What about that! A guy who stammers is the most powerful man in America – where, of course, they call such an impediment a stutter. Yes, Joe Biden is a stammerer.
You may not have noticed it so successful has Joe become at avoiding words he finds difficult to say. But he knows he stammers, as we, all the other stammerers in the world, know he stammers. We can always spot it when he searches for an alternative word if he realizes he’s about to get stuck.
Biden has come a long way from his more difficult times, which he’s often talked about, but he isn’t an ex-stammerer. He hasn’t been ‘cured’. Very few of us ever are. We all just hide it better than we used to, thus giving the impression of having overcome our handicaps, when always having a slight worry that at some unfortunate moment our speech will betray us. Joe will know about that.
I stammer. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t. At junior school I would get the usual taunts from other children, so I was sent to an elocutionist when I was nine so that I could learn to talk properly. That didn’t work, although I probably ended up sounding a bit posher than the other kids in my class.
At my grammar school my dislocated speech was considered serious enough for me to be referred to a speech therapist, who puzzled me when she asked me if I ever did things while alone of which I was ashamed. I didn’t know what she was talking about. So that didn’t work either.
School sort of passed me by. Yes, there were occasional jeers from prats in other classes, my Latin teacher seemed to think it was funny to address me as ‘C-C-Connolly’ and my headmaster suggested that he might be able to put a word in for me with the local authority where a desk job might mean I would never have to speak. But Trappist silence wasn’t going to be my fate.
So I moved on to university where my tutor was so concerned when I struggled to read out my first paper that she thought I ought to see the college psychiatrist.
‘When do you stammer most?’ he asked me.
‘All the time,’ I replied.
‘But is there some moment when it’s particularly difficult for you to get the words out?’ he pursued.
‘Well, when I have to catch the Tube every morning to come here,’ I said. ‘There’s no problem if I have the exact money and can just put it down in front of the ticket person in the booth. But if I don’t, I might have to stand there for what seems like ages as I try to get the words out while a queue forms behind me.’
‘I see,’ he said. ‘Have you ever thought your problem might be sexual?’
‘Yes. Think about it. You find you can’t speak when you have to project your voice into the hole in the glass.’
‘Yes. But…?’ I didn’t get it.
So he demonstrated by making a circle with his thumb and first finger with one hand, and then projecting his forefinger from his other hand into the space he’d made. ‘Sexual, you see.’
Now I got it. ‘No,’ I said. ‘I don’t think I can have a sex problem. I’ve never had sex.’
The guy might have been wrong about the roots of my stammer, but he was spot on that it could be problem with girls. For that reason I never went clubbing. If it was difficult enough for me to talk in a quiet room, it was impossible in a noisy club. Actually, it still is.
Somehow I progressed through university at the end of which I applied for a job at ITN, hoping to be trained as a sub-editor or film editor. Somehow, however, wires must have got crossed.
‘To be honest, I don’t think you’re cut out to read News At Ten,’ I was told. Indeed I wasn’t.
I did eventually become a newspaper sub-editor, however, before, by a miracle for which I will be forever grateful, I was given a job that involved interviewing rock stars and popular heroes of the time. My entire life changed direction in that moment.
I still stammered, of course, but now I was doing it in front of the most famous people in the world – Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Muhammad Ali and Elvis Presley, who also stammered, by the way.
As a boy I’d been told of all kinds of ‘cures’, such as how the Greek philosopher Demosthenes would put pebbles in his mouth to prevent him from stammering, I never tried that, but I can guarantee that deep breathing, relaxation methods, singing the words, and clapping before every difficult consonant (which was as daft as it sounds) didn’t help me.
And while George V1’s efforts at stammer control were often proffered as an example of how adversity could be overcome with the right mental attitude, all I saw was a figure of pity as the poor man struggled through those Christmas Day broadcasts to the Empire.
By the time I was doing interviews, however, I’d begun to see a kind of salvation. Some actors were said to stammer off-stage, but never when playing a part. Surely, I thought, the answer for me was to start playing a part in life as a non-stammerer. Which is exactly what I did and what I still do, although these days it’s pretty well unconscious.
Nowadays, people who don’t know me very well, or who’ve only ever seen me speaking on the occasional TV or radio broadcast, might not know that I stammer. But I do, and when I get home, perhaps after happily addressing a public meeting or a Q and A, I might have difficulty saying my wife’s name. She’s called Plum, and the letter ‘p’ is an explosive little blighter best avoided for people like me.
It might seem counter-intuitive that I can talk fluently in public to strangers but not at home when I’m most relaxed. But that’s the point. At home I don’t have to pretend and play the part of someone who doesn’t stammer. With my family I’m comfortable being the genuine me, speech defect and all.
And, my bet is that if Joe Biden is anything like me, he will stutter more with his close family than he will when he’s playing the role of President in front of the entire American nation in coast to coast broadcasts.
That Joe Biden is able to control his stutter rather than have it control him, as it must once have done, tells us quite a lot about his determination, but also about changed attitudes during his lifetime and mine.
In the modern world, the work of speech therapists and neurologists has done much to lift the negative reactions to hearing a stammer that many employers would reveal not so very long ago. And to see Joe Biden in the White House brings to mind an incident that occurred to me sixty years ago when as a student I spent a summer in America.
Applying for a job as a restaurant busboy at an employment agency in New York I found that when asked my name I couldn’t say it.
‘You got a speech defect?’ the interviewer roared across the waiting office. ‘I can’t use you.’
And the interview was over.
I like to think that Joe Biden will recognise such a moment.