Human Voices

by Penelope Fitzgerald

Paperback, 143 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, List Price: $13.95 | purchase

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Human Voices
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Penelope Fitzgerald

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Book Summary

In the height of enemy bombing during World War II, a series of human dramas unfolds as the BBC transforms its concert hall into a dormitory for men and women, conflict erupts between two departmental directors, and sixteen-year-old Annie falls hopelessly in love. Reprint. 40,000 first printing.

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Excerpt: Human Voices

Chapter One

Inside Broadcasting House, the Department of Recorded Programmes was sometimes called the Seraglio, because its Director found that he could work better when surrounded by young women. This in itself was an understandable habit and quite harmless, or, to be more accurate, RPD never considered whether it was harmless or not. If he was to think about such things, his attention had to be specially drawn to them. Meanwhile it was understood by the girls that he might have an overwhelming need to confide his troubles in one of them, or perhaps all of them, but never in two of them at once, during the three wartime shifts in every twenty-four hours. This, too, might possibly suggest the arrangements of a seraglio, but it would have been quite unfair to deduce, as some of the Old Servants of the Corporation occasionally did, that the RP Junior Temporary Assistants had no other duties. On the contrary, they were in anxious charge of the five thousand recordings in use every week. Those which the Department processed went into the Sound Archives of the war, while the scrap was silent for ever.

I can't see what good it would be if Mr Brooks did talk to me,' said Lise, who had only been recruited three days earlier, I don't know anything.'

Vi replied that it was hard on those in positions of responsibility, like RPD, if they didn't drink, and didn't go to confession.

Are you a Catholic then?'

No, but I've heard people say that.'

Vi herself had only been at BH for six months, but since she was getting on for nineteen she was frequently asked to explain things to those who knew even less.

I daresay you've got it wrong,' she added, being patient with Lise, who was pretty, but shapeless, crumpled and depressed. He won't jump on you, it's only a matter of listening.'

Hasn't he got a secretary?'

Yes, Mrs Milne, but she's an Old Servant.'

Even after three days, Lise could understand this.

Or a wife? Isn't he married?'

Of course he's married. He lives in Streatham, he has a nice home on Streatham Common. He doesn't get back there much, none of the higher grades do. It's non-stop for them, it seems.'

Have you ever seen Mrs Brooks?'

No.'

How do you know his home is nice, then?'

Vi did not answer, and Lise turned the information she had been given so far slowly over in her mind.

He sounds like a selfish shit to me.'

I've told you how it is, he thinks people under twenty are more receptive. I don't know why he thinks that. He just tries pouring out his worries to all of us in turn.'

Has he poured them out to Della?'

Well, perhaps not Della.'

What happens if you're not much good at listening? Does he get rid of you?'

Vi explained that some of the girls had asked for transfers because they wanted to be Junior Programme Engineers, who helped with the actual transmissions. That hadn't been in any way the fault of RPD. Wishing that she didn't have to explain matters which would only become clear, if at all, through experience, she checked her watch with the wall clock. An extract from the Prime Minister was wanted for the mid-day news, 1'42" in, cue Humanity, rather than legality, must be our guide.

By the way, he'll tell you that your face reminds him of another face he's seen somewhere — an elusive type of beauty, rather elusive anyway, it might have been a picture somewhere or other, or a photograph, or something in history, or something, but anyway he can't quite place it.'

Lise seemed to brighten a little.

Won't he ever remember?'

Sometimes he appeals to Mrs Milne, but she doesn't know either. No, his memory lets him down at that point. But he'll probably put you on the Department's Indispensable Emergency Personnel List. That's the people he wants close to him in case of invasion. We'd be besieged, you see, if that happened. They're going to barricade both ends of Langham Place. If you're on the list you'd transfer then to the Defence Rooms in the sub-basement and you can draw a standard issue of towel, soap and bedding for the duration. Then there was a memo round about hand grenades.'

Lise opened her eyes wide and let the tears slide out, without looking any less pretty. Vi, however, was broadminded, and overlooked such things.

