30 November 2009

Dubai: the beginning of the end of feudalism?

How much of any presentation, speech or lecture ever gets remembered for more than a few minutes, let alone for 45 years?

If all the lectures I attended as a student are anything to go by, the answer is 'not much'. But there was one point made in one of the lectures I heard in 1964 that has occasionally come rushing back into my mind, probably because it seemed so counter-intuitive at the time.

Not gold and diamonds but cheap labour
It was about the economy of South Africa, still three decades away from the end of apartheid, and the surprising news (to me) was that the main resource on which the country depended was not its gold and diamond reserves but it's enormous supply of cheap (i.e. black) manpower. And this, claimed the lecturer, was the achilles heel of apartheid - because, in the long run, societies based on near-slave labour are doomed.

His point first came back to me a few years ago on a visit to Dubai, and it's resurfaced again with this week's news that the emirate's grandiose building schemes are facing financial collapse.

Not oil but cheap labour
What shocked me when I was there was that it wasn't just Dubai's construction industry that depended on cheap labour, but so too did pretty much everything else. From shops and stalls in the souks to hotels, taxis and tour buses, the only people who seemed to be actually doing anything were ex-patriate workers from the Indian sub-continent - with the sole exception of the counter staff in a bank and a post office that I visited a day or two before we left for home.

On one of our tours, we were the only passengers in the back of a 4x4, and it wasn't long before our driver started opening up on the appalling conditions under which ex-pats like him were living - in out of town dormitories, from where they were shipped to and from work on open trucks.

As for health, educational, recreational or any other facilities or rights of a most basic kind, they were at best minimal. And, if any of the ex-pat workers dared to complain, they would be sent home and replaced by a new supply of their compatriots.

Feudalism?
Meanwhile, the hereditary extended families running the various emirates were living in a style reminiscent of Europe's elite in the days of feudalism.

For example, the sheik of neighboring oil-poor Sharjah, where the economy depends on handouts from Saudi Arabia in exchange for a total ban on alcohol, had just bulldozed a Bedouin village to make room for a new palace for himself. He was also building a university on an architectural scale to rival Versailles (see above) - approached along a majestic drive enclosed by ornate iron railings and grass verges that were only kept green by continual watering.

What next?
I came away wondering about the long-term survival prospects of societies that hardly pay lip-service to democratic and human rights, and seem to have no qualms about depending on cheap labour as their primary economic resource.

If recent events in Dubai are a sign that the end may be nigh, the time-scale - based on the prediction I heard about undemocratic-cheap-labour-dependent South Africa in 1964 - is that it will take another 30 years before such places find a firmer fairer footing.

29 November 2009

Sounds of silence

When I worked in an Oxford college, a sure fire way to generate silence over coffee or lunch was to give the same one-word answer to either of the following questions:

Q1: "Where are you going on holiday?"
Q2: "Where have you been on holiday?"

A1, A2: "Majorca" (or, if you really wanted to get them going, pronounce it with an emphatic 'J' sound in the middle).

Needless to say, none of these experts had ever been anywhere near the Balearic Islands and certainly had no intention of ever doing so.

Having just got back from the Canary Islands, I can report that another word that's guaranteed to be met with an identical silence (even from people who aren't fellows of Oxbridge colleges) is 'Tenerife'.

There are, you see, some places to which you should simply not go. Never mind the fact that you could do with some relief from the gloominess of November in England, or that you don't feel like doing anything more strenuous than sitting in the sun for a few days, reading a book or two or just listening to giant waves from the Atlantic crashing into the piles of lava that spewed out of a volcano not so long ago.

But before taking any notice of the detractors of places like Majorca and Tenerife, it's worth being aware of two rather important things about which their disapproving silences rather miss the point.

One is that there must have been something desirable about popular destinations for them to have become popular destinations in the first place. So, in the case of these two islands, both are blessed with some spectacular mountainous scenery and benign climates that match anything you'll find in the British Isles in the best of summers, let alone in the middle of winter.

And, although I've never been to Benidorm, you only have to look at photographs of the place to see that the masses of tower block hotels and apartments stand on a long curving beach that must have been extremely attractive before the cement and concrete mixers got to work

The second thing that detractors don't take into account is that there is much more to islands like Majorca and Tenerife than the overpopulated mass resorts on which their negative images are presumably based. What they don't know is that you don't have to go very far to find havens of peace and quiet, in areas of outstanding natural beauty, that take some beating anywhere in the world.

