Br ALAN BRIEN
DESPITE my remarks last week about my hopeless-
ness as a public speaker, I long cherished the fantasy that in the hour of our country's need I would emerge as the master orator of my generation. The evidence for such embryo talent (awaiting only the obstetric hand of History to deliver • it,
bawling and kicking, into the daylight) was difficult to uncover. About ten years ago, before I had, fully admitted to myself that there were some roles, in life I could never play and what-the-hell, I was conned into giving a lecture on films at a Prison. .I agreed; partly because everyone I con- sulted, ;agreed that prisoners were the best, i.e., the ipot grateful and admiring, audience in the world,,nnd partly because I saw them through a Progressive-idealist haze as victims of society, above rather than below average intelligence. .ikecordingly I prepared a three-hour lecture en- hied 'The Grammar of the Cinema,' exhaustively analysing the syntax of film-making, which was, I felt proud to confess, rather above my own head. When I arrived at the back of a great, bare hall, Packed with murmuring convicts, I was once more reassured by the Deputy Governor who said— 'Don't be nervous. They are so much looking forward to your talk. Anything is a treat to them. I'M sorry, I put that badly. But you know what I mean.' ,I said I did but it turned out that I didn't. Y self-possession began to leak out of my finger ,"Ps and leave steamy patches on the table in 'rant "Of me when I took my first man-to-man, n°--eon4scension look at the front row. I can °WY lissome that for purposes of discipline all the feeble-minded inmates had been gathered in a spin where they could be kept under bserva t ion. I certainly couldn't take my eyes off !hem ain I plunged into the heavily polysyllabic, laboriously pedagogic introduction during which I was to define my terms. There was one whose °Pen mouth regularly released a rope of saliva about as thick as a mooring line on a barge. He must have had a great deal of practice at the art of dribbling because just before the flow hit the stone floor, he started moving his chin from side to side so that the glittering mass swung like a blubbery pendulum between his boots. Another would fix me with vacant, washed-out eyes until he was sure I was watching and then, very slowly, roll the pupils upwards and backwards in his head until nothing was visible in the sockets except blank, white, hard-boiled eggs. At least half a dozen spent their time just making faces so that nose and chin met in a rubbery grimace or the ears flapped like sails.
Gradually, the hum of conversation in the hall rose higher and higher as the barometer fell from 'Dull' to 'Boring' to 'Unbearable.' Prison officers began to move along the aisles saying, in pene- trating whispers, 'Shut up there' and 'No talking you.' The prisoners ignored them and some were openly and cheerfully throwing themselves about in their seats and laughing at me. I could see a full-scale Warner Brothers riot breaking out and did not relish being held to ransom as the play- thing of the front-row boys. Fortunately, some instinct for self-preservation, some self-critical area of the brain which had always foretold disaster for such an outing, made me bring along with me some excerpts from films to illustrate my academic toshery. I must always have known deep down that drastic measures might be needed because, in defiance of the advice to film lecturers in prison, I was equipped with the breaking and entering episode from Rififi, the drive along the hairpin bends with the lorryload of dynamite followed by the peeing by the roadside sequence from Wages of Fear, and a generous slice of Brigitte Bardot peeling off before an open window.
And so what might have been one of the bloodiest episodes in the history of British jail mutinies was averted. As I left, clutching my three tins of celluloid and my fifty pages of notes, the Deputy Governor tried to make his traditional host's speech about how he-can't-remember-when- the-audience-enjoyed-a-speaker-so-much but he
couldn't finish the sentence. Later, when I re- counted the story to a crime reporter friend, he alleged that his newspaper had already received a letter from a legal-minded old lag at the same prison complaining that my lecture was a viola- tion of the Magna Carta which forbade 'cruel and unusual punishments' to malefactors. I have never lectured since.
It confirms my view that public speaking improves in effect as it decreases in information. Oratory is a device for spraying out emotion. The most inflammatory demagogues I have ever heard have always being saying things their listeners already knew and believed. Despite the cliché, the best sermons tend to be those preached to the converted because they do not have to be cluttered up with logic or with facts. Harry Pollitt, for example, would sometimes launch himself upon a tide of near-gibberish before an audience containing many pedantic intellectuals, and sweep them with him out to sea, because they were listening to the voice and not to the words. I remember him once, just after Russia had been invaded, denouncing the Government for its reluctance to believe that the Communist party was now united behind the war effort—'Here we are working like Trojan horses to defeat Hitler . . .' he bellowed and the rest of the sentence was lost in cheers. Mr. Pollitt's success depended not on technique but on sincerity. His delivery was rather monotonous. His face, .rather like a tough- guy version of George Robey, was fixed in an expression of truculent surprise—the honest working man who had just seen the bread being stolen from his mouth by a bloated capitalist. But when he mentioned the Red Army you could feel the thrill running through his veins at the intoxicating thought that somewhere the workers and peasants actually had their own Army, a fearless advance guard marching to- wards world revolution. And the incandescence of his exhilaration lit him up like a lighthouse which beamed on every person within earshot.