My boy's in the Merchant Navy,' she said, perceiving the real nature of the trouble. What about yours?'

He's in France, he's with the French army. He is French.'

That's not so good.' Their thoughts moved separately to what must be kept out of them, helpless waves of flesh against metal and salt water. Vi imagined the soundless fall of a telegram through the letter-box. Her mother would say it was just the same as lassssst time but worse because in those days people seemed more human somehow and the postman was a real friend and knew everyone on his round.

What's his name, then?'

Frédé. I'm partly French myself, did they tell you?'

Well, that can't be helped now.' Vi searched for the right consolation. Don't worry if you get put on the IEP list. You won't stay there long. It keeps changing.'

Mrs Milne rang down. Is Miss Bernard there? Have I the name correct by the way? We're becoming quite a League of Nations. As she is new to the Department, RPD would like to see her for a few minutes when she comes off shift.'

We haven't even gone on yet.'

Mrs Milne was accustomed to relax a little with Vi.

We're having a tiresome day, all these directives, why can't they leave us to go quietly on with our business which we know like the back of our hand. Tell Miss Bernard not to worry about her evening meal, I've been asked to see to a double order of sandwiches.' Lise was not listening, but recalled Vi to the point she had understood best.

If Mr Brooks says he thinks I'm beautiful, will he mean it?'

He means everything he says at the time.'

There was always time for conversations of this kind, and of every kind, at Broadcasting House. The very idea of Continuity, words and music succeeding each other without a break except for a cough or a shuffle or some mistake eagerly welcomed by the indulgent public, seemed to affect everyone down to the humblest employee, the filers of Scripts as Broadcast and the fillers-up of glasses of water, so that all in turn could be seen forming close groups, in the canteen, on the seven floors of corridors, beside the basement ticker-tapes, in the washrooms, in the studios, talking, talking to each other, and usually about each other, until the very last moment when the notice SILENCE: ON THE AIR forbade.

The gossip of the seven decks increased the resemblance of the great building to a liner, which the designers had always intended. BH stood headed on a fixed course south. With the best engineers in the world, and a crew varying between the intensely respectable and the barely sane, it looked ready to scorn any disaster of less than Titanic scale. Since the outbreak of war damp sandbags had lapped it round, but once inside the bronze doors, the airs of cooking from the deep hold suggested more strongly than ever a cruise on the Queen Mary. At night, with all its blazing portholes blacked out, it towered over a flotilla of taxis, each dropping off a speaker or two.

By the spring of 1940 there had been a number of castaways. During the early weeks of evacuation Variety, Features and Drama had all been abandoned in distant parts of the country, while the majestic headquarters was left to utter wartime instructions, speeches, talks and news.

Since March the lifts below the third floor had been halted as an economy measure, so that the first three staircases became yet another meeting place. Few nowadays were ever to be found in their offices. An instinct, or perhaps a rapidly acquired characteristic, told the employees how to find each other. On the other hand, in this constant circulation much was lost. The corridors were full of talks producers without speakers, speakers without scripts, scripts which by a clerical error contained the wrong words or no words at all. The air seemed alive with urgency and worry.

Recordings, above all, were apt to be mislaid. They looked alike, all 78s, aluminium discs coated on one side with acetate whose pungent rankness was the true smell of the BBC's war. It was rumoured that the Germans were able to record on tapes coated with ferrous oxide and that this idea might have commercial possibilities in the future, but only the engineers and RPD himself believed this.

It won't catch on,' the office supervisor told Mrs Milne. You could never get attached to them.'

That's true,' Mrs Milne said. I loved my record of Charles Trenet singing J'ai ta main. I died the death when it fell into the river at Henley. The public will never get to feel like that about lengths of tape.'

But the Department's discs, though cared for and filed under frequently changing systems, were elusive. Urgently needed for news programmes, they went astray in transit to the studio. Tea-cups were put down on them, and they melted. Ferried back by mobile units through the bitter cold, they froze, and had to be gently restored to life. Hardly a day passed without one or two of them disappearing.

