Richard Burton’s voice.

A gravelly and rasping Welsh brogue that brings the words of  ‘ War of the worlds ‘ alive.

The inclination and resonance of his voice stresses every syllable and pushes meaning into the pauses when the words on the page haven’t. Like James Earl Jones, Morgan Freeman or Winston Churchill, Burton’s voice was his calling card, causing a million impersonations of his reading of the line from Where eagles dare; ‘ broad sword calling Danny boy ‘.

Throughout history, moments of great magnitude have required an authoritative voice, unrecorded but easy to imagine powerful oratory skills, projecting or certainly controlling the situations before them. Maybe the delivering of orders to the troops, that they had to go over the top at the Somme, Ardito Desio’s team talk before the first ever successful climb to the top of K2, Da Vinci asking Lisa Gheradini to try to enjoy being an artists subject and for god’s sake lighten up or maybe the talking to a passenger, who is suddenly charged with the responsibility of landing the plane; convincing them to stay calm and follow instruction. You don’t imagine great, insightful, authoritative or inspiring words being said falteringly, you don’t imagine an impediment or a comedy lisp. You imagine clarity, resonance and depth. We are defined by the words we use but are we defined as much for the delivery as we are the content?

Because Let’s be honest some people talk utter shite……. really beautifully.

Since the very first words were formed around my larynx and vocal tract i have had a stammer. I can recall no period of time without it ,although oddly I have no memories that relive it; my brains way of silently reprimanding my mouth for mangling the English language.

I HATE the word stutter, mainly for two reasons:

Firstly, because ironically it’s hard to say, the two t’s requiring far too much tongue to teeth action and secondly because if we’re going to ‘onomatopoeia’ afflictions why single out a stutter when we could simply rename others for the amusement of everybody………Wobble (obesity), skew-if (lazy eye), squelch (incontinence) weeeeeeeee!! (wheel chair bound)  the list is endless and hilariously insensitive unless it’s used to describe or define you.

In my life (all 38 years) I have only ever encountered two speech therapists that I haven’t wanted to see appear on an American milk carton. One, a charming Canadian who now  runs Suffolk’s best Artisan Bakery and the other a gruff, stoic Scotsman who cured his own stammer through physiological reasoning and a complete disregard for respected medical opinion.

There is no known reason for why a stammer exists, unless there is damage to the constituent vocal apparatus, which is rare even in the case of a trauma. Now, it is brilliantly deduced by the Arthur Conan Doyle plagiarisms within the speech therapy community that a trauma can cause a stammer, when evidentially a patient without a stammer has a trauma and then develops one. So essentially speech therapists can identify a stammer when they hear one and can point a flimsy stick at the probable physical cause, but that’s it. The how and the why, like a stammerer’s rendition of Peter Piper’s fabled pickled peppers ,eludes them. Even when the aetiology of stammering is unknown, it hasn’t stopped them hypothesising and deliberating about an impediment that they actually seem to know very little about.

I may be doing the speech therapy community a mass disservice as they may have since scaled the dizzying heights of Nobel awarded innovation. That is, since the archaic 1970’s and 80’s, but I have to admit, I would be very surprised. But that surprise might just be entrenched bitterness and scarred recollections of encountering speech therapists of the late 70’s and 80’s. Whom I found to be  risible, ignorant, soap boxing charlatans, Dr Crippens if you will and not the caring, informed, intelligent, empathetic, crusaders that I hope they are today.

Words should form seamlessly; jostling and jumping for release. This is not always the case to a stammerer. You build a mental thesaurus that encapsulates every scenario; colloquial, high brow and profanity. My brain and my mouth have had an acrimonious relationship for so long now, that sometimes I suspect that if I could fart words my brain would bypass my  mouth all together. Every stumble, hitch, repetition or block screams into my head, but the reality can be very different with loved ones sometimes claim not hear it at all, something I have always suspected was a lie and merely the fact that they were so used to hearing you fuckarse your way a sentence that it didn’t register any more. But that can produce a horrible paradox, the more fluent the words become in certain circumstances the less understanding you tend to get when trying to explain the sheer black hole that opens up in other situations when the words aren’t there.

Without exception the biggest problem I face is trying to juggle the juxtaposition of having a speech impediment that can have varying degrees of severity with a real life struggle to keep my mouth shut or remain silent. I like joking, teaching, lecturing, chatting, debating and arguing, generally speaking, there is no amount of talking shite that I can’t whole heartedly get behind.

You can always count on children to be little shits.

