Lost for words

The King’s Speech is the first film to portray my speech defect realistically, says the Man Booker-nominated novelist David Mitchell
February 23, 2011

Being the owner of a speech defect, I watch the portrayal of stammerers in the arts with a hypercritical eye. No film (to my knowledge) comes close to the intelligence with which the award-winning The King’s Speech handles the subject of stammering. Scriptwriter David Seidler and actor Colin Firth’s portrait of George VI’s struggles is perceptive, unsentimental and refreshingly accurate.

The future monarch’s speech is dogged by a phonetic band of main offenders—hard Cs and Ks, Gs and Qu-words—plus a narrower group of sporadic “guest” troublemakers: Fs, Phs, and Ws. Bang on. Many fictional stammerers stumble over random letters—a dead giveaway of an under-informed author. Accurate, also, are the observations that you don’t stammer when singing, talking to yourself or swearing, and speech therapist Lionel Logue’s conclusion that the problem is not mechanical—as scientific fashion claimed in the 1930s—but neurological, as scans now prove.

But The King’s Speech’s most singular merit is that stammering is not merely a character handle or a plot device implant, but the film’s star subject. As far as I know, this is a first. The two best-known screen stammerers in British culture to date are Ronnie Barker’s grocer Arkwright in the 1970s and 1980s sitcom, Open All Hours— my, how we laughed—and Michael Palin’s character Ken in the hit 1988 comedy, A Fish Called Wanda. Both exploit the dramatic colour of stammering, but neither offer an ounce of understanding about the phenomenon. Why is this particular dysfunction, lived with by approximately 750,000 people in Britain, represented so dismally and so sparsely in contemporary culture?


I detect a taboo. All disabilities are disabling, but the degree of discomfort they inflict upon the non-disabled varies, depending in no small part on the condition’s “assistability.” Helping a blind person navigate King’s Cross gives the decent-minded Samaritan a certain glow, and inviting a special needs classmate to our child’s birthday party makes us feel civilised. But watching a stammerer suffer a mauling? That’s agony. What can you do, apart from inwardly (or outwardly) wince, and thank God you don’t suffer that mortification every time you’re called upon to read in class, answer the phone or buy a ticket?

I guessed that screenwriter David Seidler was a stammerer just from the reactions of the onlookers during the Duke of York’s Wembley speech, in The King’s Speech’s foggy opening scene. Finally (and I confess to grim relish here) non-stammerers can see themselves as we see them and their shouldn’t-look-away-but-don’t-know-where-else-to-look Look.

This individual discomfort, I believe, transforms into a broader cultural “looking away”—hence the dearth of intelligent television and film on the subject. And the cultural looking away, in turn, translates into political indifference and funding apathy. The Donkey Sanctuary receives 200 times the annual donations of the British Stammering Association, of which I am a patron. To mangle Oscar Wilde, stammering is the disability which cannot say its name.

This silence is even common in the homes of stammerers. Despite growing up in a much saner family than the Duke of York’s, my open and kind parents and I discussed my speech impediment exactly never, and this “don’t mention the stammer” policy was continued by friends and colleagues into my thirties. I’d probably still be avoiding the subject today had I not outed myself by writing a semi-autobiographical novel, Black Swan Green, narrated by a stammering 13 year old. Intentions are honourable—“the poor bastard’s suffering enough without bringing up the subject”—but silence leads to public ignorance, and this has allowed fallacies to take root: fallacies that make stammerers’ lives harder in the long run.

The first fallacy’s stupidity is matched only by its doggedness, and in The King’s Speech it is embodied by the Duke of York’s father. It’s the belief that stammerers can be urged and exhorted to “get it out!”—because stammering is caused by a lack of willpower. Do me a favour. Stammerers are furnaces of willpower, burning more of the stuff in making a single phonecall than our non-stammering accusers get through in a week. My first ever public event as a writer was in 1999, at the generous invitation of AS Byatt and Tibor Fischer. Tibor picked up on my nervousness and, meaning to reassure me, said: “This will be the scariest reading you’ll ever do.” I’ve never told him how right he was.

The second fallacy is a cousin of the first and might be labelled “throw-’em-in-at-the-deep-end.” If a stammerer is forced by circumstances into public speaking, it’s assumed that the disfluency will evaporate as if by magic. This is patent bullshit, as The King’s Speech demonstrates, but it is still widely credited, and rears its head in the Oscar-winning screenplay Shakespeare in Love, where a hitherto tongue-tied stammerer is forced onto the stage of the Globe, and lo and behold, his verbal shackles fall away. If only. I remember pleading with an otherwise astute deputy headmistress to waive my prefect’s school assembly reading, something I’d been dreading for many years. She agreed, but not without implying that by submitting to my cowardice I was avoiding the chance to cure myself. This isn’t a “poor me” anecdote: my point is that even gifted educators may not grasp that if stress could cure speech defects, stammerers wouldn’t exist in the first place. We’d all be lawyers, or establishing cults, or outsparring John Humphrys on the Today programme.

