Monday, 29 October 2007

Wh... wha... what ... did... you sa ... sa ... say ... Bottler?

A lot of people have pointed out that the Bottler's public statements under pressure have lately been marred by a curious new tendency to stutt ... stutt... stutt ... stutt... stutt... STUTTER!

I have read, too, that Ed Balls as a child also had a slight stamm ... stamm ... stamm ... STAMMER!

Now, I may be the Daily Brute but I am not an unrelieved brute. Well into my 20s I had a pretty bad stammmmm ....mmmm .... mmmm ....ER myself.

Even now, I am conscious of it from time to time.

So believe me, I sympathise with anyone with a genuine stutter. It is in every sense cripplingly cruel. There are the words, dying to be uttered yet tantalisingly out of reach, your inability to say them reducing you on occasion to a sense that you have become little better than a smiling, speechless nonentity. Yet there is nothing apparently the matter. So why can't you do what everyone else can do? Why can't you TALK normally?

There have been moments when I have wanted to scream out loud. For reasons no one has yet convincingly explained – faulty wiring? traumatic childhood memories? – what should be wholly straightforward – introducing yourself, asking the time, on one memorably awful occasion struggling to read an essay as everyone looked anywhere but at me – you simply can't do what everyone else can. You can't talk. It can create a sense of worthlessness you feel will never pass.

I repeat: I sympathise.

Except that in the case of Brown and Balls I don't.

There are two reasons for this. First, the Bottler doesn't stutter.

Stuttering may never have been properly explained. But I know for a certain fact that it is not something you suddenly acquire. Not real stuttering. That's in built and beyond anyone's control.

But curious hesitations in your speech ... repetitions ... words half spoken, half pronounced, semi uttered, repeated again and finally spat out: that is the Bottler these days.

It's the performance of a man lacking in confidence and desperate to pretend otherwise. No wonder the words stick in his mouth. No wonder he so obviously fails to convince.

Balls, however, is different. If it is true that he stammered as a child, he has a handicap I doubt he will ever recover from.

As Gordo's backroom brain, public speaking was rarely likely to prove a problem. But as an MP and, even more, as a performer in the Commons, he will have to confront his demons all the time.

And the trouble is that they will never go away. Not under pressure.

Will they come to cripple him? Who can say?

But they may come to dominate him. Every time he has to make a major speech, every time he has to stand up as a minster in the Commons, every time he has to go in television and every time he has to talk on the radio, he will, I guarantee, have gnawing away at the back of his mind the thought that he will reach a certain word and be unable to say it.

Any long-term stammerer can tell you about the tricks they use to avoid saying particular words and phrases. But not too many of them will be government ministers.

Balls has a big problem. Were he honest, he would already be thinking of another career.

There is a serious irony here. Balls is, big time, a bully, a man who has had all the advantages of big-shot back-room status without ever needing to display himself on the public stage until relatively recently.

But subject him to the unblinking glare of the camera, the Commons or the public statement under pressure and that one word he can't say will always be there.

He has already faltered. He has already hummed and haa-ed in public in ways that made only too clear he was creeping around words and phrases filled with personal pifalls. He has already turned in the classic stutterer's cover-up performance. Adroit but fuelled by the horror of public humiliation.

He is in the wrong job.

So, reason two, why don't I feel sorry? Because he is at heart a bully. And this bullying is, I am convinced, an attempt to justify the empty inadequacy I know he feels about his stammer.

Admit his problem and he would win near limitless support. Who could possibly blame him?

But the stutterer can never admit his or her problem. They always want to seem normal. They have already been humiliated enough. Denial is the default position.

It is a crippling position for a major figure in any government to be in. For one occupying as a central a role as Balls, it will one day prove terminal.

A compex man, yes? A likeable one, no?

One riding for a certain public fall, yes.

I repeat: he is in the wrong job.

Conscious that I might have done Balls a disservice, I have since checked, on Youtube, a number of videos of his talking. In the process, I came across a particularly intriguing example. It is the speech he made to the Labour conference last month, his first of course as secretary of state for the now renamed Dept. of Education and Skills, now the Dept. for Children, Schools and Families (or, as it preposterously styles itself, department for children, schools and families). You can find it here.

It is a commonplace among stutterers that the words they almost always find hardest to say are those beginning with the letters of their own name. The reason is that there is almost nothing more certain to provoke shame in the stutterer than being unable to pronounce their name, hence there are few moments more pressurized for a stutterer than introducing themselves. By extension, all words beginning with these letters can take on an equally terrifying, unsayable quality.

Balls begins his speech: 'It is a great honour for me to address conference today and to open this morning's education debate.'

As any seasoned stutter watcher will confirm, there are brief but clear pauses before the words 'conference' and, more tellingly, 'education'.

How difficult must it be for Ed Balls to be faced daily with having to say the word 'education' when it doesn't merely start with the same letter as his own name but with the whole of his own name?

Which rather prompts the thought: was the Department of Education renamed because Balls can't say 'education'?

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