Deja in Majorca is one such place. And, on the evidence of the past few days, Garachico in northern Tenerife is another.

My only complaint is not, unfortunately, peculiar to either of these villages, but concerns something that's becoming increasingly difficult to avoid wherever you happen to be, namely the scourge of piped music.





If, like me, you don't much like being forced to listen to music chosen by the proprietors of bars, restaurants and hotels, I'd strongly recommend a visit to the PIPEDOWN website - where you'll find some interesting results from surveys into what people really think about piped music, information on some important victories so far and details of how to join this important organisation.

You may find, as I did when I joined, that friends and relations brand you as 'sad' for doing so.

But 'SAD', as in seasonal affective disorder, is something I don't mind admitting to - any more than I don't mind admitting to visiting places like Tenerife as a way of making the last three weeks before the shortest day of the year that bit easier to bear.

20 November 2009

Christmas competition: What did Santa say before 'Ho-ho-ho'?

As we're going away tomorrow in search of some sunshine, I don't expect to be posting much until the end of November.

Needless to say, I'm hoping that regular readers will come back when blogging resumes.

Meanwhile, here are two things to keep you occupied while I'm gone.

The first, and this should be more than enough to keep the keenest anoraks going, is to catch up on the 350+ posts that have so far appeared on the blog - just in case you've missed any. You can access these from the Complete Bloglist Index on the left (under 'recommended websites), or you can type names or topics into the search box at the top and see if there's anything here about whatever it is you might be looking for.

You are also warmly invited to turn your mind to winning the:

2009 CHRISTMAS CREATIVE WRITING COMPETITION

Closing date: Midnight (UK time) on 21 December 2009.

Prizes:
1st: A signed copy of Lend Me Your Ears.
2nd: A signed copy of Speechmaking and Presentation Made Easy.
3rd: A signed copy (by Basil) of Basil's School Antics.

Further incentives:
Authors of the winning entries will be able to enjoy the glory and prestige of seeing their work posted here on Christmas Day.

The judge and jury (i.e. me) undertake to donate £5 to Wateraid for every entry received.

The Challenge:

The competition is based on something posted on this blog just before Christmas last year, which began as follows:

I’ve just received an email with Christmas greetings from the White House Writers Group in Washington D.C., which contains a nice little ditty:

Santa called the other day.
"I need a speech and right away!
It should sound new, but somehow old;
A message sweet, yet still quite bold.
My words must be both short and clear
And memorable throughout the year!"
Our writers worked all through the night
To get each phrase exactly right.
Then one scribe cried, "Ah ha! I know!
Tell Santa to say just, 'Ho, ho, ho!'


Rhetorically speaking, their use of repetition, contrasts, alliteration rhyme and a three-part list can hardly be faulted.

But, having just heard Santa using these very words 3,000 miles away from Washington, I realise that this memorable line raises another intriguing question, namely, what had he been talking about just before saying “ho, ho, ho”?

The reason for asking the question comes from many years ago when I heard the late Gail Jefferson talking about her fascinating and innovative work on transcribing particles of laughter, of which “ho, ho, ho” is one of several possible vowel sounds – such as “ha, ha , ha”, “he, he, he”, “huh, huh, huh”, etc.

The gist of Jefferson’s point was that which one of these gets selected often seems to be triggered by vowel sounds that had come immediately before it. Someone might say “he was stung by a bee – he-he-he!”, “he was locked in the bar – ha-ha-ha” or “she dropped a bottle of gin on her toe – ho-ho-ho”.

I didn’t catch what Santa had been saying just before he used the line that had been supplied to him by the
White House Writers Group, so there’s scope here for a pre-Christmas creative competition.

This year, your challenge is to write what Santa was saying that triggered his selection of the "ho-ho-ho" form of laughter.

There is no limit on the number of words and no restriction on the context in which he said whatever it was that he said. However, some of the vowel sounds in some of the words leading into the final three beats of laughter must be consistent with Gail Jefferson's observation as summarised above.

A few more hints about how sounds can trigger subsequent word selection can be found in another post from last December about Gordon Brown's 'saving the world' gaffe.

Entries must reach me by email before midnight (UK time) on 21 December (via email contact in 'view my complete profile' on the left).

19 November 2009

Authors versus publishers in the digital age

As many of you will know, there's quite a debate going on about Google's plan to make every book ever published available online.

