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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 76 - The verbally challenged are now speaking up


WHILE easily recognisable as a vortex of journalistic power and intellectual charisma, I have an impediment - a slight stutter that comes unbidden to the tongue like a crumb dislodged from a tooth crevasse.

Occasionally, I halt in mid-conversation to attempt to crack the hard consonantal shell of a word to get to the toothsome kernels of vowels or diphthongs. Sometimes it is easy and I can, roughly speaking, crunch through my speech delivery like vocal muesli but, at other times words stick in my teeth and it is almost a dentist’s job to dislodge them.

I have it on the unwavering word of the London-based British Stammering Association that 1 per cent of the world’s population is estimated to have a speech impediment, and its Edinburgh-situated Scottish branch, now being established, reveals that around 50,000 Scots stutter, some, doubtless, sounding like motorbike engines being kick-started into life.

The heartless sometimes mock the tongue-twisted but, for those whose attempts at delivering words to the pithead are about as difficult as scaling Everest in shorts and open-toed sandals, a stutter can be a teeth-gritting embarrassment.

My stutter started in primary school when our teacher distributed books of an educational and uplifting nature, one of which was Lives of the Great Scots. We had to read passages in strict rotation and when I stood up and delivered, all I produced, as a small Scot with stage-fright, was a clicking sound like a stick being drawn along railings. In further reading sessions, my stutter and I took the stage under the merciless spotlight.

My mother, disliking the double act, took me to a doctor. "Get him to sing, it will improve his breathing," was his considered medical opinion. My mother had a large repertoire of traditional ballads and music hall songs, was a determined soprano and, with my thin, piping treble, we attacked my stutter with therapeutic renderings of She Was Only A Bird In A Gilded Cage, Rag Time Cowboy Joe and Will Ye Stop Yer Ticklin’ Jock?

The Minstrel Boy had my stutter on the ropes but Nymphs and Shepherds delivered the KO.

It emerged temporarily years later when I had a girlfriend with a severe stutter. I empathised with her and found myself again stumbling over syllables and getting entangled with diphthongs. Eventually we parted, sadly but carefully, spitting out our farewell words like pomegranate pips. My stutter has emerged again, coyly but ready to retreat at the first sign of I Love a Lassie.

Stutterers are in illustrious company. Moses, "slow of tongue and speech" and living a stressful early life in a series of rushes, probably stammered. The Roman emperor Claudius was verbally challenged and George VI had a speech impediment that made his kingly pronouncements a painfully-embarrassing experience. Winston Churchill had a slight, childhood stammer. Lewis Carroll was utterly stuttered at times, perhaps when photographing Alice. Sir Isaac Newton had a stammer of some gravity, while Charles Darwin also had speech problems.

Who else? Only Somerset Maugham, Margaret Drabble, the TV and radio personality, Nicholas Parsons, the former Goon, Michael Bentine, the poet, Philip Larkin, and others, too numerous to mention and, if you have verbal impedimenta, probably too difficult to read out without sounding like an outboard engine starting up.

Stammerers, however difficult the effort, are now speaking up for themselves. The British Stammering Association (020 8983 1003), which has 1,600 members but does not offer therapy, will hold its annual conference in Stirling, on 3-5 September. Norbert Lieckfeldt, the chief executive, said the association provides information and support services and runs projects for health-care workers and teachers. The association’s Edinburgh representative, is Jan Anderson (0131 229 8069). An open day featuring the McGuire technique for stammering and other speech impediments is to be held in Edinburgh at the Girl Guide headquarters, Melville Street, on 3 April.

For such admirable efforts to overcome distressing tongue trips, let there be no impediments. To fellow stutterers, I say, as a vortex of verbal charisma, "g-good l-luck".


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