AFTER DINNER SPEECH
by Goran Stefanovski
(Keynote Speech at the Sharing Cultures Conference, European Cultural Foundation, Rotterdam, 11-14 July 2004)
Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen.
I would like to start my after dinner speech by saying that I haven’t got one. This is not a funny opening line, it is a sad fact. Instead of an after dinner speech, I have my various excuses and explanations of why I haven’t got it. Please allow me to share them with you. Of course they will never substitute a proper after dinner-speech which you so rightly expect and so richly deserve.
A couple of months ago some friends rang me from Holland and invited me to give an after dinner speech to a high-powered cultural conference in Rotterdam. I gladly accepted. Then I hang up. Then I tried to understand what it was that I had just accepted. Then I felt insulted. I am a serious playwright, why do they invite me to give after-dinner speeches? Do they think I am a raconteur, a funny guy, after-dinner-speech writer? But then why did I accept? I hated the very idea. What can you possibly say in fifteen minutes between the dessert and the coffee. Who would listen? And if they listened who would hear? And if they heard who would care?
I told my wife about my insult. She told me that was nothing new, that I always feel insulted about something or other, anyway. She said that for all she knew an after-dinner speech may not be such a bad thing, maybe it’s even prestigious. Yeah, yeah. She always pacifies me in the same way. I’ve been sharing cultures with my wife for thirty years. She’s English. First she lived with me in Macedonia, in what used to be Yugoslavia, where she was considered an expatriate. Have you noticed how the English are never emigrants, but only ex-pats. Like “you remain English anywhere you are in the world”. Like “who in their right minds would ever want to leave England.” Now I live with her in England where I am considered an immigrant. Please notice how the Macedonians abroad are never expatriates, always emmigrants. Like “who in their right minds would ever want to stay in Macedonia”. Makes you wonder this one!
I had to discuss my cultural speech with someone who knew better. I cornered a friend, a lecturer in Media at the Christ Church University College in Canterbury, where I work.
“Aha”, he nodded knowingly, “you should write a historical overview. The cultural shift started in 1855”.
“What shift”, I asked.
“The removal of stamp tax on newspapers”.
I stared at him blankly.
“Here”, he said and he gave me his latest book. “Kalcha, ha?” The way he pronounced this word made it stink and made him look like a jackal. “Kalcha. Midja”, he said. By which he meant media. “It’s all a big laugh, innit?”
Well, in a way it is. The word culture smells funny in England. As does the word intellectual. You almost have to excuse yourself for it. It’s like a hump on your back. It’s your private, personal problem. Don’t parade it in good company. My poor son Igor, when we first arrived in England, was asked by the teacher what his father did for living. He said I was a Playwright. The teacher apparently laughed till he had tears in his eyes.
I decided to look for help elsewhere: in the pastures old of my native Macedonia. After all I grew up there with a very opposite idea of culture. I was expected to acquire cultural habits, to become “a cultured person”, even the cinema where I saw my childhood westerns was called Kino Kultura. Writers there are considered pillars of society, educators, they are expected to take upon them social, moral, physical and metaphysical responsibility. They are still talked about in hush-hush terms. (Although these days of early capitalism it is more because they are seen as largely irrelevant and unable to earn a living.) So I turned to some friends of “culture” there and asked them what to say to you here tonight.
“Write a poisonous attack”, they spoke in unison, “write a scathing denunciation. Tell them we know” they said.
“We know what”, I asked.
“Everything. We can see clearly through all of their machinations. We have to queue for days to get visas to go anywhere. We live in a country whose name is disputed, whose borders are disputed, whose language is disputed. Europe? What Europe. The Old Whore of Babylon. Sharing of cultures for them means forcing their culture upon us and not letting our culture anywhere near them. With half the money they spend on their wasteful bureaucracy we could live like decent human beings. All that multi-culti bull is just a facade for multinational supremacy. It’s all a swindle. A hegemony. A conspiracy.”
The conversation was like handling a grenade with the pin half removed. I wanted to tell them to go and “enlarge their minds” but there wasn’t much chance for reflection or critique or debate.
Their words triggered memories. When I was a child, all state celebrations or New Year’s Eve TV programmes consisted of every republic of Yugoslavia having a go. Sharing cultures. First a Slovene folk dance, then a Bosnian one, than a Croatian one, then a Macedonian one and so on and so forth. But people grumbled and muttered that all of that Yugoslav idea of culture was just a swindle, Serbian hegemony, a conspiracy. Then Yugoslavia fell apart. Now there are many core cultures all pretending they never had anything to do with each other, all kosher, clean as the driven snow. Not in need to share anything with anyone.
This wasn’t very promising. I was confused, didn’t know where to turn. Then I had a sudden epiphany. Google! When in doubt, go to the internet. I checked for “after dinner speeches” and thousands of sites appeared. I saw the light.
I found one called: “After Dinner Speeches. Suitable for all occasions.” It promised low-cost templates: “Write your own humorous and funny killer Speech”.
This was it. I could just choose my category and fill the empty spaces in the provided form. But hey, there was suddenly a new problem. What was my category? What was my Rotterdam conference most like?
A bar mitzvahs or a bat mitzvah?
A Family reunion
A Business speech
Or, God forbid, a Funeral
And even if, let’s suppose, it was most like a wedding there were further subdivisions. Should my speech be one given by
the Best Man
Or The Bride’s Father
No, none of this seemed to hit the right note. I knew I had to dig deeper. I went to a bookshop and discovered a book called “Speaking on special occasions.” It promised to “turn my dreaded speech into a pleasurable experience.” It offered “useable opening and closing one liners.” Also “Golf Humour ready to paste into your speech. Also “clean jokes or adult Jokes containing some swear words and sexual references”. I read it from cover to cover. Unfortunately the only new angle it offered was “a specimen toast to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals”.