Although publishers are making a lot of noise about it, they've stayed remarkably quiet about another wheeze they've been exploiting since the digital age got under way - and about which they haven't bothered to tell their authors.

Does a book ever go out of print?
As you'll see from the second box from the right at the top of this page, Our Masters Voices can still be obtained from Amazon. And I've long been amazed that it seems to have stayed in print for as long as the 25 years since it was first published by Methuen in 1984.

But the operative words here are seems to have stayed in print, because I've just discovered that, in the traditional meaning of the term, it hasn't really stayed in print at all

It's current publisher only prints a copy if someone actually orders one. In other words, it now falls into a category that didn't exist before the digital age, namely POD or print on demand.

Nor had such a category even been dreamt of a quarter of a century ago when I signed the original contract with Methuen (later taken over by Routledge, later taken over by Tayor & Francis).

When I raised the issue with the 'publisher' recently, I asked the obvious question:

"Does this mean that books never go out of print these days?"

"Well, er - in a sense, yes" came the reply.

"But didn't the original contract say that the rights would revert to the author if and when the publisher stops printing it."

"Er- yes."

"But you're saying that you stop printing it for however many weeks pass before you get another order?"

"Er- yes" (again).

"So does that mean that the rights never revert to authors any more?"

"Well, er (again) - if you wrote to us asking for them back, we'd probably have to agree to revert them to you."

So what?
If the digital age has incited publishers to do things that hadn't been thought of when they originally signed up their authors, it's also created new opportunities for authors to do things they couldn't have done in the past either.

I've just received the princely sum of £53.60 for last year's royalties on the book, which they're now selling at an RRP of £18.99 (or £16.54 from Amazon UK and $34.15 from Amazon USA).

Last year, world sales of this ('still in print') book came to a grand total of 51.

So, if the rights reverted to me and I made it available in digital form from my websites, and reduced the price to £10.00 per copy, I'd only have to sell 6 copies a year to earn more than the miserable royalty payment just received from the 'publishers'.

If I sold the same number in my first year as they sold last year (51), I'd receive £510 rather than £53.60.

An added bonus?
There's another reason why I'd quite like to have the rights back, which is that it would enable me to add new material that the various publishers who've had their hands on it were too mean to let me do in the past.

For example, after the 1987 election, I asked if I could add another chapter (based on a paper on it that I'd given at a conference).

"No", said the publishers of the day (Routledge). "Far too expensive to add any more to it and, in any case, it's selling quite well as it is."

So they went ahead and reprinted it, without the extra chapter, in 1988, 1989, 1991 and 1994.

Then, some time during the 1990s, an article in The Guardian generously referred to the book as 'the best ever guide to the way politicians speak', but pointed out (rightly) that it could do with updating. This must have woken the publishers up, because they suddenly phoned me, for the first time in years, to suggest that I should update it with more recent examples of political speakers and speeches.

But by then it was too late and would have involved far too much work for too little reward - and other commitments meant that I simply didn't have the time.

Now, however, having written two more books on public speaking, not to mention more than 3oo blog posts on the subject, I think I'm ready to do quite a reasonable 'update'.

But I don't want to do it for them, even if the previous offer still stands.

Nor do I want to revise the original, as I'd rather it stayed available as it was in the first place - but with additional chapters on how political communication has changed since 1984.

Advice please!
So, to quote Lenin, what is to be done? And here I really would welcome advice from readers on the two main options:
  1. Should I leave things as they are, keep up the boastful pretence that one of my books has stayed in print continuously for 25 years and receive an annual pittance in royalties?
  2. Or should I get the rights back and make the book available in electronic form, at a lower price and with the addition of new material on what's changed since 1984?
Any suggestions, gratefully received on a postcard, in the comments section below or by email (via 'View my profile' section, above left).




18 November 2009

Hypnotic eyes

After thanking Tony Benn earlier today for his lifetime contribution to my career, I was not intending to post anything more about him for quite a while.

But, having invited comments about the yesterday’s video clip on Twitter, replies came in from a number of people who had noticed something about his eyes and/or eye movements (for which, thanks to Olivia Mitchell, Marion Chapsal and Martin Shovel).

I was fascinated by this, because I’d originally thought of adding a note about his eyes to my comments on yesterday's video clip - pointing out that, in the parts of it where we can actually see his eyes, he doesn’t blink at all.

I didn’t mention it because I thought the post was already quite long enough. But the reason it had crossed my mind was because of of something else I’d written about Mr Benn 25 years ago.

