First Draft #19: a newsletter on public language
Understudies; the brain-boosting power of fiction; integrity in politics
In the long history of speech-making, no one has ever jumped at the prospect of filling in for another speaker at the last minute. No one, that is, until this week, when Prince Charles was offered the opportunity to give the annual ‘Queen’s speech’ in Parliament.
Charles played it straight, which is just as well, because rarely has history been kind to stand-ins. Take poor Victor Collins, a junior minister in the Home Office, who in 1964 agreed to take part in a televised Oxford Union debate, filling in for the soon-to-be Prime Minister Ted Heath. Not only did the audience find him a disappointing substitute, the unsuspecting Collins found himself speaking on the subject of racial injustice against none other than Malcolm X. Collins was, alas, no match for his opponent’s oratorical brilliance. The debate ended with Malcolm X quoting Hamlet, in defence of those who “take arms against a sea of troubles and, by opposing, end them” – to which the crowd, after a brief silence, responded with thunderous applause.
A better strategy for filling someone’s shoes comes from the American journalist, William Shirer. An impressive speaker in his own right, Shirer had reported on Nazi Germany from Berlin in the 1940s. Yet that was nothing compared to the guts it took to face a women’s luncheon in 1950s New York, standing in for Eleanor Roosevelt. “I'll never forget the faces of the fifteen hundred good women of Hadassah in the ballroom,” writes Shirer in his memoir, “when they saw me, instead of Mrs. Roosevelt, emerge from a side room… in all my life I have never seen such expressions of surprise, letdown, disappointment, even pain.” His solution? “I made it a little easier for the organisation by offering to take just half of Mrs. Roosevelt's fee.”
The crown for the greatest last-minute substitute, however, goes to a distinguished choice from 1993. Lest we forget the time Roy Hattersley was replaced with a tub of lard – “the Rt. Hon. Tub of Lard MP” – on Have I Got News for You. The producers wrote that the lard was “liable to give much the same performance and imbued with many of the same qualities”. Any comparison with the Prince of Wales is entirely at the reader’s discretion. @_alice_elliott
Jargon buster: “Helping to...”
Goldman Sachs sponsors Politico's (excellent) London Playbook newsletter, written by Alex Wickham. Every so often, Wickham’s prose is interrupted by a curious "message from Goldman Sachs", which reads: “We’re helping to activate the power of the financial system for a more sustainable, inclusive future."
I will, for once, avoid the obvious targets (we'll save "activate", "sustainable" and "inclusive" for another day). Instead, I want to focus on two, weasely words: "helping to".
Now, I have no beef with helping people. But businesses are constantly telling us that they are "helping to" do something, and all it does is help them avoid accountability.
If you say you will do something and it is not done, I can tell that you have not lived up to your promise. But if you only promise that you are "helping to" do it, then I can't possibly know either how much help you provided, nor whether it had any impact at all.
“Helping” also locks us in the present continuous tense, which makes it even harder to know whether something has been done: 'you can’t judge us,' Goldman pleads subtly, 'we’re only half way through it.'
So, what should a business do? The answer is to be more specific and humbler. Goldman Sachs should tell us what, precisely, they have done to promote sustainability or make the world more inclusive. Perhaps they’ve funded some green technology. Or maybe they've divested from companies with pale-male-stale boards. I don’t necessarily doubt it. I simply don’t know it because of those two weasely words, which think they do a lot but really do so little. @joshuahwilliams
Fiction gives the biggest brain boost
Hundreds of academic studies and anyone who has finished a book will tell you: reading feeds the mind. But are some book types more nourishing than others? Yes, according to new research.
Canadian psychologists Marina Rain and Raymond Mar compared the effect of habitual fiction and nonfiction reading on the language skills of university students. They measured synonym knowledge, analogy use, sentence completion and reading comprehension. For each metric, fiction-reading was a strong predictor of high performance, while a history of reading only nonfiction barely predicted verbal strength at all.
“The picture is quite clear,” concludes Mar, “it is reading stories, not essays, that predicts valuable language skills in young adults”. He is less clear on why, but offers some explanations. Vivid emotions evoked by stories could help to imprint new words and grammatical patterns on our memories. Alternatively, our “intrinsic interest” in the outcome of stories could lead to deeper concentration.
Either way, policy-makers should take note. Verbal ability is linked to better outcomes in education, work and happiness. Stories, not just STEM, could pay dividends. @AlexDymoke
Jargon buster: Forefront
Steven Bartlett is often described as a “social media entrepreneur”, but what does his old company, the Social Chain, actually do? The Twitter bio reads thus: “Working at the forefront of innovation to put brands at the heart of new trends and conversations”. The dictionary tells us the forefront is “the leading or most important position or place”. The forefront is therefore, by definition, small. Is there room at the “forefront of innovation” for all who claim to be there? Google yields five million results for the phrase, so it is doubtful. The main fault with claiming to be at the forefront of things, though, is that it is a cliche. And cliched speak is a tell that a speaker is nowhere near the leading edge of anything. @AlexDymoke
Yes, integrity matters
The statement of the week was undoubtedly Sir Keir Starmer’s pledge to resign should the police issue him with a fine for having a beer in Durham (or something). The apparent risk drew criticism from some of the fast-to-twitter fraternity. The essence of the charge against Starmer’s statement was that his claim to greater integrity than Boris Johnson was an act of moral one-upmanship that would irritate, rather than attract, the electorate. It’s an odd, over-complicated theory that takes no account of the wisdom contained in the rhetorical idea of character.
“Integrity” is the state of being whole and undivided. The speaker has, in other words, integrated his principles with his character. They are identical one to the other and this has become his identity. Starmer’s claim is therefore an act of political character creation, which is profoundly important in the art of leadership. It misses the point to argue that the voters don’t have an internal integrity league table. People vote for leaders who transmit the idea that they can be trusted. Starmer’s strategy was obviously right — and, if you have decided to resign in any case in the event of a fine, risk-free. If the gamble pays off he emerges as the leader who is less of a hypocrite than his opponent. That is worth having. @PhilipJCollins1
Language and beyond
A new polemic from the FT’s Simon Kuper says Brexit is a unique creation of Oxford University, and especially the Oxford Union debating society, where intellectual showboating and moral amorphousness were prized over serious thought. Scottish writer Alex Massie gives a fair but sceptical appraisal here.
The war in Ukraine has made Russia commentator Julia Ioffe’s newsletter a must read, and the latest post (£ - but free trial available), on Putin’s childhood, is fascinating. The West is too focused on his KGB past, she says, and not enough on his formative years in war-traumatised Leningrad.
“When citizens lose trust in elected leaders, health authorities, the courts, the police, universities, and the integrity of elections, then every decision becomes contested; every election becomes a life-and-death struggle to save the country from the other side.” Jonathan Haidt on the fragmentation that marks our era, why it is making us stupid, and why it will get worse.
Churchill on brevity.
“It will be a long time before the true death toll is known”. Interesting piece on how to accurately measure casualties in wartime.
“Somewhere in the mind of tyrants lies the strange urge to be a professor” - brilliant essay by Simon Schama on the weaponising of history.
Satisfying take down of the modern trend for “pity me!” personal essays.
In a windowless office near Las Vegas, pilots were ordered to kill targets on another continent. Disturbing but fascinating edition of The Daily podcast on the unseen trauma of America’s drone pilots.
A brilliant short story by Elif Batuman from an April edition of the New Yorker.
“I wrote this book in response to the many people I talked to — both religious and nonreligious — who felt that they were existing in a culture of sexual malaise” - An interview with Christine Emba, author of a much talked about new book Rethinking Sex: A Provocation.
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