but I was in awe of the surroundings. Far too petrified to stand up in front of my peers.
As a speechwriter, comfortable with the Liberal Metropolitan elite, I enjoy watching him in action. He’d come to Brexit territory, so I admired the vehemence he used in attacking the Brexiteers. The audience seemed to love it, although there wasn’t a greyhead in evidence, (the kind of people who usually go to see the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in the same theatre).
I have a two-year-old son. We get through a lot of children’s books.
I’ve found them very enriching. Most of them use the same speechwriting techniques as I do: three part lists, metaphor and rhyme – because they’re designed to be read aloud.
Young men, eager to do a good best man speech, often send me their scripts. I keep an open mind, but I nearly always have to give a long sigh when I finish reading. They describe in tedious detail their life of adventures with the groom. Anecdotes go on for paragraphs.
A few years ago, I discovered the Adam Curtis documentary The Living Dead, The Attic.
Mrs Thatcher’s former speechwriter Ronnie Millar features prominently in it.
Gove, Johnson, Hannan: I was a young Tory like them at university, and it explains to me the spell I got caught up in during the Thatcher years. It’s the mythology that they used in the Brexit campaign.
My work as a speechwriter has taught me why these ideas should be put in bottles and branded as harmful substances. I had hoped the referendum would condemn them to the oblivion they richly deserved. But I was wrong.
They have ‘subordinated reason to the heroic myth’. If you watch the Adam Curtis video, you’ll see, as Alan Clarke explains, they’ve ‘drunk the potion’.