Vi was now looking for Churchill's Humanity, rather than legality, must be our guide with the faint-hearted help of Lise. It was possible that Lise might turn out to be hopeless. They'd given up For Transmission, and were looking in what was admittedly the wrong place, among the Processed, whose labels, written in the RPAs' round school-leavers' handwriting, offered First Day of War: Air-Raid Siren, False Alarm: Cheerful Voices with Chink of Tea-Cups: Polish Refugees in Scotland, National Singing, No Translation. You won't find anything in that lot,' said Della, brassily stalking through, that's all Atmosphere.'

It's wanted in the editing room. Do you think Radio News Reel went and took it?'

Why don't you ask the boys?'

Three of the Junior RPAs were boys, and RPD, though fond of them, felt less need to confide in them. As the Department expanded more and more girls would be taken on. What a field that's going to give us!' said Teddy, relaxing in the greasy haze of the canteen with Willie Sharpe. Willie only paid twopence for his coffee, because he was a juvenile.

I don't grudge you that in any way,' Teddy went on. It's a mere accident of birth. I just wonder how you reconcile it with what you're always saying, that you expect to be in training as a Spitfire pilot by the end of 1940.'

My face is changing,' Willie replied. Coming up from Oxford Circus on Wednesday I passed a girl I used to know and she didn't recognize me.'

Teddy looked at him pityingly.

They're still asking for School Certificate in maths,' he said.

Pretty soon they mayn't mind about that, though. They'll be taking pilots wherever they can get them.'

They'll still want people who look a bit more than twelve.'

Willie was rarely offended, and never gave up.

Hitler was a manual worker, you know. He didn't need School Cert to take command of the Nazi hordes.'

No, but he can't fly, either,' Teddy pointed out.

The boys' ears, though delicately tuned to differences of pitch and compression, adapted easily to the frightful clash of metal trays in the canteen. Unlike the administrative staff, they had no need to shout. Teddy sat with his back to the counter, so that he could see the girls as they came in — Della, perhaps, although there was nothing doing there — and at the same time turned the pages of a yank mag, where white skin and black lace glimmered. These mags were in short supply. Vi's merchant seaman, who was on the Atlantic run, had passed it on.

You know, Willie, I need money for what I want to do. Honestly, the kind of woman I have in mind is unattainable on L378 a year.'

Your mind's tarnished, Teddy.'

I'm not responsible for more than one eighth of it,' Teddy protested.

No, but you can increase the proportion by concentrated will-power. As I see it, in any case, after the conflict is over we shan't be at the mercy of anything artificially imposed on us, whether from within or without. Hunger will be a thing of the past because the human race won't tolerate it, mating will follow an understandable instinct, and there'll be no deference to rank or money. We shall need individuals of strong will then.'

Neither Teddy nor anyone else felt that Willie was ridiculous when he spoke like this, although they sometimes wondered what would become of him. Indeed, he was noble. His notebook contained, besides the exact details of his shift duties, a new plan for the organisation of humanity. Teddy also had a notebook, the back of which he kept for the estimated measurements of the Seraglio.

I'd put this Lise Bernard at 34, 25, 38. Are you with me?'

I'm not too sure,' said Willie doubtfully. By the way, she cries rather a lot.'

She's mixed a lot with French people, that would make her more emotional.'

Not all foreigners are emotional. It depends whether they come from the north or the south. Look at Tad.'

Taddeus Zagorski, the third of the junior RPAs (male), had arrived in this country with his parents only last October. How had he managed to learn English so quickly, and how, although he wasn't much older than the rest of them and was quite new to the Department, did he manage to dazzle them with his efficiency and grasp?

I can't seem to get to like him,' said Teddy. He's suffered, I know, but there it is. He wants to be a news reader, you know.'

I daresay he'll get on,' Willie replied, in the world, that is, as it's at present constituted. It's possible that we're jealous of him. We ought to guard against that.'

Tad, in fact, was emerging at the head of the counter queue, where, with a proud gesture, he stirred his coffee with the communal spoon tied to the cash register with a piece of string. He must have been doing Messages From The Forces.

