A book cover

Book review: Parts of Speech

18th January 2023

Jack Nicholas, from our volunteer team, reviews the new book 'Parts of Speech: One family, three generations of stammerers', by Tony Millett.

Parts of Speech opens with a quote from the South American novelist Gabriel García Márquez:

"What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it."

Tony Millett's memoir puts this idea to wonderful work, taking what happens to three generations of stammerers from a single family, and weaving the what and how of these memories into a fascinating exploration of what it is like to stammer today and over the last hundred years. 

The book is in three parts, each looking at a different stammering life. First is Tony himself: his childhood, his career and beyond.

The stories are both social history and a personal account of how a stammer can shape a life.

Some early events, such as receiving school reports and the speech-therapist-on-the-floor story, are terrifyingly funny. Millett went on to work at ITN and Channel 4 News and became a key figure during new and exciting times for those organisations. His writing, as you might expect of a newsman, is lively and immediate. One account of talking into two phones at once during a foreign assignment will create feelings of admiration and apprehension from any stammering reader.  

The stories are both social history and a personal account of how a stammer can shape a life. Millett is clear-eyed and dispassionate about this, refusing to play neither the hero nor the victim. He notes the events, the humiliations, but refuses to apportion blame or feel shame; his stammer shapes but does not control. 

And underneath all this is the father he never knew, killed during WW2. His absence both a grief and a puzzle. Tony's father and soldier, Lt Col C.G. George Millett, is the subject of the second part of Parts of Speech. George played an important role in the planning of D-Day, and then as Commanding Officer (CO) of a Light Infantry battalion, leading crucial engagements in Normandy and Holland before being killed during mine clearing in 1944. 

Tony Millett;s research results in an engrossing account of those times and of his father. For example, he has uncovered an account written by a Major of an enemy attack that resulted in multiple casualties: "I have a confused memory of chicken coops leaping into the air scattering dead and live fowls in a flurry of feathers: of the disintegration of a man standing next to me: of the CO continuously and quite composedly stuttering into an 18 [radio] set."

George Millett was thus not only a remarkable man, soldier and commanding officer; he also stammered — an aspect of his life it appears he and his family rarely mentioned. The author says that he cannot imagine how his father coped so successfully with the stresses and demands of his occupation, leadership and stammering. I suspect he may be more like his father than he will say. 

He notes the events, the humiliations, but refuses to apportion blame or feel shame; his stammer shapes but does not control. 

The third and final part moves to the present day and focuses on grandson Thomas, now in his twenties, who developed a stammer at the age of five, presumably having inherited the genes that research suggests are involved in stammering.  

Millett naturally, if irrationally, feels responsible for passing on these genes, and talks movingly about the guilt, rage and fear he felt for Thomas's future. 

But, in the time between his father's life in the twentieth century and Thomas in the twenty-first, there have been massive changes in attitudes to stammering: once something shameful and unmentioned, is now something we can talk about openly, seeing it as part of life. 

There have been similar changes to speech therapy, with many therapists now working with stammerers to think differently about stammering and how to approach it. There is more effective guidance available now than had existed for Tony and his father. He praises the therapists who worked with Thomas, as well as the Michael Palin Centre and Action for Stammering Children — and pays tribute to the complexity of their work while noting the paradox that therapists face with this new approach: on the one hand saying that it is okay to stammer while at the same time helping people to speak with greater ease. 

Millett is clear in his views about this apparent conflict and also believes there is another important path to be taken: the need to speak up about stammering. Especially, he argues, with many speech and language therapy services not surviving the austerity years, and many people still isolated and adversely affected by stammering, together with a lack of awareness in society generally about what stammering is and the impact it can have. 

The need to speak up returns us to the opening quote, which concludes: 

"What matters in life is not what happens to you but how you tell the story."

In Parts of Speech, the happenings and the memories both matter — and the stories are told with verve, quiet passion and urgency.

'Parts of Speech: One family, three generations of stammerers' by Tony Millett, is published by Brown Dog Books and is on sale now on paperback and Kindle. Sales of the book will benefit Action for Stammering Children. The book also features a foreword from Ed Balls. 

Thank you to Jack Nicholas for reviewing the book. Jack has also written a Your Voice article: 'Covert? Open? Proud?

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Tayo & Bhupinder
A speaker on stage at STAMMAFest 2023

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