IT WAS my first trip to London though it was anything but straightforward.
I was deposited in Cambridge by one aunt and uncle to await collection by another.
It seemed that it was the only convenient point on their route to their holiday destination where they could drop me off!
As far as I was concerned, as a slightly bewildered and abandoned 11-year-old I only needed a label attached to my coat to feel exactly like Paddington Bear.
Fortunately, the aunt and uncle who scooped me up and took me off to their flat in north London were a kindly pair with whom I was to develop close bonds.
They were the ones who over the years took me to London museums and introduced me to all the capital’s classic buildings and sights.
And, more importantly, they were the people who unwittingly showed me what is possible with a bit of perseverance.
For it turned out that my uncle Ted, an elegant six footer who ran a business in Bond Street importing men’s shirts and knitwear from Switzerland and Italy, hid a secret behind his easy going exterior.
I’d only met him briefly when the family came north to visit. He was the teller of tales, the laughing, irrepressible man who could create characters in words and tell endless stories that I’ve never forgotten about the city he loved and the people who lived there.
So I was astounded to wander into the cosy dining room one morning during that first stay with them to find a stern-faced figure giving someone a real dressing down. But who?
Then the penny dropped. The person he was giving a talking to was himself. There, on the breakfast table, propped up against a pot of marmalade, was a shaving mirror.
And this was my uncle Ted facing up to the reality of living with a stammer.
His day started with a ritual of exercises which would keep the stammer at bay during long days of business meetings with buyers at some of London’s biggest stores.
The friendly outgoing man that I knew became quite an actor when he stepped out on business. And dealing with the stumbling speech which dogged him when he was tired or anxious was the crucial bit of business he always had to attend to.
Memories of my Uncle Ted’s daily battle with his stammer resurfaced last year when, after an operation on my hand, I discovered that I could no longer swallow comfortably or speak.
The swallowing issue was addressed with a diet of prescription goodies in liquid form. Getting my voice back took a little longer.
To begin with I sounded a lot like Minnie Mouse or certainly somebody that even my nearest and dearest no longer recognised.
Worse still, my voice was totally unreliable. When it finally returned it still played up. I’d be halfway through a meeting or an interview and the sound would not so much fade as stop. Painful and embarrassing? You bet.
It took lessons with a brilliant speech therapist to show me that I could get back to sounding like my old self. Time, effort and exercises were what she recommended and so that’s how we did it.
We might not have been Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, but we could give both of them a run for their money when it comes to pulling faces and making strange noises.
As I watched Colin Firth accepting a Golden Globe Award for his performance as King George VI in the film The King’s Speech, all sorts of pictures came flooding back.
Uncle Ted and that breakfast table ritual, me finding a quiet corner in which to do my exercises so as not to frighten small children.
Yes, I applauded a fine actor but gave a vote of thanks too to the screenwriter, David Seidler who, it is said, began working on the idea for the movie in the 1980s, inspired by his own battle with a chronic speech problem. In doing so he made us think of what we mostly take for granted, the power of speech.
As a child, David Seidler was shipped out from Surrey to New York at the outbreak of World War Two. On the voyage across the Atlantic he developed his own stammer.
It doesn’t take much of a leap of the imagination to see how Seidler could have become fascinated by hearing on the radio the king who himself struggled to make his voice heard.
In later life, those memories of George VI’s wartime broadcasts helped Seidler create a script which director Tom Hooper has now translated brilliantly on the big screen.
The King’s Speech is the story of a race against time as George VI tries desperately to overcome the stutter which has cast a shadow over his life and use his voice on radio to rally the nation in its fight against Hitler’s forces.
The human voice is, after all, a powerful tool. It helps us create our identity, it can convey all manner of emotion and is one of the basic pieces of kit with which we can communicate.
Lose it for any length of time and, believe me, you learn new respect for it. I still do my exercises. Honestly. And, better still for my friends, they can genuinely tell me to pipe down when I talk too much, knowing they are saving my still wobbly voice from overdoing it.