I joined the Resonate project at the beginning of 2020, just before the first lockdown. I wanted to be a digital volunteer with Leonard Cheshire because it afforded me the opportunity to learn about working with sounds in an archival context, an exciting prospect for a recent MA graduate intending to become an archivist. What I find most interesting about recorded speech is its potential to familiarise us with people from the past in a more personal and direct way than the written word can. Group Captain Leonard Cheshire’s speeches reveal much about his experiences, ideas and view of the world, but they also tell us something about his qualities as a speaker, and even, I would suggest, his personality.

I did not know what to expect from the recordings, but, given all I knew about Leonard Cheshire –an Oxford-educated man, a practising Catholic, an RAF Group Captain during the Second World War and the founder of one of the UK’s most prominent disability charities – I anticipated him being an extremely serious-minded man giving speeches that were rather on the stuffy side. I was certainly not expecting him to have much of a sense of humour, nor for his speeches to masterfully employ it to engage his audience, to diffuse tension and to ensure his words would be remembered.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find that he had a dry sense of humour, used strategically where appropriate. For instance, his Remembrance Day sermon at Great St Mary’s Cathedral was an entirely solemn occasion, and so Group Captain Cheshire maintained a thoroughly sober tone throughout. By contrast, his address to members of the 617 squadron  (the Dambusters) on the 40th anniversary of the Dams Raids is filled with jokes, despite (or perhaps because) of the serious subject matter of the speech. On that occasion, Leonard spoke about the important role of the Dambusters and the vital part the Armed Forces played, in his opinion, in maintaining world peace, but the occasion itself was a happy one, and his audience had gathered to celebrate. He therefore tempered the serious content of his address with some light-hearted banter.

Within most of his speeches, the places where he inserts his jokes are also very revealing of his purpose in telling them. Most of his addresses begin on a light-hearted note, often with Group Captain Cheshire making fun of his own ability to carry out his task. This is a fairly common technique among speakers, which helps put the audience at ease while also bridging the gap between themselves and their listeners. Similarly, when addressing various members of the RAF, Leonard Cheshire will often rely on inside jokes, which his audience seem to enjoy tremendously. An example is in his speech at the opening of a Cheshire Home in Gulfport, Mississippi, where he talks about watching people readying the home for opening:

I saw all sorts of people, 6 or 7, each in a different way busy about something. One was raking the sand and sweeping the paths, another was mowing the grass – or the weeds, I’m not quite clear which [audience laughter], Tommy appeared with a truck – I don’t know where you’d picked up [audience laughter] the…iceboxes, but you picked them up – and somehow, sitting there and watching it, seeing a home just come together, made me picture all the different groups of people in other countries, some of them very poor, some wealthy, doing exactly the same thing.

I have also found that there will often be another humorous moment roughly halfway through his speech and then again at the end if there is a questions and answers session. This ensures that any listener whose attention may have wandered will likely be drawn back in, while also providing the rest of his audience with a brief moment of relaxation or encouragement. It can be seen in this quote from a speech he gave at McGuire USAF Air base in 1981, reminiscing about his WWII flying instructor on Anson aircraft:

He’d say, ‘I’m going to give you some courses and some times to fly, and you’re to fly them, and at the end of 20 minutes I’m going to pull up the hood, I give you 20 seconds and you tell me where we are.’ Very nice of him. On this particular occasion, we did our dog-legs and so on, he pulled up the hood, I picked up the map to have a look at it, and as I did so I squinted out on the starboard side and just in time to see my favourite pub, The Half Moon, appearing under the wing. [audience laughter]. So I said ‘We are 3 miles North-Northwest of the village of Kington Langley, sir’. The first time I’ve ever known an instructor lost for words for a moment… [audience laughter] and the only time I got an above average instrument rating. [audience laughter].

This shows what a masterful speaker Leonard Cheshire was. He employed humour deliberately, as part of his prepared speeches, but he also knew when to adapt, and could, if the situation presented itself, improvise. Mostly, I was impressed with how engaging these recordings still are for us today: his range of topics might be fairly limited (as he himself acknowledged!), we may not agree with everything he is saying, and the jokes he uses are unlikely to win any awards at the Edinburgh Fringe, but his speeches are never tedious to listen to. Forty or more years later, a modern-day listener is as likely to enjoy listening to these tapes as his contemporary audience was, and I am extremely glad to have been able to contribute to making them more accessible to a wide audience.

A woman sat at a desk with a PC showing a sound graph

Resonate Digital Volunteer Leona

The Resonate project is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and the Foyle Foundation.