The night had been cold, the conversation boisterous and shouty, and when I got home the only sound I could make was that of a bagpipe being stood on by an asthmatic warthog.
It came back soon enough but it made me think about voice, the unique sound we squeeze out of our throats — or, in the case of writers, out of our keyboards.
For writers voice is the thing that distinguishes us, a fingerprint made of pace, rhythm and tone. I’m still not entirely sure what my voice is. If I heard it clearly, would I be mortified? Aren’t we all shocked when we hear a recording of ourselves and discover that, instead of sounding like an advert for hot chocolate, we are braying squeakers?
Maybe there’s still time for me to settle on a better voice. But which one? There are so many voices in our ears all the time, all describing different realities with such confidence, that it can be hard to hear your own.
Consider a scene as banal as waking up and brushing your teeth. How would you describe it? Could you compete against the strident voices that roar in our ears all the time, like those of advertisers who insist that brushing your teeth involves waking up on a bed made of Nigella Lawson’s bosom, padding into your bathroom, which is a forest clearing with a waterfall, and then having fresh spring water splashed all over your face?
I believe that most advertising is created in the lower intestine of Satan and then pooped out on humanity as word-turd designed to choke our critical faculties with its stench. But at least it’s not radio. I’m grateful to the advertising industry for employing cynical 18-year-olds instead of incredulous 14-year-olds. I mean, at least advertisers describe tooth-brushing, whereas DJs…
“Some teeth are pointy and some are flat, which is weird, right?”
“So like this morning I was like looking in my mirror, right? And I thought, ‘What are teeth?’ Are they like bones that stick out of your head, or are they like…? I mean, has science even proved what teeth are? Because some teeth are pointy and some are flat, which is weird, right? And why do we brush them? I mean, I get why you brush your hair, like, to make it all tidy and stuff, but it’s not like you wake up and your teeth are all tangled, right? So why do you have to brush them? Give us a call and share your views.”
At moments like these one longs for a more careful, even cautious voice. But a careful voice can easily segue into a deceptive one; that relies on hedging and euphemism to hide its true motives, or at least the fact that it isn’t saying anything.
Consider the opening of a nation’s parliament: “Honourable members, on this, the 18th anniversary of the inclusion of the plaque-fighting stripe in the nation’s toothpaste, I would like to start by honouring the brave men and women who keep this great country’s teeth pearly white and its breath minty fresh.
“Let us pay tribute to the citizens who, every morning, position themselves strategically in front of their mirrors to redeploy the paste from the tube onto their teeth; who inspire a revolutionary — and then counter-revolutionary – movement of the brush across their teeth, to remove those undesirable elements that wish to undermine the gains made by dental hygiene over the last 20 years.” And so on.
It’s a noisy world out there. But at the moment it’s slightly less confusing than usual. That’s because I’m writing a series of nature documentaries, and that means there’s a voice I can use that’s already fully formed. It is authoritative but kind, engaged but calm. It is the voice of David Attenborough.
“Early morning, and in their burrow, the male and female human are stirring. On most days, they will carry out a bonding ritual known as ‘kissing’, but this morning the pair is hesitant. Last night’s kill was a salami and garlic pizza, and they will first have to scrub their fangs before kissing is possible.
“The kill has affected the male’s digestive system. He shuffles a short distance from the nest.” (Cut to Attenborough crouched in a hide covered with Italian tiles, whispering to camera) “This…is the toilet. Here, the male will crouch for a while, briefly muttering ‘Sorry babe’ to the female.
“She, too, is moving slowly. Distinctive markings around her eyes have become smudged across her cheeks. She regrets drinking five glasses of fermented grape juice with the kill…”
It’s not my voice. But for now, I’ll take it.
First published in The Times