Master of the house

Tuesday 17th May 2011

LORD Donald Soper kindly gave his name, as Patron, to the debating society of a secondary school where I was a teacher for several years. A distinguished orator and devout Methodist minister, he was held in high repute for his pacifist preaching, delivered from a soap-box at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, once a week across seven decades.

Kids at the school loved The Soper: the reading of the minutes, addressing the chair, points of order, abstentions, the floor, the gavel. It was set up and run by a deputy headteacher, who believed comprehensive schools could, and should, offer pupils those worthwhile experiences traditionally associated with grammar schools.

At one of the society’s annual dinners, Lord Soper faced Matthew Engel, then a fledgling sports journalist on The Guardian. The motion: This House is Bored by Sport.

Over coffee, shortly before the formal proceedings began, the Patron turned to Emma, the sixth form student who’d been invited to be his seconder for the evening.

“What are we debating tonight?” he asked.

She told him. He took out a fountain-pen and wrote, with difficulty, on his napkin. The tissue’s absorbency made the writing completely illegible.

“And which side are we on?”

“Against,” Emma explained.

“Clever. Getting Engel and me to uphold the view we don’t hold with.”

Soper abandoned the unhelpful napkin, choosing instead to continue conversing with the awestruck Emma about her career prospects.

Engel spoke wittily from prepared notes. I was especially tickled by his description of rugby league as ‘formation mugging’. Soper’s off-the-cuff speech in favour of something he had no time for was simply brilliant. The motion was overwhelmingly defeated.

I have bumped into Matthew a few times since, usually at cricket matches.

“I learned my trade working for Reuters,” he told me. “In the days of costly telex machines. How does one summarise an earthquake in a dozen or so words?”

He it was who gave me the idea of keeping journal entries to an exact lengt

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