Being a military family meant we moved a lot, which brought the prospect of constantly being the new kid in already established classes. Fitting in was always an initial issue even though I was kinda funny, academically pretty smart and reasonably athletic. Incidents inevitably always cropped up, bullying merely made me aggressive and relatively quick-witted and more importantly made me able to take or dish out a punch. It always took a bit of time but eventually I would gravitate towards the more interesting people, the thinkers, the comedians, the sportsmen, the arty ones, the smarter ones. A real pit fall for the new kid is not knowing who the dick heads are, so weeks could be wasted with really dull people until an opportunity arose to jump social ship and upgrade.

Speech therapists came and went, never offering a physical solution or really an emotional understanding, they brought gadgets and snap shot judgements. They patronised and condescended, risking fires in every school with corduroy friction through animated movement accompanying yet another half arsed synopsis of where I was going wrong or how to live the rest of my life excepting my mild form of retardation.

My older sister was blamed at one point for constantly interrupting me when I was first struggling to form words like an interpreter for toddler gibberish. Another gem of a professional therapist told my father it was an act and I was merely seeking attention. That was one uncomfortable journey home I can tell you.

Some worked on diction and pronunciation, their common belief that it was  mouth positioning, mumbling or speed of speech that was to blame.

It wasn’t.

If they had experienced what having a stammer meant, the psychological effect of not being able to coherently say your own name or the fear associated with being singled out to read something in class. Their approach would not have been as callous and so quick to find a solution when actually a steady stream of positive counselling would have helped to remove the stigma or the isolation that occured when you are having a bad speech day, forcing you to become a self-imposed mute.

One particularly spangly dressed academic, tried to make me wear a machine the size of the very first mobile phone, it would innocuously be strapped to my chest like john hurts exploding alien. Allegedly, it would fit discreetly and comfortably under my shirt, just giving me the appearance of a suicide bomber with weight issues. The machine would then have straps that fitted around my throat measuring the speed of speech, it could be calibrated to regulate any speed but initially it would only accept speech that was spoken

R     E     A     L     L      Y     –

S     L     O     W     L     Y

If the speed of my speech exceeded the calibrated speed then the machine would omit a high-pitched alarm similar to that of a rape alarm or the sound of the shop doors when you were stealing cd’s from HMV. This Spanish inquisition instrument was to be worn everyday for a certain period of time during school and home hours.

Not a chance.

It would have been less conspicuous and more discreet to simply have me wear a dress and lip stick or simply show my penis to anyone I encountered than to wear this iron lung of speech retardation. I broke it, lied about wearing it and eventually returned the knackered equipment to the sound of threats to bill my father the cost of replacement. Fuck it, let the old man stump up the money, he always seemed vaguely embarrassed by it all.

You write the check pops, I’ll wait in the car.

I only ever met one other child during my childhood that had a stammer, we were both 12 or 13 and upon meeting me, he thought I was taking the piss. It’s a terrible thing to admit, but he didn’t repeat letters as much as I did but got stuck continually on whole words and I found spending time in his company made me feel better about my own impediment. To outsiders it must have looked like a comedy duo carefully turning a 5 minute chat into a cabaret act.

I only knew him for 6 months and then his father was posted abroad, I have often wonder what path his life went down.

I was a straight A student and the latter school years were spent playing in nearly every sport team, hanging out with friends and generally being young. The biggest thing to realise is familiarity breeds clarity, my sardonic personality shone with sarcasm, teenage indifference and smart arse one liners through nothing more than knowing those around me really well.

Bad days came and went, I knew how to avoid certain social or public speaking circumstances so I slipped easily amongst my peers, sprinkling gems of plagiarised wit and trying desperately to belong, rebel, fit in or stand out.

The words or situations that effect you can change dramatically, hard consonants are good, soft are problematic. Nerves can play a part or they can produce clarity, they can root you to the spot or produce enough adrenalin, rivalling any perilous sport junkie, to circumvent any speech blockage.

Profanity, talking to animals or talking to very small children or simply singing produces word-perfect speech. Although admittedly,  it’s probably frowned upon telling next doors 4-year-old and their scraggy furred cat to Fuck off in the style of Maria from the sound of music.

There is a reason for this, social acceptance. No parent wants their children or pets sworn at by the singing stammerer from next door.

Oh no hang on…I mean there is a reason why these scenarios produce clarity. Animals and Small children do not judge, their opinion of you is based on more tangible and honest reasons. Whatever psychological effect this relationship between child / animal and stammerer is, it is staggering that the removal of psychological assumptions would produce such profundity. Singing and swearing hold a much more interesting fact, the biggest difference between talking, swearing and singing is how you breathe and the process of speaking on the outbound breath.