My auntie got one of those messages,' said Willie. It was my uncle in the Navy singing When the Deep Purple Falls, but by the time it went out he was missing, believed killed.'

Was she upset?'

She never really heard it. She works on a delivery van.'

The young Pole stood at their table, cup of coffee in hand, brooding down at them from a height.

You should have been off ten minutes ago,' said Teddy.

Tad sat down between them, precisely in the middle of his chair, in his creaseless white shirt. The boys felt uneasy. He had an air of half-suppressed excitement.

Who is that fellow?' he asked suddenly.

Willie looked up, Teddy craned round. A man with a pale, ruined-looking face was walking up to the bar.

Tad watched him as he asked quietly for a double whisky. The barman seemed unnerved. In fact, the canteen had only obtained a licence at the beginning of the year, on the understanding that the news readers should not take more than two glasses of beer before reporting for work, and the shadow of disapproval still hung over it. Higher grades were expected to go to the Langham for a drink, but this one hadn't.

I ask you about that fellow,' said Tad, because it was he who just came into Studio LG14. I was clearing up the Messages preparatory to returning them to registry, and I asked him what he was doing in the studios, as one cannot be too careful in the present circumstances. He replied that he had an administrative post in the BBC, and, as he seemed respectable, I explained the standard routine to him. I think one should never be too busy to teach those who are anxious to learn.'

Well, you set out to impress him,' said Teddy. What did you tell him?'

I told him the rules of writing a good news talk — "the first sentence must interest, the second must inform." Next I pointed out the timeless clock, which is such an unusual feature of our studios, and demonstrated the "ten seconds from now".'

The familiar words sounded dramatic, and even tragic.

What did he do?'

He nodded, and showed interest.'

But didn't he say anything?'

Quite quietly. He said "tell me more."'

Tad's self-assurance wavered and trembled. He does not look quite the same now as he did then. Who is he?'

That's Jeffrey Haggard,' Willie said. He's the Director of Programme Planning.'

Tad was silent for a moment. Then he would be familiar with the ten second cue?'

He invented it. It's called the Haggard cue, or the Jeff, sometimes.' Teddy laughed, louder than the din of crockery.

God, Tad, you've made me happy today. Jeepers Creepers, you've gone and explained the ten second cue to DPP ...'

Their table rocked and shook, while Tad sat motionless, steadying his cup with his hand.

'Doubtless Mr Haggard will think me ludicrous.'

'He thinks everything's ludicrous,' said Willie hastily.

Teddy laughed and laughed, not able to get over it, meaning no harm. He wouldn't laugh like that if he was Polish, Willie thought. However, in his scheme of things to come there would no frontiers, and indeed no countries.

The Director of Programme Planning ordered a second double in his dry, quiet, disconcerting voice. Probably in the whole of his life he had never had to ask for anything twice. The barman, knowing, as most people did, that Mr Haggard had run through three wives and had lost his digestion into the bargain, wondered what he'd sound like if he got angry.

The whisky, though it had no visible effect, was exactly calculated to raise DPP from a previous despair far enough to face the rest of the evening. When he had finished it he went back to his office, where he managed with no secretary and very few staff, and rang RPD.

Mrs Milne, I want Sam. I can hear him shouting, presumably in the next room.'

On the telephone his voice dropped even lower, like a voice's shadow. He waited, looking idly at the schedules that entirely covered the walls, the charts of Public Listening and Evening Meal Habits, and the graphs, supplied by the Ministry of Information, of the nation's morale.

RPD was put through.

Jeff, I want you to hear my case.'

DDP had been hearing it for more than ten years. But, to do his friend justice, it was never the same twice running. The world seemed new created every day for Sam Brooks, who felt no resentment and, indeed, very little recollection of what he had suffered the day before.

Jeff, Establishment have hinted that I'm putting in for too many girls.'

How can that be?'

