A stammering odyssey

Paul Calvert, the author, smiling and raising a glass

Paul Calvert writes about growing up with a stammer yet reaching the top of his game, career wise. Fight that voice in your head that holds you back, he urges. 

I can’t recall a time when I didn’t stammer. Strangely, I never did it at home, just at school, so my parents didn’t have a clue until my form teacher pinned a note to my school report when I was fifteen, asking if I was receiving any treatment. My parents were both embarrassed and mortified in equal measure.

Not long afterwards, I was sent to see a child psychologist once a month for an hour at a time. Although he was well-meaning, the guy didn’t really have a clue and kept banging on about infant trauma, is if having a stammer wasn’t trauma enough. Needless to say, after several months I didn’t bother going back. 

The thing about having a debilitating stammer is that it saps away at your confidence.

Despite having loving parents, my formative years were unhappy. My mother was a German war-bride, brought over in 1947 by my father once demobbed from the British Army. A child of the sixties, it was far too soon after 1945, and there was, understandably, still a lot of hostility towards all things German. Add to the mix a bad stammer and I can only begin to describe the torment I went through from my peers. Children can be very, very cruel and sniff out weakness the way a shark detects blood in the water. I was the chum that drew all the sharks to a feeding frenzy. Still, as Nietzsche wrote, "that what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger." 

Angel & devil on my shoulder

The thing about having a debilitating stammer is that it saps away at your confidence. There is a scene in the film National Lampoon’s Animal House where a little devil and angel appear on the hero’s shoulder, whispering advice. My stammer was, and still is to an extent, like that; whispering away and encouraging me to hide away and do nothing. "Don't risk embarrassing yourself; you'll only look stupid. Make excuses. Don't speak up or get noticed." Was the voice an angel or devil? You decide.

My stammer was whispering away and encouraging me to hide away and do nothing.

Trying to get a job was an experience — a succession of fruitless interviews. Oh, I'd get an interview alright, but the moment I started stammering you could see the shutters come down behind the interviewers' eyes. Fortunately, a friend found me a job stacking shelves in a supermarket, but I knew I wanted more. 

I kept applying for jobs but wasn't successful until I answered a job advert on Capital Radio, at Midland Bank. As before, I got an interview, but this time I would play a different game. All through my interview, I stuck to words I knew I could pronounce, avoiding P’s and hard consonants, nodding and shaking my head furiously. Either the interviewer thought me a serious and sincere individual or they were desperate for new staff, for the bank hired me.

Author Paul Calvert in 1977
'Me, the fashion victim, in 1977'

Career

So that’s where my career in banking started. One of the first roles was answering the telephone and enquiry window, a potential nightmare for a stammerer. Amazingly, after a few anxious moments, I found the vast majority of customers were kind. The odd idiot made a fuss or was condescending, but that’s par for the course. Cashiering came next, and I took to that like a duck to water. You built up a sixth sense after a while as to what customers would be nice.

Eventually, I ended up running numerous branches in London and the south-east as Bank Manager — Hammersmith, Southend on Sea, etc., ending my front-line career in Knightsbridge, dealing with the rich and famous. Oh, the stories I could tell: attempted blackmail, extortion, organised crime, death threats, seduction. 

Did my stammer hold me back? I’d be lying if I said no. But the main cause was that little voice in my head making excuses for not doing things.

From Knightsbridge, I moved to Head Office, where I ran the bank’s UK overdraft portfolio, then became responsible for complaint handling. During this time, I also gave lectures on banking and did a few stints as a speaker at the British Bankers Association, in between being a school Governor.

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Fight it

After leaving the bank, I began writing and have three, well-received, self-published science fiction books to my credit. Search for my name on Amazon or look for Imperium Betrayal if you're interested. With all this Coronavirus going on I’m self-isolating, so have no excuse for not finishing the fourth.

Did my stammer hold me back? I’d be lying if I said no. The main cause, however, was that little voice in my head making excuses for not doing things. That’s the insidious devil every stammerer is at war with every day. Fight it. 

There are advantages to stammering, especially in sales: your stammer makes you memorable, important in a world full of grey, boring people. For those younger readers out there, from my own experience it does get more comfortable as you get older and gain in confidence. Push through the embarrassment and self-doubt. Trust me. It’s all out there waiting for you to live your best life. I dare you not to use it as an excuse.

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