A mind numbing simple concept and yet one that millions of people do,  millions of times every day without ever being aware of it. Stammerers do not, they are not programmed mentally to automatically speak whilst exhaling, sometimes simply to get the vocal ball rolling. It is not the only way to speak but it is the difference between getting a problematic word out and drowning in your own silence and inability.

Girls were never a problem, as arrogant as that sounds, it was never a problem with my material, just sometimes my delivery. I never used chat up lines or certainly not obvious ones, I avoided blatant mating call bullshit in favour of actually forming relationships, no matter how fleeting. I don’t think teenage girlfriends are particularly impressed with a teenage boyfriend whose whispered sweet nothings resembled a pneumatic drill spraying saliva into their ears. Self image for adolescents is everything. I am eternally grateful that I had the ability to amuse and process information sometimes quicker than it took my mouth to realise it was supposed to be wrapping words in repetition and embarrassment.

Thanks to a complete lack of career advice or vocational desire I left school academically brilliant and proceeded to throw it all away to study art. Surrounded by a much older peer group, speech kinda stopped being as relevant. Art eventually gave way to kitchens and a career as a cook beckoned. My fathers’ underlying fear that perhaps I was homosexual wasn’t completely eradicated when I left school, studied Art and then throw away an illustrious career of potential drug taking and self-expression to embraced a career that made me wear a pinny and chop onions. That is a reflection of him and not the disciplines of art or cooking. I don’t believe being Gay is a prerequisite to embark on either.

My path through kitchens has been dominated by the Michelin guide; the conformity and rigidity of these kitchens worked perfectly to my own sense of OCD and work ethic. 3 Michelin star kitchens are built on exact repetition, continual and consistent minute tasks repeated without deviance; endlessly. They are also ruled with an iron rod, standards are maintained irrespective of the body count. The hierarchy is designed to control the quality at every level, speech is direct, authoritative and sometimes harsh. In these environments, certainly from leaving school I was never judged or kept back or overlooked because of my speech. I was entirely viewed on the level of my compliance and competence. Chefs can be a rough, illiterate, ignorant, racist, homophobic and sexist bunch or they can be hardworking, loyal, precise, poets, intelligent, understanding and creative beyond the basic physical graft that they endure. In the latter I’d found a surrogate family that embraced my work ethic and artistic delusions. I relished every task and devoured books to bolster any nuggets of information that had been gleamed during the day. I was never subject to bullying (well, speech related anyway) or criticised or demeaned because I struggled sometimes to express myself, particularly in the face of getting a saliva spraying vitriolic bollocking that would start with my immediate error and cascade into my worthlessness as a human being: but never about how I spoke (or how I didn’t speak. It’s hard to use the word spoke when what you’re describing is actually more of a ‘he shat out words as a posed to’ he regaled the room with’ ).

I climbed the ranks, I got a mortgage, I became a headchef, I won awards (young Scottish chef, 2 AA rosettes at 22, Michelin bib gourmand by 24, 3AA rosettes by 27, head chef of a Michelin star by 28). I started to affect those careers under me and within the safe walls of my kitchen I pontificated, lectured, guided and bollocked when it was needed. Speech became irrelevant, only the words mattered, not the delivery. No longer was I questioning my ability or my standing or how I was perceived. All that mattered was I was on a mission and I took the careers of the chefs under me seriously.

The reality is I had become a better actor, at work I didn’t need a facade I was the man you saw; loud, slightly arrogant, a little be harsh, driven, determined, focused and single-minded. But outside work, certainly beyond my home and circle of friends, I was the same 12-year-old boy who wanted the floor to devour him and never be asked a direct question. I felt that the facade was the real me, so I continued with it and kept my insecurities to myself. On radio 4 I heard a great person say that confidence was an illusion, confident people were just those that said what the hell, what’s the worst that can happen, I’ll have a go. I felt, at least work wise, that was me.

Without giving Dr Pepper ad revenue I completely agree, I have faced situations that in the cold light of day would make you run for the hills. I gave a cooking demonstration to 200+ people at the Edinburgh festival, miked up like a Janet Jackson tribute act, I spluttered and splurged my way through boning an oxtail and making a foie gras mouse and Robuchon’s fabled mash. I was so nervous before hand I wanted to vomit through my arse but during the actual demonstration I couldn’t give a shit. I became the guy from the kitchen. There is a continual thread that runs through my life that I can’t fully understand, I have a tendency to never take the path of least resistance. I don’t honestly know why.

