18th December 2020
Semi-retired Cambridge University Lecturer Alan Walton tells us about appearing on TV documentaries, and shares some of his stammering pet peeves.
I have recently retired from Cambridge University (well, semi-retired). Before that I taught physics at The University of Sussex and The Open University. I have also held Visiting Assistant and Associate Professorships at Princeton, Rutgers, Williams College and University of Canterbury, in New Zealand. You may well ask why would a person who stammers want to lecture!
When I stammer I tend to block. Rather than repeat sounds, which I call an 'orthodox' stammer, I come to a grinding halt and seize up. My parents used to tell me that I had more of an 'orthodox' stammer when I was very young though I have only a few reminiscences from this time, and it has faded with the passing years. My father (a physics Nobel Prize winner) developed a slight stammer in his later years. I could spot how he skilfully avoided potential stammer points and could successfully head off into a detour. By contrast I was poor at 'rerouting'.
Technical terms & TV appearances
When I plan my lectures I try to exclude words that cause me to stammer. Technical terms can cause particular problems. As an example, the words 'the degeneracy' are bread and butter in quantum mechanics and statistical thermodynamics. Because 'the' and 'de' sound very similar and are too-close neighbours to save my bacon, the outcome may be silence. To solve the problem, I often write such words on a board (which amuses students).
What the director didn't know was that never in my entire life had I managed to successfully say 'an analogy'. This, I thought, was going to be my moment of glory.
As another example, the BBC recently asked me to appear in a TV programme on the history of 'Britain's Nuclear Bomb'. I had a preliminary chat with the director who asked me to include the sentence "Here is an analogy" in the script. What he didn't know was that never in my entire life had I managed to successfully say 'an analogy'. This, I thought, was going to be my moment of glory.
The camera rolled and I was absolutely sure I had said 'an analogy'. The director shouted "Cut" at the cameraman and my brief moment of glory evaporated. I have made over thirty BBC Radio and TV programmes (mainly for The Open University) but only once braved 'an analogy' again.
Once when interviewing a potential Cambridge undergraduate (let's call him 'John') I knew that his headmaster would notify the College (through UCAS) that John had a profound stammer. To our surprise John never stammered once throughout his interview. This was a great relief because I was worried that, had I stammered, it might have triggered his stammer (or, worse still, he might have thought I was mimicking him). After John was admitted to the College his stammer returned. In fact I did tutor him in physics; this time round he would have to hear me say - or try to say - 'an analogy' or 'the degeneracy'. Sometimes I could find substitutes.
Passions & pet hates
My out-of-hours passion is opera (mainly at the Royal Opera House). Nineteenth and twentieth century works are particular favourites. Some of those pieces would now be non-PC as they portray village simpletons who stammer. Just one example; Vasek in The Bartered Bride. A much more profound study of stammering in opera can be found in Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd.
There are many other things to beware of in this world; the telephone is my pet hate. The person on the other end will invariably say, "Please repeat what you just said". I never could tell her!
Another pet hate is when I get invited out to a posh dinner party and the host (kindly) invites each guest to contribute in turn to the conversation. It is hard not to notice when some other guests stare at the table cloth when it’s my turn.
Queues of all sorts are unavoidable in life. When I recently approached the booking office window at Cambridge train station I quickly forgot which damn station I had intended to book a train ticket for. So I invented the name of an alternative station, ‘Chipping Campden’, substituting that for the other station (Slough) at the eleventh hour. That helped me refresh the memory (oops, was it Slough or was it Chipping Campden?). Similar stratagems work with shop assistants, burger flippers and so on. Academics may also flip (it goes with the job).