Oratory as music – we consider The Last Post, a fake barrel organ, Jeff Beck, a trombone through marshmallow and a foghorn

The Rochdale by-election was a strange and disorganised spectacle (though not quite as strange and disorganised as the tempestuous Bermondsey by-election I lived through in 1983). Rochdale featured a Conservative candidate whose vote share fell by nearly 20% (not bad by recent Tory standards), a Labour candidate who had been disowned by his party and a Lib Dem candidate who might as well not have turned up at all. Comfortably in second place was the independent David Tully, a vehicle-repair shop owner who stood on the platform of localism. His result is the more remarkable given his campaign only started four weeks before polling day.

Out in first place was, of course, George Galloway. Some see him as a principled campaigner, others as a devious opportunist: but few can disagree that he’s one of the finest orators this country has produced. Blair had it; Obama and Clinton had it. Sunak and Starmer definitely do not have it – our PM sounds like a tetchy head teacher addressing a fractious school assembly while Starmer often seems to be parodying an old-fashioned solicitor reading a will. Johnson had it but his successor Liz Truss could barely string three words together. Biden certainly doesn’t have it and nor did either Bush. Oratorial skill is clearly not a pre-requisite for being elected.

Hang on: what exactly is “oratory”? Is being a good orator something to praise or be wary of?

Both, it seems. Merriam-Webster defines “oratory” variously as “the art of speaking in public eloquently or effectively” and as “public speaking characterised by the use of stock phrases that appeal chiefly to the emotions”. The Cambridge Dictionary opts for “skilful and effective public speaking”. Collins Dictionary, on the other hand, comes down more on the negative side, defining it as “the art of making formal speeches which strongly affect people’s feelings and beliefs.” Clearly one needs, as with charm and sex-appeal, to treat with caution the effect that oratory has on us. Conveying ideas eloquently is better than babbling drivel but there’s also something deceptive or meretricious about it.

It’s not necessary to agree with the message to appreciate the delivery. There’s a pleasure that comes from hearing communication used in an interesting way: the trick is to keep the emotional appeal separate from the technique of the speech, much as it’s possible to enjoy the musical cadences of a song even if it has banal or objectionable lyrics. At its best, oratory involves not only a highly adept use of language and rhetorical devices but also deployment of the voice as a subtle musical instrument.

Few people pulled this off better than Obama. I could listen to his speeches for ages, less because of the content (the details of which, not being American, I often can’t follow) but because of his superb vocal and linguistic control. Jeff Beck played the guitar in much the same way. Both squeezed every gradation of expression from their instrument and employed exquisite timing to make every word or note shimmer, echo or fade delicately away, imbuing each with a grace and significance in a way few could match.

Churchill’s style was more one of rumbling exhortation, like listening to a bass-heavy version of Land of Hope and Glory played at the other end of a long corridor. He also, let us not forget, was a skilled if mischievous wordsmith (and a Nobel Prize for Literature laureate) as well as the originator of countless aphorisms that are still widely quoted.

In a different way, Thatcher had a certain oratorical skill, mainly because she was sensible enough to know her limits and to pick one theme and stick to it. She can perhaps best be compared to a military bugler who can play The Last Post brilliantly, in any circumstances, but who goes to pieces if confronted with anything requiring more nuance.

We then come to two people who, although I disagree with pretty much everything they say, I enjoy listening to because I’m fascinated by the way they use both language and their voices: Johnson and Trump. The former is remarkable for having created an image of himself as a bumbling but well-intentioned squire, his observations peppered with digressions, classical allusions and off-key pieces of modern slang. The reality, as has recently been confirmed, is more dark and complex. With him, the word “meretricious” demands to be used.

None the less, his speeches are intriguing pieces of work. He has the ability, within the limits of his range, to modulate his inflexion to create the illusion – and it was often little more than that – of empathy, statesmanship or a grip of the facts. Above all, he was entertaining, though increasingly not always in the way he intended. One can compare him to a brass band playing Colonel Bogey’s March or the Monty Python theme tune with great panache but without realising that a different mood often needed to be struck.

Trump is the oddest of the lot. He has – as do all of them – an utterly distinctive voice. This often veers, during just one sentence, from hectoring bombast to a strange melisma in which his final remarks fade away to a kind of breathless purr. What he says often plain wrong. Some of it is actively dangerous. None the less, his speeches are strangely compelling. It’s like listening to someone playing a trombone through a large marshmallow, the attraction coming less from the pleasure of the result than from amazement that anyone should be able to create such a sound at all. The effect this is having on the American electorate can be judged from the country’s opinion polls.

I could go on. In fact, I think I will. Farage who, like Trump, has managed to position himself as an outsider despite in many ways being anything but, has a rhetorical style that involves the constant recitation of familiar ditties, most harking back to an age that never existed. He delivers them with a slightly menacing bonhomie, complete with the props of foaming pints and tweed jackets. He’s like a folkie playing well-known tunes on what appears to be a barrel organ but which is actually an expensive digital reproduction, equipped with autoplay and able to provide cunning variations at the touch of a button.

Then there’s Ian Paisley, a man whose delivery can perhaps best be compared to a foghorn: unmusical; strident; and repetitive to the extent that, after the first couple of blasts, you pretty much know what’s coming next. The effect is not pleasing but is certainly very effective as a warning.

Galloway is up there with the best of them. His delivery is clipped and compact and, as the Scottish accent tends to do, pays respect to every syllable. His voice doesn’t have a wide musical range – he’s more Lennon than McCartney in that respect – but he combines a precise choice of phrasing with the appearance, and often the reality, of a forensic command of detail: unlike some of the others. Although there are few wasted words in any one sentence, he can talk for an inordinate length of time on whatever happens to take his fancy. He’s like a highly skilled blues guitarist – pick your favourite from hundreds – who sticks to the format at which he excels and wears you down during long solos with his consummate knowledge of the licks and riffs that the genre demands.

I can think of few people I would less like to be in argument with about something either of us thought mattered. How much he really cares about some of the things he opines on is open to doubt: what isn’t is that, at the time, you believe that he really does care and, what’s more, has taken the trouble to get the details straight. This combination makes him a dangerous opponent: he was right to say that his victory was Starmer’s “worst nightmare.” You don’t win seven elections for three different parties by accident. He’ll be going for an eighth in a few months. In these strange times, few would bet against him.

Brian Quinn

• For further articles, please click here
• For songs, please click here


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Sign up to the free weekly

Penny Post


For: local positive news, events, jobs, recipes, special offers, recommendations & more.

Covering: Newbury, Thatcham, Hungerford, Marlborough, Wantage, Lambourn, Compton, Swindon & Theale