Wednesday, 24 July 2013

The sound of laughter

As my mum was a schoolteacher, I was familiar from an early age with that eerie feel of empty classrooms at night when the other pupils have left and only the smell of disinfectant wafts through the corridors. It’s felt a bit like that in this building recently, as we’re moving out of it at the end of the month. Today we saw a fox sunning itself on the lawn - bold as you like, casing the joint, perhaps ready to move into my office when I'm gone so it can keep up with its paperwork.  

It’s been a nice old cove, this building, albeit an acoustically leaky one. A scraping chair in the room above sounded like the crackle of gunfire, and you could hear the low murmur of conversations emanating from other offices – punctuated, often, by the sound of laughter. I’ve never been very good at laughter myself – either producing it in others (at least, not without a script) or allowing it to emerge from within myself. So I’m more than usually aware that a laugh is a beautiful sound, a little piece of natural music that no other animal creates. (Hyenas don’t count because they laugh at anything, even Mrs Brown’s Boys.) The paradox of laughter is that it's both an involuntary expression of approval and a cultural reflex, a way of oiling the wheels of human interaction.

‘Laughter appears to stand in need of an echo,’ wrote Henri Bergson in Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. ‘Listen to it carefully: it is not an articulate, clear, well-defined sound; it is something which would fain be prolonged by reverberating from one to another, something beginning with a crash, to continue in successive rumblings, like thunder in a mountain. Still, this reverberation cannot go on for ever. It can travel within as wide a circle as you please: the circle remains, none the less, a closed one. Our laughter is always the laughter of a group … laughter always implies a kind of secret freemasonry, or even complicity, with other laughers, real or imaginary. How often has it been said that the fuller the theatre, the more uncontrolled the laughter of the audience!’

Spontaneous laughter is the best review you will ever get – so much more precious and truth-telling than polite applause. How many comics would love to bottle it up and store it somewhere so it’s more than just a memory? But laughter has no archive: it dies on the air without an echo. And this building, which is just a pile of old bricks, will never know how much laughter emerged from within its walls.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

The shyness of scholars

In his essay 'The Shyness of Scholars', William Hazlitt wrote:

'That a life of privacy and obscurity should render its votaries bashful and awkward, or unfit them for the routine of society, from the want both of a habit of going into society and from ignorance of its usages, is obvious to remark.

The scholar, having to encounter doubts and difficulties on all hands, and indeed to apply by way of preference to those subjects which are most beset with mystery, becomes hesitating, sceptical, irresolute, absent, dull. All the processes of his mind are slow, cautious, circuitous, instead of being prompt, heedless, straightforward.'

It seems appropriate to insert the word 'ouch' here ...

Anyway, as a shy scholar I thought I might as well stop desperately swotting up on things I never quite know enough about and instead write about something on which I am, unfortunately, a leading authority:

And now I'm going to hide in this cupboard for a few days.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Vox populi

Last Thursday I delivered the Ben Pimlott Memorial Lecture at King’s College, London, on ‘Vox Populi?: The Recorded Voice and Twentieth-Century British History.’ It told the story of voice-recording technologies from gramophone records onwards, focusing in particular on the anthropologists, oral historians and dialect scholars – people like the Scottish poet and folklorist Hamish Henderson, the radio producer Charles Parker and the linguist Stanley Ellis - who travelled round the country in the 1950s and 1960s recording voices on the new portable tape recorders.

In the course of writing the lecture I became a bit of a connoisseur of great radio voices: John Arlott’s Test Match special burr, so evocative of English summers past; the beautifully sonorous Richard Burton as First Voice in Under Milk Wood (a voice trained by its owner's mentor, Philip Burton, by taking him up into the Welsh hills and making him shout across the valleys); the dying fall at the end of Garrison Keillor’s sentences as he recounts the news from Lake Wobegon; Charlotte Green reading the Shipping Forecast, making you glad you’re not anywhere near Rockall tonight.

The miniaturisation and democratisation of voice-recording technology over the course of the last century means that we have largely forgotten what a strange and quasi-magical thing it is to preserve someone’s voice. A voice has a signature as distinctive as a fingerprint and a recording of it is a uniquely intimate encounter with that person. Since a voice is essentially just an exhaled breath, a series of vibrations of air produced by different parts of the body from the abdomen to the lips, a recording of it can convey the sense of being alive at a moment in time and space perhaps better than any other historical evidence. Recordings of voices remind us that their owners are not just textual traces but were once breathing bodies, trying, just like us, to make themselves heard.