Sometimes I wonder will anyone, even a normally sympathetic reader, hear my stories and not think I am in lala land, building mountains from molehills, feeling sorry for myself. These thoughts come despite all evidence, for somewhere I am being told that a decent person – or maybe a cultured person, or maybe a Poole person – should keep personal matters to himself and that my life is far too small to be taken seriously by anyone except perhaps someone paid to listen.
So the tears began as the movie, The King’s Speech, began. I mentioned this on Facebook and one reaction was from a very old friend from Asian days whom I never see who is now with his final wife in a remote part of Australia. I knew him in the sixties as a wild rebel writer, so I am not sure if he was being facetious: his comment to what I said was that he always tears up during the Queen’s Christmas Day speech. It reminds me of when someone reads something I have written about the formal family I came from and the writing includes some scenes of horror, and the reader says something about how great for me to have come from such worthy and cultured people.
In the movie the royal family’s regular dinner table in the palace looked exactly like the dinner table at White Pines, the seat of my family’s self image. The queen placed at the head, just like my grandmother, and on either side a half dozen lesser people in evening clothes. Of course the dinner table at White Pines would be like the table in England, my wife said, for that was their model.
And it is all there in the movie. Patriarchs and matriarchs defining the limits to life.
And the children, two boys, in this awful rivalry. One of them stutters badly, and other children make fun of him, and his elders think they can will him to stop. His brother, the favored brother, the one who is in line to be king, this brother chortles and himself makes fun of his stuttering sibling.
That’s why in that scene I was I crying. One of the reasons this movie got to me.
I wasn’t going to see it. More channel 13 anglo-envy hogwash about genteel people in past times in England, I assumed. But I had to go for it was written by a very old friend of mine, David Seidler who now seems on the verge of an Academy Award. David and I saw each other often long ago when roaming about sixties New York – before we went off for various writing reasons, he to do a TV pilot in the South Seas, me to go to Bangkok. I see him about every 10 or 15 years, but we keep up through a mutual friend, really two mutual friends, through whom we met.
I was not going to see his movie because I can’t stand fictionalized versions of anything, genteel Brits or not. And yet this I did know: That the movie is about the royal family’s second son who may be thrust into being king, but who has never been able to do what he wants and needs to do because he stutters so badly. His public appearances are an embarrassment.
And meanwhile the best writers write what they know. It should come as no surprise to someone not obsessed with fiction that David Seidler had been a stutterer.
Bertie, the disparaged son who stutters, Bertie who will become King George VI, even his older brother makes fun of him. His father seems to take his stuttering as evidence of weakness. Bertie tries. He goes before an audience, an event repeated over and again, and he is expected to say a few words to the crowd, and he can’t.
I had so many times when I simply could not speak. Not even a stutter. Until I amazed them all by going from the bottom of the school to the top and winning trophies that said I was the best debater in New England. There was a turning point day when the whole school was assembled to see my team take on the best in New England, which was from Portland, Maine where they had a coach who wrote a book on each year's debate topic that was used by secondary school debaters and their coaches all over America. I was on the varsity debate team even though I was only a fourth former, which translates as sophomore. And not only did we win but the judges, nice ladies from the Plymouth, New Hampshire, League of Woman Voters chapter, named me the best speaker.
The next morning, a Saturday, I was waiting in a school van to go to a more casual debating event to which all the school’s debaters on all levels would also be going. My brother, the anointed twin, looked in the van and said “Speedy,” much the way Bertie’s brother mocked his stuttering. Speedy was the nickname I had nearly escaped but had suffered with for a year and a half when I was the most despised and dumbest boy in the whole little Anglophile boys boarding school.
Earlier that season one person had spoken to me much the same way the stuttering expert had spoken to Bertie in the movie. In my case it was a debate coach, in his a more clinical speech expert. The coach had said it was not true that I was doomed to forever be slow and dull, always lagging behind my twin, who was at the top of the class and I was failing. When the speech expert told Bertie that it was traumatic things his past that kept him from speaking, Bertie had at first been angry but not long afterwards he had started talking for the first time about such things as being close as a child not to family but to a nanny, and that the main nanny of his childhood adored his brother and did not like him. Reminded me not to much of my nanny – though I had such a thing. (We were so refined we called them nurses rather than nannies.) Not so much of my nanny as of the grandmother who lived with us, my mother’s mother, not one of the Pooles but a languid Southern lady who drank a great deal and was our baby sitter after a certain point and adored my brother and detested me.
These were the sorts of things Bertie never spoke of to anyone until he was egged on to do so by that speech expert – who said there was no such thing as a baby who stuttered when he first started talking.
I never talked about such things – not counting some drunken rambles – until I had passed 50, until this time I write about, 1986, when it became a matter of life and death to find out what had happened.
Once the investigation was underway, I had thought that the parts about suicide and molestation, incest and grand scale betrayal, would be the evidence that would be convincing. But nothing was bigger than the small things I knew all along but never talked about.