Beautiful voices (or how i fell in love with extension 1147)

I have spent the last couple of days lying in bed and on the sofa feeling sorry for myself. Yes, i have been ill. It has however allowed me to finally finish off the Doctor Who box set i blogged about last month. As i noted in that post the real highlight for me has been the commentaries with Tom Baker and Mary Tamm. Tom Baker, in particular, still has that marvellous voice, which to me has changed very little since he played the Doctor. In fact often i found myself imagining that he still was the Doctor, or still looked as though he was the Doctor, which with Tom Baker is almost the same thing.

And that got me onto thinking about how important voices are. We often talk about human beings as being influenced by how other human beings look, but how they sound can also be critical. I remember seeing a rock star i was crazy about interviewed for the first time on television. He had quite a craggy face and i’d always assumed his voice would be of a piece. When he opened his mouth and began to speak in a high-pitched whine… well, i was devastated. My feelings for him were never the same again. I suppose it must have been similar for those filmgoers in the early years of cinema when silent movies gave way to talkies. They would all have had their cherished notions about how their favourite stars spoke. Many, maybe most of them would have been disappointed.

Of course it works the other way too. In my early days with my current employer i used to liaise with a certain London hospital over medical data. My counterpart there had a voice to die for: soft, breathy, dreamy. How i used to love to ring her to query possible duplicates or investigate possible errors. I prayed for duplicates and errors. I also prayed that no-one ever noticed me almost fainting with pleasure as she read back dates of birth or spelt out surnames – ah, the magic of it all! When a colleague did notice however he thought my besottedness was hilarious. Apparently the ethereal princess as the other end of the phone was an extremely plain lady in her 50s. Even now i can’t quite believe it.

In fact, as long as i never meet her i never will believe it, because she will always be her voice. Likewise, the Swedish airline secretary with the most deliriously sensual tones who i rang up one day during a brief stint with a telemarketing firm. Extension 1147 i call her. I never found out her actual name.

If i did meet either of them their visual image would take precedence of course. A bad auditory impression can break the spell of a beautiful visual image, but it doesn’t work the other way around. Not in my experience. And that saddens me, not least because, as i noted earlier about Tom Baker, people’s voices tend to last far longer than their looks; but also because the voice is much more a product of the personality, much less an accident of genetics.

Mind you, i’m damned either way as neither by sight nor sound am i handsome. But can you imagine an audio-only world…?

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My perfect museum: ‘A living house’

This morning on the way to work i found myself thinking about museums: why they are always unsatisfactory and what they ought to be like. In my notebook i wrote: “A living house: 1940s”. What did i mean by that?

***

You begin out on the street looking at the house from the front. What you see as you look through the windows is a modern-day home in the midst of every day life. It’s film footage: the windows are screens, though this isn’t apparent. Likewise, the faint sounds you hear from within are recordings.

You meet your guide – incapable of speech it seems – who ushers you into an adjacent house. Here the windows are blacked out, front and back, and the building is soundproofed. Looking around, you see you are in a waiting room: nondescript and devoid of anything but chairs (along the walls); and a great clock, which ticks, yet whose hands do not move. A bare bulb flickers uncertainly. The guide motions you to be seated and disappears through a door which locks behind them. There are no other doors. You wait.

Your guide returns. Now he or she is dressed in the fashions of the forties. You are led through a door that had been concealed from you: down into the cellar and along a tunnel. When you emerge at the other end you are at the bottom of the garden – a long garden with high walls – of the house through whose front windows you had earlier gazed. Washing is on the line. Voices can be heard indoors.

You enter through the back door, straight into the kitchen. This is no longer a modern house; the furnishings, all the contents, belong to the 1940s – or earlier still of course. What do you see? Maybe a table with butter and other ingredients laid upon it – as though someone had stepped out partway through baking a pie. Or perhaps the table is set for tea. You must smell it too: reality always has an odour. You must also touch it. There can be no ropes draped around the scene, sealing you off from it. Go on… pick up the fork, taste the butter if you want and place your hand against the side of the kettle – you may be startled to find it’s still warm. All the rooms are like this; each contains a tableau suggesting life in motion, arrested only upon your entry. Whichever room you are in you hear sounds from one or more of the others: a wireless; the voices of people discussing the war; laughter; rows. But as you turn the handle of the door, that room falls silent.

In the front room you go over to the window and when you look out you see the road – the very one in which you’d stood earlier, gazing across at this room; but this time you see it as it looked then. It’s quiet and still, there is no-one around. When you look from the upstairs windows the scene is still that of the past, but now there are people going about their business. The guide – how long have they been there? – is standing behind you, watching you watching. You’re led across the landing into the back bedroom. Through the window you see a woman come out to remove the washing.

Suddenly, you hear the sound of air raid sirens… BANG!!! The house is felt to shudder slightly. The lights go out. The guide produces a candle, lights it, and leads you out of the room and down the stairs. More explosions can be heard, thankfully this time at a distance. On the ground floor you smell burning and, glancing through the downstairs windows as you leave, you can see the house across the road has been hit. Sometimes you may hear the sound of a woman crying.

The guide leads you back down the garden path. The washing is gone from the line.

Back into the tunnel you go and into the waiting room. The bulb has failed. Ushering you through the darkness the guide points urgently at the door. You emerge and find yourself back on the road, which is just as you left it. As you pass the house the people inside are watching TV.

***

Ideally, there would be multiple scenarios, for different parts of the day – and perhaps for different days of the week: so there wouldn’t always be a bombing for example. One thing i wouldn’t have is live actors. Seen close up modern day people never convince as citizens of the past: too big, too brash, too obvious that they know how the story will turn out.

In any case, the key is the house.