Mad staring eyes?

‘… his more vindictive critics sometimes claim he has ‘mad staring eyes’, a point he has occasionally even joked about in some of his own speeches. In fact his eyes are rather large, and this may actually be a much more important communicative asset than he or his critics realize. It presumably means that more people will be able to track more of his eye movements over a greater distance than is possible in the case of speakers with less prominent eyes. The rate at which Mr Benn blinks his eyes while making a speech is much lower than is the case with most other orators, and this may further contribute to visibility of his eyes … which has probably contributed to his gaze being described as ‘staring’ ('Our Masters’ Voices', pp. 91-92).

Spellbound?

Some years after that, I met someone whose wife worked as a nurse in a mental hospital, where there was a locked ward for severely disturbed patients. Bolted into the ceiling was a TV set that was kept switched on more or less continuously, even though it seldom attracted much attention from residents who spent much of their time wandering around the room in different directions.

According to the nurse, there had only ever been one occasion when she’d seen all of them gather together as a group and gaze up at the the TV on the ceiling at the same time. It was during a live broadcast from a Labour Party conference, where there was one, and only one, speaker who seemed to hold them ‘spellbound’ for quite long periods and in a way that nothing else on television ever did.

By now, of course, you'll obviously know exactly who it was. But at the time, I remember being totally amazed, flabbergasted and almost a little stunned to hear that even this audience was held in thrall by the power of Tony Benn's oratory.

The enormity of my debt to Tony Benn - without whom ...

Writing the last two posts on Tony Benn has reminded me of the enormity of my debt to him, and I think it's time I went public on recording my thanks to him.

I'm not just talking about the rich source of videotaped data his speeches supplied for the research on which my first book on public speaking (Our Masters' Voices) was based, grateful though I am to him for that.

But he played a much more direct part, albeit unwittingly, in changing my life for good - many years before I ever got interested in public speaking.

My first proper academic job
First of all, he was responsible for providing me with two whole years of gainful employment at a crucial and formative stage in my career.

Harold Wilson had appointed Anthony Wedgewood-Benn, as he was still known in the mid 1960s, to be Postmaster General, a job that included responsibility for the country's publicly owned telephone system.

The Labour government was under pressure to supply free and/or subsidised telephones to the elderly - but then as now, research is always cheaper than action because it provides an 'respectable' way of postponing hugely expensive demands on the public purse. So Postmaster General Benn decided set up a two year project to look into the problem.

Conveniently for him, one of his friends and neighbours at the time was a leading expert on old age and poverty, Professor Peter Townsend, who'd recently been appointed to the first chair in sociology at the new University of Essex - where, conveniently for me, I'd just started research for a PhD on the sociology of suicide.

So a two-year Post Office research fellowship was set up at Essex to investigate 'communication and isolation in old age' and, if I hadn't been lucky enough to get the job, it's unlikely I'd have ever have got anywhere near to completing the doctorate, let alone embarking on an academic career.

My first encounter with conversation analysis
But it wasn't just the two years of salary that came my way thanks to Mr Benn, but the initial work on the project led to a discovery that would have a much more profound impact on my life's work. Dorothy Smith had just moved to Essex from Berkeley, where she'd come across a young graduate student called Harvey Sacks, who'd recently finished a PhD based on tape-recorded telephone conversations on a helpline at a suicide prevention agency in California.

This held out the prospect of being able to kill both my research birds (into telephones and suicide) with a single stone. The only trouble was that, insofar as anyone in British sociology had heard of Sacks in 1968, his work was already being written off as far too methodologically innovative, daring, eccentric and controversial to be acceptable by the mainstream of the discipline.

Fascinated though I was by it, I didn't have the guts to try to sell the idea of doing something similar to my Post Office sponsors or to my senior colleagues at Essex - so I ended up playing safe and did a thoroughly boring, though worthy enough, survey of a national random sample over 65 year-olds.

Meanwhile, Harvey Sacks, along with Emanuel Schegloff and Gail Jefferson were beginning to attract wider recognition as founders of the new field of conversation analysis. So, by the time I eventually finished my PhD thesis, the gist of the final chapter concluded with the modest proposal that all hitherto existing sociology, from Durkheim's Le Suicide onwards, was methodologically flawed and that the future lay with ethnomethodology and conversation analysis.

