The Keys of Eloquence
By ANTHONY HOWARD (Christ Church, Oxford) THEY call it ' the greatest debating society in the world '; and perhaps next Thursday as my typewriter and I are called upon to bring forward the motion standing in our name they will still be believing it. The President—impressive, immaculate and somehow imperial—will have made his weekly leap over the wall to immortality by firmly ringing his bell and calling, ' Order, Order '; the Librarian—who is also President Presumptive—will have gained the largest laugh of the Union year by announcing in his weekly list of books the purchase of the Junior Express and the Junior Mirror; some bright wag will have asked whether we may not have Beano as well; and I shall be sitting huddled in pale imitation of Parliamentary technique on the Committee Bench. Then implacably the summons will come and, encased in my shirt-front, I shall move forward bringing the motion with me. Hours ago I was crouched over my typewriter in North Oxford. No one, I hoped, would call, for there is a long tradition of Union spontaneity which every generation is on its honour to guard. Slowly, sustained—as I have always heard great men are—by tobacco and alcohol, I pounded the speech into shape. Eventually my typewriter took possession of me and began to rattle away automatically like the news tape machines in London clubs. I just sat, and my fingers did what the machine commanded. That is why I always feel there are two of us making the speech. Typing and learning my part is recreation compared with the labour of dressing it. Tying a bow tie makes greater demands upon my memory than the recitation of production figures. I resented having to buy a dinner jacket when I went to Oxford and I have disliked it ever since—especially when I Confront ' the mirror, mirror on the wall.' Were I President I would wear a sports coat. But as one of the puppets in the mock formalism of a minuet I have to do what the producer tells me. And he is a hard man who sees the stuffed shirt as a breast plate against barbarism. From now on I cease to be myself and become an acolyte in a ritual. We begin by drinking sacrificial sherry. I try to talk to the visiting Cabinet Minister, but he is either tired or merely disagreeable. Perhaps even—could it be he is nervous? I begin to warm towards him and try again. I tell him I have to speak first; this seems to cheer him up. He looks round furtively and confides in me that he was never a member of the Union when he was up at the House. ' Played golf instead,' he says gruffly. I smile sympathetically, and start to believe that perhaps after all we are brothers beneath the starch.
Dinner presents a problem. To keep up the part, to be in character, one must either eat everything or nothing. Every- thing would be nice, but fasting goes with prayer and I am very frightened. One of the tellers for the evening asks me a civil question. Miserably I murmur a monosyllable in reply, and add unconvincingly that I had better not talk as I am liable when nervous to laryngitis. This produces an oppressive silence, and I long with all my heart to be given just a little social grace. Then comfortingly I remember Archbishop Lang and reflect that great men do not waste their time being amiable.
The President rises; and we, like the audience at The Murder Of Gonzago, rush out after him, jostling and elbowing each other to get to the mirror to pull our ties and pat our hair. The Dispatch Box—with its brass fittings—begins to seem magnetic. In a vain effort at courage I remind myself that I shall have the bigger and the better one as I am speaking on the right side. And then, almost at once, there is my shirt- front leaning over it.
We start slowly, as is the Union manner, and we send our compliments to the visitors dancing into the floodlight of popular 'appreciation. The Cabinet Minister—who had chosen to eat everything—beams at me benevolently. But somehow I don't feel a decent, friendly human being any more. I clutch the whip of power as it comes into my hand. We flash into the old Union joke about every single mother's son' and the freshmen are with us; one more= the young ladies in the gallery making their economic survey for 1955 '—and they are ours. The hour of redemption is past and I fondle the cosh and resolve to use it. Down it comes on the head of the honour- able but inoffensive member from Trinity. 1 storm into a crescendo of indignation but my typewriter ribbon, which has had enough punishment for one day, refuses to go any further. So remembering that we must keep together I bow to its wishes, pick up the honourable member from Trinity and put him back in fragments beside the Cabinet Minister who beams at me no longer. I remind the House confidentially of the long agony of Tory misrule; I cast heavy reproachful glances at the busts which stand round the hall, grimacing particularly horribly at the sneering' Birkenhead, the superior Curzon, the smiling Simon. In the depths of the mob an interrupter rises and asks me if I am paying royalties to Mr. Kingsley Martin for my opinions; frightened, I stop, think and decide to risk it: ' No, Sir, merely lip service,' and the enemy's flank is turned. The Secretary—a good old-time Radical—offers me a glass of water : I take it, drain it and swing round on to the Cabinet Minister. I deliver to him a few words of singeing scorn about Tory Democracy and the Blackpool Follies. I ask him how many Old Etonians there are in the Cabinet and how many Tory trade unionists in the House of Commons. He does not want to reply, so I turn towards the house, lean over the Dis- patch Box and give them the awful truth. Somewhere behind me the Cabinet Minister lumbers to his feet; I hear him, mis- interpret him and overwhelm him with a careless reference to Disraeli. The house—which is on the side of youth—howls with delight: and I perceive, like a miniature Machiavelli, that this is the moment for peroration. I sweep majestically into it, run- ning in my excitement off my typescript into the realms of unplanned rhetoric. I lose the thread of an argument in a roar of tumultuous agreement. I see how easy is the way of the orator who need only suggest a sentence and hint at an idea. Life is short, Empire a little longer, and Beatitude not far away. Mr. President, Sir,' I whisper as a broken man, I beg to move.'
I don't listen any more. I just wait, like a frozen tooth, to come round. And if people say anything agreeable to me after- wards 1 do not feel embarrassed because the speech seems to have been made by someone else. It does not even make me blush, as it surely should, when I read next week in The Oxford Magazine: ' The Proposer has the rare and refreshing attribute of sincerity and the gift of communicating it to the house.' It is all my typewriter really; before I die 1 must throw it into a lake.