They know I like to have them around, they know I need that. I've drafted a reply, saying nothing, mind you, about the five thousand discs a week, or the fact that we provide a service to every other department of the Corporation. See what you think of the way I've put it — I begin quite simply, by asking them whether they realize that through the skill of the recording engineer sound can be transformed from air to wax, the kind of thing which through all the preceding centuries has been possible only to the bees. It's the transference of pattern, you see — surely that says something encouraging about the human mind. Don't forget that Mozart composed that trio while he was playing a game of billiards.'

Sam, I went to a meeting to-day.'

What about?'

It was about the use of recordings in news bulletins.'

Why wasn't I asked?'

But Sam was never asked to meetings.

We had two Directors and three Ministries — War, Information, Supply. They'd called it, quite genuinely I think, in the interests of truth.'

The word made its mark. Broadcasting House was in fact dedicated to the strangest project of the war, or of any war, that is, telling the truth. Without prompting, the BBC had decided that truth was more important than consolation, and, in the long run, would be more effective. And yet there was no guarantee of this. Truth ensures trust, but not victory, or even happiness. But the BBC had clung tenaciously to its first notion, droning quietly on, at intervals from dawn to midnight, telling, as far as possible, exactly what happened. An idea so unfamiliar was bound to upset many of the other authorities, but they had got used to it little by little, and the listeners had always expected it.

The object of the meeting was to cut down the number of recordings in news transmissions — in the interests of truth, as they said. The direct human voice must be used whenever we can manage it — if not, the public must be clearly told what they've been listening to — the programme must be announced as recorded, that is, Not Quite Fresh.'

Sam's Department was under attack, and with it every recording engineer, every RPA, every piece of equipment, every TD7, mixer and fader and every waxing and groove in the building. As the protector and defender of them all, he became passionate.

Did they give specific instances? Could they even find one?'

They started with Big Ben. It's always got to be relayed direct from Westminster, the real thing, never from disc. That's got to be firmly fixed in the listeners' minds. Then, if Big Ben is silent, the public will know that the war has taken a distinctly unpleasant turn.'

Jeff, the escape of Big Ben freezes in cold weather.'

We shall have to leave that to the Ministry of Works.'

And the King's stammer. Ah, what about that. My standby recordings for his speeches to the nation — His Majesty without stammer, in case of emergency.'

Above all, not those.'

And Churchill....'

Some things have to go, that was decided at a preliminary talk long before I got there. Otherwise it's just a general directive, and we've lived through a good many of those. It doesn't affect the total amount of recording. If you want to overwork, you've nothing to worry about.' Sam said that he accepted that no-one present had had the slightest understanding of his Department's work, but it was strange, very strange, that there had been no attempt whatever, at any stage, to consider his point of view.

If someone could have reasoned with him, Jeff. Perhaps this idea that's come to me about the bees....'

I protested against any cuts in your mobile recording units. I managed to save your cars.'

Those Wolseleys!'

They're all you've got, Sam.'

The hearses. I've been asking for replacements for two years. They're just about fit to take a Staff Officer to a lunch party, wait till he collapses from over-indulgence, then on to the graveyard. And I've had to send two of those out to France.... Jeff, were you asked to break this to me?'

In a way.' As they left the meeting one of the Directors had drawn him aside and had asked him to avoid mentioning the new recommendations to RPD for as long as possible.

Sam was floundering in his newly acquired wealth of grievances.

Without even the commonplace decency ... no standbys ... my cars, well, I suppose you did your best there ... my girls....

In my opinion you can make do with the staff you've got,' Jeff said. One of your RPAs was talking to me in the studio just now, and I assure you he was very helpful.'

When he had done what he could Jeff walked out of the building. It was scarcely necessary for him to show his pass. His face, with its dark eyebrows, like a comedian's, but one who had to be taken seriously, was the best known in the BBC. He stood for a moment among the long shadows on the pavement, between the piles of sandbags which had begun to rot and grow grass, now that spring had come.

DPP was homeless, in the sense of having several homes, none of which he cared about more than the others. There was a room he could use at the Langham, and then there were two or three women with whom his relationship was quite unsentimental, but who were not sorry to see him when he came. He never went to his house, because his third wife was still in it. In any case, he had a taxi waiting for him every night, just round the corner in Riding House Street. He hardly ever used it, but it was a testimony that if he wanted to, he could get away quickly.