At the time, I didn't have much of a clue as to how you would actually get to such a promised land, let alone what the results would look like if ever you got there. But it eventually took me into research aimed at applying the methodology of conversation analysis to more formal settings like court rooms and, eventually political speeches and public speaking more generally.

And all because of Tony Benn
If Tony Benn had never been Postmaster General and if he hadn't known Peter Townsend, none of this would ever have happened - which is why I'm so thankful to him for his hidden, but nonetheless profound and far-reaching, impact on my life and work.

17 November 2009

An example of rhetorical virtuosity from rhetoric denier Tony Benn

Readers from outside the UK have probably never heard of Tony Benn, and quite a few here will be too young to remember just how effective an orator he was. So, having looked at his 'rhetorical denial' in the previous post I thought it might be useful to show a video illustrating his rhetorical virtuosity in action.

This particular clip comes from a Labour Party conference in the early 1980s, when he was at the height of his powers and a prime mover in his party's electorally disastrous lurch to the left after Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 (on which, see also HERE).

It shows how he was so in tune with the way the audience was reacting that a slight response to his news about that day's record stock market fall was enough to prompt him to break off from what he was going to say and launch into an impressively constructed contrast, each part of which ends with the phrase ‘the wealth of the nation’:

BENN: For a moment between debates the stock market had its biggest fall was it within living memory 30 points – and uhh that is an indication that indeed it was rather appropriate that ITN was swinging
[A]
from the stock market where they’re gambling with the wealth of the nation
[B]
to Brighton where we represent the people who create the wealth of the nation.

ICONIC GESTURES
The sequence also provides more examples of the way 'iconic gestures' come before the word(s) to which they relate, as discussed in earlier posts (HERE and HERE): Benn's swinging hand movements get under way quite a while before the word ‘swinging’ comes out of his mouth – whereupon his hands start moving to his left just before the words ‘stock market’ and to his right just before he say’s the word ‘Brighton’.

Then the slightest pause after ‘create’ followed by the coordinated downward movements of his head and hands are reminiscent of the precision with which an orchestral conductor brings in the whole of the chorus on time – and the audience starts applauding just before he's finished repeating ‘the wealth of the nation’.

SURFING APPLAUSE
But, as was typical of Benn, he didn’t stop there but carried on trying to ‘surf’ the applause - not that he says anything more important than "and that is also-" and "now uhh-") while the applause is still preventing his words from being heard - for more on which, see HERE andHERE).

HISTORICAL CONTEXT
One point of interest is that, as the applause gets under way, the camera switches away the from the audience to focus on Benn's former Labour cabinet colleague and arch-enemy of the day, Denis Healey, who had just narrowly defeated Mr Benn in an election for the party's deputy-leadership - but who seems to be thoroughly enjoying this particular line.

Another is the fact that a stock market fall as pitifully small as 30 points was treated as such dramatic news in those days!

video

16 November 2009

Rhetorical denial and the mysterious case of Tony Benn

About a year ago, I wrote a post on 'rhetorical denial' - a term I use to refer to the way in which outstanding orators don’t always like their technical ability being noticed or analysed by others - and will sometimes use a rhetorical device or two to deny that they're any good at public speaking.

The classic example comes from the forum speech in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, during which, having used pretty well every rhetorical device known to man in one of the most famous speeches in English literature, Mark Antony uses yet another contrast to tell us that he's not much good at speaking in public:

I am no orator as Brutus it, but just a plain simple man.

You can read a fuller discussion of this and other examples HERE, where I also had this to say about how one of the most accomplished political speakers of his day (25 years ago) had reacted to my book Our Master's Voices:

THE CASE OF TONY BENN
'(The book) included a chapter on charisma, part of which used the rhetorical ability of Tony Benn, then at the forefront of the Labour Party’s lurch towards the far left, as an example of how technical skill at oratory can get politicians into prominent positions. Apparently, he didn’t like this at all, and went around telling people that audiences didn’t applaud him because of how he said things but because they agreed so much with what he was saying.

'Years later, both of us appeared on the same television programme, for which I had recorded a piece illustrating the main rhetorical techniques with video clips from political speeches. When asked what he thought of this, Mr Benn replied “Well, it’s rubbish”' -
and continued with the rather powerful simile that you'll hear in the clip below.

My point, and the point that people like Benn fail to grasp, is that less accomplished speakers (i.e. most of us) would have had to struggle to come up anything as neat as this off the top of our heads in an interview - though we can learn to get better at using such techniques once we know what they are.

