At the precocious age of 14 I won a public speaking competition among local secondary schools.
After I had spoken for three minutes on the topic of nuclear power – evil or necessity, the chair of the judges said what my little talk had lacked in humour (yea, laugh a minute that topic) had more than been redeemed by what he called my seemingly innate lecternal presence.
I think he meant I have a big mouth.
Every since that little bronze shield took its place alongside my brother’s umpteen running trophies in our school’s otherwise rather sparse silverware cabinet, my ability to speak before a crowd has been one of the sharper implements in the toolkit of my life.
At university, the whiff of elitism (as well as a subscription fee amounting to around 100 student pints at my estimation) may have kept me out of the debating society. But it was inevitable I’d become a rabble rouser at the student union. Often was I to be found behind the megaphone, thumping a tub at demonstrations, rallies and congresses throughout those formative student years.
After university I became a campaigner on peace and social justice, ever comfortable behind a microphone, whether on a stage before hundreds at a demonstration or festival, or before many thousands via the TV or radio airwaves.
In that time I was Paxmanned and Humphried, BBCd, ITVd, Sky’d and Al Jazeera’d. All without breaking a sweat. This, after all, is what I did for fun.
Inevitably, it became a job too.
I morphed into a writer and trainer, a professional public speaker who would happily address crowds and conferences from stages and panels. I’d teach charity delegates – the more the better – on how to work well with the media, how to communicate with their supporters, how to give a speech in public. My wedding speeches became not too scrappy either.
A favourite warm-up anecdote, told in various forms, and always tailored for my audience ran as follows:
I’d often go home from a shopping trip with the wrong sized jeans because I was too shy to ask the pretty girl behind the counter if I could try them on. Yet ask me to speak in front of thousands about where those jeans were made, by whom, in what circumstances, and for what meagre wages, and I’d do so with gusto and without missing a heartbeat. Girls like a shy guy, I told myself, as long as they have passion.
It is by our vanities that we will be undone.
Over the last three weeks, the frequent daytime seizures induced by my brain tumour have given me opportunity to probe and observe their every aspect. An overriding feature of each is that they arrest my ability to speak.
As the wave of physical confusion builds across my right hand side, arm and leg, so the connection between my thoughts and my voice withers away.
I know what I want to say. And what I want to say makes perfect sense. But when it reaches my tongue and lips, it emerges as a mumble, the words in the wrong order, interspersed with random diction I never intended to utter.
After a few minutes my words gradually line up again, slotting themselves into their rightful place. With my verbal constipation cleared, it then feels as if the blockage was never there. And my big mouth lives to speak another day.
The tumour, it seems, is pressing on the part of my brain that takes my thoughts, massages them and arranges them, and then spits them out as the sounds I will eventually emit.
As the tumour grows – and my type of tumour does slowly, inevitably grow even if not yet malignant – it is likely to press ever more on the voice box in my brain, further confusing and crushing the message. And along with it, the messenger.
This irony was not lost on journalist and broadcaster John Diamond, when writing about his own cancer. As someone who made his living from his appearances across radio and TV, it was bound to be his larynx that was attacked first by a tumour.
The rest of his throat followed, as well as much of his tongue. His own trade tools had to be removed by scalpel, the tool of another’s trade necessarily brought to bear. But thankfully for all of us, John Diamond could still write.
Until the end, he continued his column in The Times and he was part-way through a book exposing the snake oil of alternative medicine when he was rushed to hospital for the last time.
“Let me explain,” were the last words he wrote.
John Diamond had it rough. Painful oesophageal cancer took away his voice, his ability to taste, to eat, at times to even breathe. But his brain carried on fizzing away, offering readers his knowing wit and sarcastic perception.
For me, there will be little pain. But like John Diamond, my speech will almost certainly go.
Later may come the loss of physical control, of my right arm at least. I’ll resort, perhaps, to bashing out words on a keyboard with my left hand, rather like a non computer user does when let loose on one in the library.
Eventually, though, even the connection between my thoughts may be lost. The tools of my trade, my voice and my written word, finally rendered blunt.
Knowing what I know, I have no choice but to continue. To carry on honing and caring for, using and sharpening the tools that I have, while I still have them.
It’s what I do. It’s what I’ve always done. All I need is an audience.
To you for being – once, occasionally, or even again and again – just that, I’m extremely, overwhelmingly grateful.
I remain available for inaugurations and congregations, demonstrations, and celebrations.