A brilliant English teacher once upgraded my role in a play of Macbeth from guard number 2 to Macduff when the original actor got glandular fever. I hated them both for it, but come performance night I was note and word-perfect. He left teaching a few years ago and writes novels on Spanish military history now but he was everything the scores of speech therapists hadn’t been, he was perceptive and understanding and positive and he refused to acknowledge that a mere impediment should stand in the way of expression.

In my early 20’s I was so work obsessed that I would regularly start at 6am and get home past midnight most days of the week, professionally it was brilliant, socially it was devastating. I watched my speech deteriorate outside work and could not get beyond it. I missed a lot of social engagements because I couldn’t face meeting new people, after about six months of being a self-imposed social pariah depression started taking hold of me. Insomnia, irrational mood swings, the inability to get out bed on days off, working 90 plus hours was a great excuse to avoid people. It was just an excuse though. I heard about a speech course held in Kirkcaldy that was being run by a guy who had cured his own stammer. His name was Andrew Bell and he’d been a medical student whose speech eventually deteriorated to such a level that he simply stopped speaking. He was silent for over a year.

The course would cost nearly two grand, I told no-one, I just booked it and waited for the restaurant to close on its annual holiday so I could attend.

It changed my life.

It was a course that simply taught stammers to talk on the out bound breath. A technique so simple and so revelatory that everybody on the course cried on the last day. Which was a massive improvement from the horrendous first day when 20 stammers shat consonants into a room like a wall coming down in room full of cymbals. The confidence that I felt leaving that course has never quite dissipated, there is no cure but that doesn’t matter, it’s damage control not eradication.

I’m lucky, I’m now watching young chefs who worked under me become leaders and experts and mentors to those under them. When they recall their time with me I wonder if my speech is a factor in their definition of me.

I still define myself through my speech, I want the James Earl Jones, Morgan Freeman level of diction and instead I’ve spent a life feeling words getting stuck in my throat like an unshelled egg. There is irony here with regards to constantly questioning your own speech: most people have terrible diction. I’m always surrounded by people carelessly disregarding the magnitude of their own voice and words; stumbling, abusing, ‘umming and orrring through countless conversations. Pauses and repetition going unnoticed because they don’t care, they are oblivious to their own subjective speech patterns.

I notice.

Very few people speak with perfect clarity and diction. I never pause or hmm and arrr, most words are already vetted and thought through and if there is a last second malfunction, I have a well versed mental thesaurus that will fill the hole.

My son is not quite two and I worry that some dreadful genetic connection will affect his speech, there is some evidence of hereditary links but my parents and my grand parent all spoke without defect so there is some comfort there, but I still worry. The words are coming thick and fast from him and as the days pass they become clearer and better defined, I notice my speech around him is pretty clear and deep down I hope that I have nothing to worry about. I have often thought that my personality has played the biggest part in overcoming this. I just never want my son to be inhibited from being whoever he wants to be because the words aren’t there.

What’s odd is my hatred of Tony Hawk ( the singer and comedian not the skateboarder) has never abated, he brought out the song stutter rap when I was young and like paul Hardcastle’s 19 or Derek Jacobi’s I’ Claudius and Micheal Palin’s fish called Wanda stammering hit-man. These provided plenty of ammunition for class mates to ensure that I was well aware of the fact that they could speak properly and I couldn’t. The stutter rap was also a pretty dreadful song and I’m absolutely delighted that it is song that has nearly disappeared from the public consciousness

I still have bad days and hate meeting new people but I swear a lot  (out of the earshot of a mimicking toddler) and I am now of an age that cares very little about how strangers chose to define or classify me.

4 thoughts on “Reason 2. Speech

  1. I still live with the shame of a stupid comment I once made as a teenager. It was the start of the season at the tennis club where I was head coach. I was the only female on staff and always tried very hard to be jocular, I needed the guys to be on my side or else they would make my life hell.

    A new groundskeeper (we were all teenagers) was introduced to me and, when he stumbled over his first few words, I flippantly and bitchily asked, “Stutter much?” Turns out he really did have a stammer…

    I wanted to die on the spot, as I’m sure he did too. By trying to build myself up, I had knocked him down. This was not the kind of person I was and I hated myself.

    I profusely apologized, in public and private, and we eventually became good friends (and dated a couple of years later) but I still physically cringe when I remember the moment.

    Well, thanks for dredging that all up! 🙂

  2. hilariously after years of hating Will Smith,I was informed through a conversation on twitter with @DaiHappy_ (www.daihappy.wordpress.com) that actually the stutter rap was performed by Morris Minor & the Majors and not Will Smith.
    Ha ha ha ha well everyday is a school day,I have suitably amended my shit list to include Morris and his reprobates..Thanks Dave

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