Unfortunately, we weren't both in the same studio at the same time, so I never got the chance to debate the issue with him face to face.

I've just unearthed a clip of some of the relevant excerpts from Channel 4's The Talking Show(c. 1993) which includes part of Benn's rhetorical denial and my response to it - which I wouldn't want to change much if I had the chance to have another go at it today (other than the ravages of hair loss and other signs of old age that have set in during the past 16 years).

video

In the original post, my question was whether Barack Obama's brilliance at oratory would lead to any rhetorical denial from him or his aides(which it didn't).

The question in the months between now and the general election is whether we'll hear any rhetorical denial from the Cameron camp, given that he's the most technically proficient orator among the current crop of British political party leaders.

15 November 2009

Road signs of the week

Today's Liberal England blog has a picture of the 'Road Sign of the Week' featuring an exclamation mark above the word 'Badgers', plus a link to an even more mysterious one with a solitary exclamation mark on its own.

It reminded me of the first time I ever managed to get anything published in Private Eye. After decades of trying to extract £10 from Lord Gnome, I sent in a picture of the advice on the village sign at Silverstone in Northamptonshire.

As each next issue came out with no sign of my photo, I became increasingly depressed at yet another failure to get something into print.

Then, in the week of that year's British Grand Prix, it turned out that they hadn't lost it after all, the picture appeared in their 'I spy' slot and my cheque from Lord Gnome arrived (and adorned the wall of our loo until it was too late to pay it into the bank).

Since then, however, I think Northamptonshire CC must have changed their village signs, because I'm pretty sure that my version bore the even more suitable legend 'Please drive slowly'.

14 November 2009

Brain drain again?

There's an interesting piece in today's Daily Telegraph claiming that the brain drain from the UK to the USA is getting out of hand and that our universities need more money to help them stem the tide.

It brought back a couple of memories from my former life that make me wonder whether American academic salaries and working conditions really are any more tempting than they were 25 years ago.

In 1984, I spent a semester as a visiting professor at an American university, where I was paid per week exactly the same as I was paid per month (at the top of the readership scale) in Oxford - and I only had to teach for three hours a week.

After Margaret Thatcher had been prime minister for about ten years, I also remember being stunned by a press report claiming that the number of British academics who had migrated to the North America since she had come to power was greater than the number of Jewish intellectuals who had fled in the same direction from Nazi Germany during the 1930s.

It's too long ago for me to be able to recall which newspaper published the story, or how they'd worked out the numbers.

But I haven't forgotten getting the point into one of Paddy Ashdown's leadership speeches at a Liberal Democrat conference - where it produced a collective gasp and fulsome burst of applause from the audience.

Claptrap 10: Academic acclaim?


This is the tenth and final post in a series marking the 25th anniversary of the publication of Our Masters' Voices and the televising of Claptrap by Granada Television.

Part 2: Eureka!
Part 3: News leaks out of the lecture theatre
Part 4: How to get a book published
Part 7: On location

Before trying to get Our Masters' Voices published (Claptrap 4), I'd been warned by Desmond Morris, who was a fellow of the same Oxford college as me, that I would have to be prepared for a sniffy reaction from other academics if I went ahead with my plan to write a book with no footnotes and lots of pictures.

If anyone should know about such things, it was him. Distinguished ethologist though he certainly was, he'd committed the cardinal sin of 'popularisation' by writing The Naked Ape - world sales of which had, by then, reached a mere 15 million copies.

So I should have been ready for the deathly silence that greeted me at lunch on the day after the Claptrap film was shown on television - and should not, I suppose, have been surprised that several days went by before anyone said anything at all.

After all, I knew that the programme had been seen by 12 million people and, however much Oxford dons might pretend that they never watched television, it was statistically improbable that none of them had seen it.

Then, about three days after my phone had hardly stopped ringing - from people asking if I could do the same for them and help them to speak as well as Ann Brennan had done - the silence finally broke.

Standing next to a famous psychologist in the queue for our free lunch (yes, there really was, and probably still is, such a thing as a free lunch in Oxford colleges), I discovered that at least one other member of the college had seen the programme

"Ahh" he said "now about that programme you made a few days ago."

For a split second, this sounded promising, until he went on:

"I think I would need to see the results of more than one experiment to be convinced by your findings."

I was tempted to reply by asking him which funding agency he thought would be willing to finance such a project, and how anyone other than a television company would have the contacts and resources to make all the complicated arrangements that would be needed to replicate it.

