Ed Balls, former cabinet minister, celebrity cook, and ‘Gangnam Style’ Strictly star, didn’t realise he had a stammer until he was in the cut and thrust of politics.
The former Labour MP, who lives with his wife MP Yvette Cooper and their three children, talks about his stammer in his new memoir, Appetite, which charts his life and his relationship with food.
After going public about it, Balls, 54, became vice president of Action for Stammering Children and persuaded Colin Firth to join him. Together they have talked to many parents and children over the years about stammering and what they have both learned.
When did you realise you had a stammer?
“I didn’t know it was a stammer until I was already in the Cabinet. I’d found out that I had a challenge while speaking publicly in certain situations,” he explains.
“Once I got the Cabinet post, and was speaking regularly on TV or in Parliament, my occasional ‘blocks’ – unexpected pauses when I couldn’t get my words out – became a serious issue, so much so that the Conservative MPs opposite began to fill the painful moments of silence with loud jeers,” he recalls in his memoir.
Today, he remembers: “When I was selected to be an MP in 2004, I spoke to my dad after BBC Any Questions? and he said, ‘You’ve got the same as me but I don’t know what it is’.
“I spent two or three years trying to find out what it was and trying to work out how to handle the fact that sometimes my speeches dried up in TV interviews and in the House of Commons.
“It got worse when I became a Cabinet minister. We went off to investigate and was told it was an ‘interiorised stammer’ (much like Colin Firth’s George VI in The King’s Speech).
When did you talk publicly about it?
“It was only two years later, when I talked publicly about it for the first time in an interview, that my dad rang me to say he’d read the interview and he had a stammer too.
“He’d got to 70 and been a university lecturer for 30 years and he never knew that the thing which had stopped him doing TV, and meant that he didn’t read scripts when he was doing his lectures – he did them from notes in his head – was because he had a stammer.”
Did anyone notice you spoke differently when you were at school?
“If you had my surname, there were other things to have the mickey taken out of you for, other than your stammer. But in school it came out if I was in English and had to read out a play, or in the debating club when I spoke.
“But I bluffed my way through and didn’t really think of it as something that was a problem. It was really only when it was happening live on television or in the House of Commons that it became a problem.”
Did you have treatment?
“I did. I had speech therapy every week for three years. I was put in touch with a speech therapist called Jan Logan from City Lit, who said it was a stammer. I spent six months arguing with her about whether it was a stammer or not, because I didn’t really believe it.
“She said, ‘You need to go public’ but I said, ‘I can’t. I’m a Cabinet minister and we don’t admit these kind of things’. It took me another two or three years before I finally agreed to go public and it was a very big liberating thing.”
What is your advice to people who have a stammer?
“My advice would be, everybody’s different. You have to find out what works for you. Never be told, ‘This is what a stammer is and this is how you must get help’. Some people like exercises, some people like breathing, some people like NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) but you have to find your way.
“It’s not something you catch or something which is cured. It’s just part of you. Owning it and accepting it and making it part of you is really important. Covering up or denying it causes huge problems in terms of avoidance.”
What difference has having a stammer made to your life?
“For me, being public makes a massive difference. I stammer all the time but I’m really good at riding it and managing it now.
“The reality is that lots of things I’ve done since, like Strictly, have been much easier to do after dealing with a stammer. It’s given me the confidence to do many difficult and fabulous things since. If I was choosing again, I’d choose a stammer.”
Appetite by Ed Balls is published by Gallery Books UK, priced £16.99. Available now.