I took part in my first competition at Elder Gate Toastmasters before I had even made my debut speech. It was at the club's annual Humorous Speech competition in September 2004, held at The Cock Hotel in Stony Stratford
I’m not entirely sure I should be doing this. A humorous speech in front of 26 people when I haven’t even finished writing my ice-breaker. But then my wife, Margaret, will tell you I’ve never been one for doing things the right way round.
I used to believe rigidly in rules. Then I went to University where I was forced to study new, alien subjects. A little bit of moral philosophy is a dangerous thing. It teaches you to think rather than follow blindly.
That might explain why I jumped at the chance to take part when Danny said someone had dropped out.
The rules say the speech is to be between five and seven minutes. But actually it’s 4m 30 seconds and 7m 30 seconds. It’s only beyond those limits you get disqualified.
They also say it has to be substantially original. But nothing about to whom it has to be substantially original.
I’m an admirer of Dorothy Parker. Once she was challenged to think of a witty sentence with the word ‘horticulture’ in it.
She said: you can lead a whore to culture, but you can’t make her think. Another time she said: if you can’t think of anything nice to say about anyone, come and sit beside ME.
Then I started thinking again about things I probably shouldn’t have done.
I was with a bunch of lads in 1974, working in a hotel in Switzerland for the summer.
One very hot day, everyone decided we should go swimming. Except me. I couldn’t swim. Oh come on anyway, they said. You can watch, and sunbathe.
No he can’t, said one lad. His name was Gordon, but everyone knew him as Fritz. He could speak German, you see. So naturally he was called Fritz. He came in very handy in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. You have to keep your shirt on. It’s the rules. Swimmers four francs. Non-swimmers one franc. Non-swimmers must not remove their tops.
Whit? I said. Now that someone was saying I couldn’t do something, I wanted to DO it.
It’s the rules, said Fritz. Non-swimmers must not remove their tops.
What if you go in without a top? I asked.
You what? said Fritz. Studying German all those years had affected his brain. He thought only in teutonically straight lines.
If you go in not wearing a top, you’re not breaking the rules, because you’re not taking your top off, I said.
That’s not what they mean, said Fritz. They mean non-swimmers must WEAR tops.
Then that’s what they should say. Non-swimmers must wear tops. But they don’t. I’d still be obeying the rules if I went in WITHOUT a top. Because I wouldn’t be taking it OFF.
That’s not what they mean, protested Fritz. But I don’t care. Do what you like. I’m not going to be there. I’m working.
So we went. Me in my bare chest. And the good stout frau at the gate took my one franc and never questioned my lack of a top.
Everything went swimmingly for a while. Except me of course, because I couldn’t swim. I sat there, with my Hugo’s German In Three Months book which I had bought, because as a linguist I found it frustrating not to be able to say the simplest things.
Then the wee man came. Every municipal facility in the western world has a wee man. You know him. Five feet two, bristling with indignation, and power. And determined to exercise that power to stop people having fun. I just KNEW he was stomping towards ME. Even from fifty yards away, you could see it. And he was QUIVERING.
The crowds around me parted. Red-sea style. He towered above me. All sixty-two inches. I stopped conjugating my verbs and looked up at him. shielded my eyes. This made the quivering WORSE.
Then he started spouting. In German. Swiss-German. Made even more incomprehensible by the rage and the flecks of foam that started appearing round his mouth.
I knew what he was saying of course. Non-swimmers must not remove their tops. And he was doing the British thing. You know. If a foreigner doesn’t understand English, you repeat it. Louder. And LOUDER. THEY do it too.
Ferstehe nicht, I ventured. My first attempt to speak German to a native German speaker. I don’t understand, is what I was trying to say. It probably came out as ‘Your mother is a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries’.
It didn’t seem to soothe him. Ferstehe nicht, I said, shrugged my shoulders, and turned back to my book. Then I held it up to him, thinking it would help that I was trying to learn German. But of course HE didn’t speak, or read, ENGLISH.
Here’s Fritz coming, someone shouted. Great, I thought. Fritz’ll sort it out.
Give him his due. He tried. Which considering it wasn’t his problem, and he didn’t agree with me in the first place, was brilliant of him.
Tempers frayed, and voices rose. Very quickly.
The word Scheisse suddenly appeared in the conversation. Now that’s not swearing, because it’s foreign, but I didn’t need my Hugo’s German in Three Months to tell me what it meant.
I think Fritz was to blame for the escalation. It came straight back at him.
Then he threw in the adjective Kleine, to go with his Scheisse. Kleine means little. Calling someone who’s just 148 centimetres high Small is not going to win you any friends. And Kleine Scheisse is not, in case you are in any doubt, one of the local mountain villages.
It went downhill from there. Which was pretty appropriate, given that the town of Wengen was where the British invented downhill ski racing and was the home of the original Downhill Only Club. Kleine Scheisse this. Grosse Scheisse that. You couldn’t move for Scheisses.
Then, just as it reached an impasse, with the two of them inching closer and closer to the poolside as they argued, a rogue element was thrown into the mix. Two of the other lads, Ricky and Ivor, swam quietly up to the edge of the pool. Each put up an arm, grabbed one of Fritz’s legs, and hauled him into the water.
Krakatoa erupted. The only thing worse for the wee man than a non-swimmer, who had only paid one franc, taking his top off, was someone who had only paid one franc, as Fritz had done because he didn’t intend swimming, going in the water.
There was no reasoning with him after that. He wanted another three francs off Fritz and he was determined to get it.
When he started shouting Polizei (page five of my book, but again I didn’t need it translating) I decided it was time to beat a quiet retreat. As Fritz stood there dripping wet, fully clothed, shouting Scheisse for all he was worth, and throwing five, ten and twenty centimes pieces at the Kleine Scheisse to make up the difference between one franc and four francs, I melted away.
You can tell how much of an impact it made on me. Because I still remember it so well. I tell people about it at every opportunity.
Now that I can look back with some detachment, though, I find myself realisng that I’m a bit like Jasper Carrott’s mother-in-law with her driving. Never had an accident. But she’s seen untold numbers.
I haven’t actually BEEN in a fight myself since I was a teenager.
But I’ve SEEN thousands.
It’s the rules that do it.