It also crossed my mind to launch into a full frontal attack on what I considered to be the rather dubious methodology and facile nature of some of the 'findings' from his own research.

But, by then, I'd been in Oxford for ten years, and had become far too polite to do either.

And however 'unconvinced' my lunchtime colleague may have been by the Claptrap project, within a year or two, I'd been invited to apply for jobs by two well-known American universities, head-hunted by a British business school and seen several follow-up studies published by other researchers.

Within the first ten years, Our Masters' Voices was reprinted five times and, 25 years on, still appears to be in print.

All of which would I think, even if I'd stayed in the ivory tower, have been quite pleasing.

As it was, all the phone calls that came in after the Claptrap experiment led me in much more interesting directions and, somewhat ironically, gave me the chance to replicate the results thousands of times over.

12 November 2009

Carnival time in Somerset

video

Forget Rio, forget Notting Hill and come to Somerset in November to see the largest illuminated processions in the world.

No, I didn't believe it either when I first went to the Wells carnival (one of a dozen locations in mid-Somerset) - expecting to see a few tractors and trailers with straw bales transporting locals in fancy dress

But I was dazzled, literally, when I first saw these breath-taking parades of around 80 floats (or 'carts' in the local jargon) that are bigger than the average articulated lorry and equipped with elaborate mechanical displays lit up by more light bulbs than you'd see at Blackpool and Morecambe illuminations put together.

Local clubs spend the whole year designing and building these annual challenges to the local health and safety inspectors.

You can find this year's schedule of when and where you can see them and a little more background information HERE.

11 November 2009

Basil's book launch


We've just been to a book launch - not one of mine, you understand, but it's about our cat, who attends the primary school next door, especially at lunch times when he can scrounge tuna sandwiches from his fellow pupils

The author, Clare Blackmore, works there and persuaded Bristol Water to sponsor the book to raise funds for the school and Water Aid.

It's full of delightful stories and pictures of Basil's life at school, as well as reports on his CATS tests, progress on work placement schemes, etc.

If you or any of your friends and relations are cat lovers, Basil's School Antics would make a purrrfect Christmas present - with the added advantage of supporting an important charity and a cash-strapped village school. It's not available on Amazon (yet), but details of how to order a copy are HERE.

STOP PRESS (13th November):
Basil got the dates for the book launch wrong, and has only just arrived at school, two days late, to inspect the book.

He was soon distracted by the contents of a bin and was last seen catnapping on one of the school's computers.





10 November 2009

Attacking a politician's spelling and handwriting: fair play or dirty trick?

Regular readers of this blog will know that there have been plenty of posts raising questions about Gordon Brown's communication skills. But when it comes to expressing condolences, he's actually rather good at it (e.g. HERE & HERE).

This is perhaps why I find the media attacks on him for upsetting the mother of a soldier lost in Afghanistan for his bad handwriting, use of a felt tipped pen and poor spelling in a personal letter of condolences rather distasteful and politically suspect.

It can hardly be a coincidence that the story seems to have originated from the Murdoch-owned Sun newspaper and has had much coverage on the Murdoch-owned Sky News just a few weeks after the Murdochs had instructed the Sun to announce, in the middle of the Labour Party conference, that it wouldn't be supporting them at the next general election.

Much more likely is that it's a rather nasty and politically motivated attempt to discredit a prime minister who happens to suffer from poor eyesight.

The most encouraging thing about it is that the story seems to be backfiring on its perpetrators, both in the mainstream (non-Murdoch owned) media and in the blogosphere - and even amongst anti-Labour voters and Conservative bloggers.

'Here today, gone tomorrow' politician walks out of interview with Robin Day

John Nott was the Secretary of State for Defence in Margaret Thatcher's government during the Falkland's war in 1982.

The following year, he announced that he would not be standing for re-election at the next general election - after which he moved on to become chairman and chief executive of a merchant bank.

His immanent departure prompted Robin Day to refer to him during an interview as a "transient here today, if I may say so, gone tomorrow politician".

This prompted Nott to get to his feet, announcing that that that he was "fed up" with the interview - whereupon he took off his microphone and threw it down on the table in front of him.

If that wasn't enough of a high spot, Day's calm response - "Thank you Mr Nott" - was arguably the crowning glory of this remarkable sequence.