Things looked hopeless. Now desperate times ask for desperate measures. I knew I needed specialist help. An expert. A professional. My heart jumped when I saw this advertisement. I quote:
“My name is Keith Anderson and I write under the name of Crisp and Cheerful Speeches. I trained at Drama school and I have worked as a warm up comic on a cruise liner. I have been writing professionally since 1988, specialising in humour and providing tailor made speeches for social and business functions.”
Yes, here was finally someone I could really talk to. An actor, an artist, a writer. A free lancer. A tortured man of letters who, I imagined, in the daytime writes speeches to survive, but at night is busy writing plays in his own blood. In short, a real soul brother.
I rang his number.
“Yes”, he said.
“I need a speech”, I said.
“What on”, he said.
“What?”, he asked again.
“Sharing cultures.” I answered again.
“It’s a, ahm, a contribution to the cultural policies for Europe.”
“What”, he asked yet again.
“Well”, I stuttered, “It’s a conference which will provide a platform for the sharing of the major outcomes resulting from European cultural policy debates, study results and the presentation of new cultural cooperative initiative that foster an inclusive European cultural space”.
There was silence and pause for thought.
“Say that again”, he said.
I read to him again the blurb which I found in the official documents for the conference.
There was another silence and another pause for thought.
Then he said: “Yep, I think I’ve got something for you here. The Sunflower speech.”
Then he read to me:
“ Like a Sunflower seed, which has the potential to grow into a marvellous flower, your generosity and support will help to plant that all-important seed of hope for the future. “
Now it was my turn to say: “What?”
“This is one of my best sellers”, he said, “it can be adapted to any Third-World fundraising event. A speech with charm and sincerity, feeling and compassion.”
“I could do with some of that”, I said.
He noticed my lack of enthusiasm.
“You can tell your conference that they are guys who don’t just talk about it…but are actually doing it! That always goes down well. You can end with a toast celebrating a success on the road to even greater things!”
I said I had to think about it.
He told me I was a tough customer. He hang up. Or I hang up. Or we both hang up.
Yes, this nut was hard to crack. I walked down the street thinking about the equations and variables between:
Theory and practice
Commission and creation
Reality and dream
What is and what seems
Praxis and poesis
Hardware and software
I was in such deep thought that I started talking to myself.
Why does it have to be a speech? Why not do something instead?
Something like what?
A performance act. Something unpredictable. A provocation.
Nudity. Abusive language.
Cutting off my ear or something.
That’s old hat.
I could keep silent and just stare at them for fifteen minutes.
It’ll be insulting. I am talking to the money. I can’t insult the money.
Why not insult them just enough so that they keep being interested? And keep on paying.
But it’s an informal occasion. It’s only an after dinner speech.
Why not cause some indigestion?
I suddenly felt cocky and confident. I even saw a business opportunity, I spotted a hole in the market. I could reinvent myself and open my own Crisp and Cheerful After Dinner Speeches agency! Specializing in cultural conferences.
As I was living my moment of fame and glory I noticed I was crossing the street on a red traffic light. A double-decker bus had kindly decided to give me way rather than knock me down. This brought me back to reality and made me think about how fragile we are.
Ah, the drama and the melodrama and the fragility of it all! My last ten free-lancing years. The shaky business of being a playwright between languages and cultures. Wondering through Europe. Believing I am free just because I am running. Juggling with visas and raging about Mobility beyond frontiers. Gauging different target audiences, cocking various dramatic guns, unsure of why I hit when I hit and why I miss when I miss. Sitting on a fence in frustrated stupor and watching how both sides flatly dismiss each other with easy clichés and stereotypes. Feeling the backlash of various European cultural policies upon my back. In different places, being deeply affected by different conditions of artistic labour and not quite knowing how. Witnessing how easily civil society slips into chaos and how easily decision makers slip into folly. Witnessing the dismay of the Media. Laughing about it and frowning about it in equal measure and thinking, oh well, it’s all in the job description, it goes with the territory.
But what is? And what does? What exactly is the job and what exactly is the territory? Who is in charge of the job description and of drawing the borders of the territory? I would like to know that wouldn’t I? Yes I would as a matter of fact. I would also like to know whether our our culture is slowly sinking under the load of electronic entertainment? If culture is what we do then what we do seems to be mostly watching countless hours of reality TV shows. Has our culture, like our society, become commercial, cruel, vacuous and pitiless? Intriguing questions. Not unconnected to this conference and to why we’re all here tonight.
Well then, I may not have an after dinner speech, but I have a request. I request a Europe of real reflection, critique and debate! I request a Europe of real Civil Society. A Europe which has truly Enlarged its Mind. A Europe in which my being different will not be a problem, but a solution. I request a Europe which will ask for more plays and fewer after-dinner speeches. I request a Europe in which sharing cultures will be so normal that there won’t be any need for conferences on the matter.
Much of Europe’s cultural future depends on issues which this conference is about. I eat those issues, I drink those issues, I breathe those issues, I dream those issues and I have nightmares about those issues. We better make sure that this conference gets it right about those issues!
© Goran Stefanovski
18 Martyrs Field Road
Canterbury, CT1 3PT
Tel: 01227 458 236