RPD seemed to have forgotten how to go home. Mrs Milne suggested as much to him as she said goodnight. Her typewriter slumbered now under its leatherette cover. He gave no sign of having heard her.

Long before it was dark men in brown overalls went round BH, fixing the framed blackouts in every window, circulating in the opposite direction to the Permanents coming downstairs, while the news readers moved laterally to check with Pronunciation, pursued by editors bringing later messages on pink cards. Movement was complex, so too was time. Nobody's hour of work coincided exactly with the life-cycle of Broadcasting House, whose climax came six times in the twenty-four hours with the Home News, until at nine o'clock, when the nation sat down to listen, the building gathered its strength and struck. The night world was crazier than the day world. When Lise Bernard paused in doubt at the door of RPD's office, she saw her Head of Department pacing to and fro like a bear astray, in a grove of the BBC's pale furniture, veneered with Empire woods. He wore a tweed jacket, grey trousers and one of the BBC's frightful house ties, dark blue embroidered with thermionic valves in red. Evidently he put on whatever came to hand first. Much of the room was taken up with a bank of turntables and a cupboard full of clean shirts.

When he recognized who she was he stopped pacing about and took off his spectacles, changing from a creature of sight to one of faith. Lise, the crowded office, the neatly angled sandwiches, the tray with its white cloth suitable for grades of Director and above, turned into patches of light and shade. To Lise, on the other hand, looking at his large hazel eyes, the eyes of a child determined not to blink for fear of missing something, he became someone who could not harm her and asked to be protected from harm. The effect, however, was quite unplanned, he produced it unconsciously. All the old lechers and yearners in the building envied the success which he seemed to turn to so little account.

He just weeps on their shoulders you know,' they said. And yet I believe the man's a trained engineer.'

Sit down, Miss Bernard. Have all these sandwiches. You look hungry.' When he had put his spectacles on again he couldn't pursue this idea; Lise was decidedly overweight. I like to get to know everyone who comes to work for me as soon as possible — in a way it's part of the responsibility I feel for all of you — and the shortest way to do that, curiously enough, I've found, is to tell you some of the blankly incomprehensible bloody idiotic lack of understanding that our Department meets with every minute of the day.'

Lise sat there blankly, eating nothing. He picked up the telephone, sighing.

Canteen, I have a young assistant here, quite new to the Corporation, who can't eat your sandwiches.'

That's National Cheese, Mr Brooks. The manufacturers have agreed to amalgamate their brand names for the duration in the interest of the Allied war effort.'

I believe you've been waiting to say that all day.'

I don't want anything, Mr Brooks, really I don't,' whimpered Lise.

Not good enough for you.' He looked angrily at the window, unable to throw them out because of the blackout. Then he sat down opposite to the girl and considered her closely. You know, even though I only saw you for a few minutes at the interview, I was struck by the width between your eyes. You can see something like it in those portraits by — I'm sure you know the ones I mean. It's a sure index of a certain kind of intelligence, I would call it an emotional intelligence.' Lise wished that there was a looking-glass in the room.

Some people might find what I have to say difficult to grasp, because I let my ideas follow each other just as they come. But people whose eyes are as wide apart as yours won't have that difficulty.' He took her hand, but held it quite absent-mindedly.

You may find Broadcasting House rather strange at first, but there's nothing unusual about me. Except for this, I suppose — it just so happens that all my energies are concentrated, and always have been, and always will be, on one thing, the recording of sound and of the human voice. That doesn't make for an easy life, you understand. Perhaps you know what it's like to have a worry that doesn't and can't leave room in your mind for anything else and won't give you peace, night or day, for a single moment.'

Now something went not at all according to programme. Lise began to sob. These tears were not of her usual manageable kind, and her nose turned red. Having no handkerchief with her she struggled to her feet and heaved and streamed her way out of the room.

Copyright © 1980 Penelope Fitzgerald. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.