Two other points are also worth noting:

1. Nott didn't forget what Day had said
One is that Here Today, Gone Tomorrow resurfaced nearly ten years later as the title of Nott's autobiography.

2. 'Iconic gestures' revisited
The other is that it's another nice example of a gesture coming just before the word(s) to which it relates, as illustrated in an earlier post about the timing of Churchill's iconic gesture in his 'Iron Curtain' speech.

Nott looks away with an irritated expression on his face and starts to stand up before he gets to saying "I'm fed up with this interview" - illustrating again that iconic gestures start before the speaker says the actual words to which they relate.

video


8 November 2009

The day Mandelson walked out of an interview rather than answer a question about Gordon Brown

Regular readers will know that I've already posted a number of classic TV interviews in which top politicians do something unusual or amusing (or both) - and newer readers can catch up with some of them from the links below.

This latest specimen is a stunner for anyone still baffled, bemused or bewildered by the Brown-Mandelson duet.

It shows the noble Lord, when still a humble commoner during the last general election, walking out of an interview to avoid answering a question about Gordon Brown - only a few years before being elevated to a peerage, appointed (in all but name) as deputy prime minister to become the centre piece of Mr Brown's survival strategy.

Avoiding or refusing to answer a question may be routine practice for our politicians, but actually walking out on an interviewer is, to say the least, fairly extreme. And, for an even more dramatic example, keep watching this space over the next few days.

video

OTHER CLASSIC TV INTERVIEWS:

5 November 2009

Humorous political speeches from 30 and 50 years ago

In previous posts, I've featured the 'content free' political speech recorded by Peter Sellers 50 years ago (which you can listen to again at the bottom of this page).

Twenty years after that, another comedy version of a political speech was broadcast on the BBC series Not the Nine O'clock News - but it could hardly be said to be 'content free'.

Thirty years on, and only two weeks since the furore about the appearance of the BNP leader on BBC's Question Time, it's difficult to imagine any comedian being allowed to get anywhere near a television studio with a script like this.

Grounds for optimism or pessimism, that is the question.

ROWAN ATKINSON (30 years ago):


PETER SELLERS (50 years ago):

video

Guy Fawkes prevented some of us from enjoying bonfire night

For former pupils of St Peter's School, York like me, 5th November is an annual reminder of our deprived childhood.

Because Guy Fawkes also went to the school, as too did some of the other gunpowder plotters, bonfires and fireworks were banned - on the grounds that burning an old boy was deemed to be 'bad form'.

Some years ago, whilst listening to some primary school children reading on 5th November, my wife told one of the children that her husband had gone to the same school as Guy Fawkes.

"Oh" said the child, "Did he know him?"

3 November 2009

Does your credibility improve when you admit ignorance?

Olivia Mitchell, via Twitter, has posted news from a Stanford Graduate School of Business research project showing 'that an expert who expresses minor doubts seems more credible'.

It reminded me of something that happened on one of the first commercial courses I ran as I was beginning to make the move out of full-time academia into training consultancy.

Then, as now, my policy was and is not offer any firm advice that can't be supported by at least something in the way of research or observation. In reply to a question from one of the delegates, I must have said something along the lines of "we don't know".

The reason I remember it so vividly is because there was considerable discussion over lunch about the fact that I was apparently the first consultant they'd ever come across who'd actually admitted that there was something he didn't know.

This, coupled with something I'd seen a few weeks earlier, gave me the confidence to carry on admitting that there were plenty of things I didn't know.

It was the case of another training consultant running a presentation skills course in which he had criticised one of the participants for failing to switch the overhead projector off and then on again every time he put on another slide. But this particular particular pupil wasn't convinced:

'(he) complained that, when he was in an audience, he found it extremely annoying when speakers kept turning the projector on and off. He even dared to ask why it was deemed to be good practice. After some initial hesitation, the consultant quickly recovered his capacity to sound authoritative in the face of mindless ignorance with the memorable line: "because it's correct"' (Lend Me Your Ears, pp. 9-10).

Another classic TV interview (with Gerald the Gorilla)

Regular readers of this blog will know that television interviews are a constant source of fascination, irritation and (occasional) amusement for me.

Going through my archives the other day, I came across another classic from Not the Nine O'clock News that seemed worth posting for those too young to have missed the many gems from the show.

And, in case you haven't seen any of the video clips posted earlier, you can link to a selection of them below (the first one of which includes another Not the Nine O'clock News clip as well as links to more 'serious' posts on political interviews):