“All stammerers have their private thesaurus of alternative words that avoid sounds most likely to trip and block their speech.”
PARTS OF SPEECH, the new memoir from Tony Millett was released on Thursday, November 10th. This deeply personal and refreshingly candid book reflects on three generations who stammer in the Millett family.
Tony is a long-time supporter and friend of Action for Stammering Children, and he has decided to further support our work by raising funds through his book sales. When this joyfully mustard-yellow title landed on my desk I was thrilled to dig in and found myself transported into a metaphorical pair of familiar yet distinctly different shoes to my own.
Within its sixteen powerful and neatly finished chapters, Tony charts his own experiences of learning to understand his stammer – with anecdotes stretching back to his father’s letters written in 1944.
Tony later recounts an experience of embarking, with his Mother, to Messrs Gorringe, a school uniform shop in London. If the process of starting a new school wasn’t already worrying enough, particularly for a stammerer, the shop assistant begins to make small talk – an undisclosed and sometimes overlooked fear of many a person who stammers.
“‘What, young sir, have you been up to in the holidays?’ – No reply. ‘Are you going to be enjoying all that Geography and History at school?’ – No reply. ‘Or perhaps Algebra?’ – No reply. ‘Has the cat got [your] tongue today?’ – Meltdown.”
I had the privilege of talking to Tony about PARTS OF SPEECH, throughout this piece I’ll be including quotes from our conversation. I started by asking him about that metaphorical cat…
C: “Tony, you are clearly a man with much to say. The cat most definitely does not have your tongue. Can you explain to a non-stammerer the feeling of having a lot to say, but the synchronised feeling of not being able to vocalise it?”
T: “It is pure and straightforward frustration. I quite often hear people making a false argument or getting their facts wrong – and I cannot risk a serious stammering episode to try and put them right. This does of course make you think a lot more than twice before you do correct someone. They may, after all, be right!”
That’s just it. If you stammer – this book is for you. If you do not stammer – this book is for you. Tony lets the reader into the headspace of a stammerer and recounts every detail and interaction as though it happened yesterday.
It’s this detail and relatability that sets into concrete the reality of going about every day with thoughts, feelings, opinions – and yet the anguish of feeling the need to keep them inside. If I had a pound for every time I had a joke in my head, yet the timing to miss – well, I’d be cosied up somewhere on the French Riviera at this very moment. Alas, I am more content where I am – being who I am.
C: When reading PARTS OF SPEECH I very often found myself in your shoes. We who stammer often have very similar dreads. One of which I hear raised often is buying a ticket to travel.
“The introduction of the Oyster Card took away from me, at a stroke, a whole layer of everyday anxiety.”
Can you think of another seemingly simple service, or introduction missing from the year 2022 that could be of massive benefit to people who stammer?
T: “I think what I miss most about current technology is the ability to get round automated voices on the telephone. I often see the advice to ask for a ‘large print version’ of a document or form. So far no one has suggested a way to circumvent those automated voices which cannot understand a stammered word or name.”
At Action for Stammering Children, we run a programme called ‘Stambassadors’, in which adults who stammer in professional careers join us to talk openly about their own stammering journey and how they come to be in their respective careers. Since joining the charity at the tail end of January this year, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to continue this programme by meeting and talking to many others who stammer. We record the interviews, and the videos can be accessed by young people who stammer 24/7, to provide unique insight, guidance and advice from adults who stammer from a range of different careers.
Meeting these individuals has taught me a lot, but vitally the videos show that people who stammer can succeed and flourish with anything they want to do in life. Tony is no exception to this. In his early career, amongst many other impressive roles, Tony became a part of Independent Television News (ITN), joining the editorial team on the same day as Trevor McDonald – yes, journalist extraordinaire and national treasure Trevor McDonald. Tony has so many fantastic stories from this time in his life. You’ve really got to read them.
C: In your glowing career at ITN you were frequently placed in high-intensity situations, pictured even having multiple conversations on multiple telephone handsets at once. To this day I still find it anxiety-inducing when my mobile phone rings. What would you say to a young person who stammers, who doesn’t want to pick up the phone?
T: Take a deep breath and lift the receiver or open your mobile. The obligation to hear you out is on the person on the other end of the call. You carry on and it is up to them to respond in the right way.
Tony’s father stammered – perhaps an assumed disadvantage for an army officer. The book begins:
“As any gambler will tell you, two in a row is a coincidence. However you calculate or massage the odds, three in a row is a stretch too far.”
PARTS OF SPEECH invites the reader to learn about those three generations and how their shared trait of having a stammer intertwine. It’s a reflection made with admiration and deep understanding.
Tony is the son of Lt Col George Millett – an infantry officer and a staff officer . Although he stammered too, his father didn’t talk about it. It was simply a different time.
C: There is a poignant photograph in PARTS OF SPEECH of your father, Lt Col CG Millett, holding the greatcoat of King George VI while he witnesses training in the Southern Command. This photograph is particularly powerful to me.
“My father’s rise up the ranks to assume command of battalions shows that [his] stammer did not impede promotion.”
I think this quote, along with the photograph and the entirety of PARTS OF SPEECH are critically important – they exist as hard evidence that stammerers can do and be anything. What would you say to a young person who stammers, transitioning into the world of careers, who may feel daunted by the road ahead?
T: “It is probably best to ignore advice! For instance, if you want to be a lawyer, you become a lawyer and then you find the right niche in that profession for your abilities as well as for your stammer. Embrace any limitations you feel you may have in the future and work around or with them. I wanted to be a journalist. But I knew I could never be a reporter. I got a huge amount of satisfaction from being my own kind of journalist.
My father could give the orders at a parade (shouting was relatively easy), he could chatter with his officers and men, but he did, I am certain, find it difficult to address a conference hall full of senior officers. There will always be moments of fear for a stammerer – it’s an acceptable part of life.”
C: “You mention that the first ‘real and proper’ book you read was I Sailed with Christopher Columbus by Miriam Schlein. One could argue that there is a stammering analogy to be found in Columbus’ ventures into the unknown. Can you recall a time when you’ve faced the unknown and embraced your stammer?”
T: “When I first started out as a programme editor for Channel 4 News, the pressure to get the programme on air and get it as good as possible meant that I could not allow my stammer to intervene. I had to get it done – not only did I want to, but I had the hard work of all the team to consider. I had the inescapable duty to talk to reporters, directors, graphic artists, newsdesks, interviewees and so on – whether I stammered or whether it was a good day of relative fluency.”
There is so much depth and layering within these 260 pages. There’s also a wealth of anecdotes and life advice you can carry away after – I feel guilty that I can’t go into detail on every paragraph of every chapter. If you are human: I implore you to read this.
We often hear of stammering allies, and the kind souls willing to be patient with us. To let us speak. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to live with a stammer, walk through the door that Tony Millett has opened for you: read PARTS OF SPEECH.