A third fallacy is that stammering is curable, like rabies or cowpox. When the speech therapist Lionel Logue in The King’s Speech mentioned the word “cure” early on, I feared a heart-warming scene where King George has a “Run, Forrest, Run!” moment. In fact, his victory is a fluent-ish speech rather than mellifluous perfection. ‘You still stammered on the “w,” Logue half-jokes after the speech, and the king half-jokes back: “I had to throw in a few extra ones so they knew it was me.” The bad news is that all stammerers are lifers. The good news is that strategies which alleviate a stammer can become so integrated that, much of the time, the joins won’t show—and you can get on with jobs, relationships, call centres and wartime speeches.

What are these strategies? They vary from stammerer to stammerer, but we all collect a box of tricks. I subdivide mine into technical fixes and attitudinal stances. Blunt technical fixes would include the “Punch”: where I attack a word to force it out, and the “Foot Tap,” which works like a musician’s a-1,2,3,4, though only when I’m standing, hence my fondness for lecterns. I often use the Long Pause and the Long “Erm…” where I “assemble” a word under the cover of searching for it. There’s the “Autocue Substitute,” where I scan my current sentence for trouble and change vocabulary and grammar to avoid it, without (ideally) my listener noticing. This doesn’t work when I’m doing a reading (though occasionally I’ll substitute a word in one of my own books on the hoof), but it was excellent training for a future novelist. By the age of 15 I was a zit-spattered thesaurus of synonyms and an expert on lexical registers. At my rural comprehensive, substituting the word “pointless” with “futile” would get you beaten up for being a snob because the register’s too high—it’s a teacher’s word—so I’d deploy “useless.” Another crafty technique is “Vowel Vaseline,” where I smear a tricky consonant with its preceding vowel. For example, I fumble with the “s” of “salad,” but not with the word “assalad,” so when I’m ordering in restaurants I say, “I’ll have assalad, please.”

If these technical fixes tackle the problem once it’s begun, “attitudinal stances” seek to dampen the emotions that trigger my stammer in the first place. Most helpful has been a sort of militant indifference to how my audience might perceive me. Nothing fans a stammer’s flames like the fear that your listener is thinking “Jeez, what is wrong with this spasm-faced, eyeball-popping strangulated guy?” But if I persuade myself that this taxing sentence will take as long as it bloody well takes and if you, dear listener, are embarrassed then that’s your problem, I tend not to stammer. This explains how we can speak without trouble to animals and to ourselves: our fluency isn’t being assessed. This is also why it’s helpful for non-stammerers to maintain steady eye contact, and to send vibes that convey, “No hurry, we’ve got all the time in the world.” (While we’re on the subject, please don’t finish off our sentences: it makes us feel like doomed contenders in a hellish, eternal game of Countdown.)

My second shift in attitude was to stop thinking of my stammer as an enemy, and to start seeing it as an informant about language, and a feature of me; as legitimate as my imagination or conscience. Sure, it needed domesticating, and this took time, but we’ve come to a modus operandi where I recognise my stammer’s right to exist, and it recognises my right to do readings and radio interviews. Sometimes I have to Autocue Substitute or resort to a blunter technique, and very occasionally I may have to say to a festival audience something like “I’m sorry but my stammer’s refusing to let me say this one word” and “syllable-spell” it out, but it beats being at war with myself, and nobody’s ever asked for their money back.

The last fallacy I’d like to dispel is that stammering is a phase that children will grow out of. It isn’t, and they won’t. This fallacy still festers in surgeries and schools where it sweeps concerns under reassuring carpets, but also trashes childhoods and squanders potential. Would you put your hand up in class if you know you’re going to stammer? Better act dumb, at least you keep some dignity. Worst of all, this fallacy discourages stammerers or their parents from seeking professional help. My coping strategies described above are ones I evolved over many years, and they let me function as an author, but a modern-day therapist could help me acquire them in as many months and save two decades of secret trouble. Therapy has come a long way since my own patchy experiences of it in the 1980s—let alone Lionel Logue’s intuitive approaches in the 1930s—and there are positive reports about new initiatives like the Starfish programme, which emphasises breathing control.

The footballer Jimmy Greaves once said that an alcoholic is an alcoholic for life; but that his aim was to become a teetotal alcoholic. My own goal is to become a non-stammering stammerer. In the year of The King’s Speech, people with speech impediments shouldn’t feel imprisoned by their disfluencies or suffer alone. So if you’re asking for tea when you want coffee because of that tricky “c,” find a speech therapist you can work with, stick at it, and start ordering your coffee.