Wednesday 12 September 2012

How do I sound?

It seems to me that "how I sound" is made up of the following three elements:

The timbre of my voice.  This is its pitch, tone and "colour".  Of all three this must be the most difficult to alter, dependent as it is on my gender, the length of my vocal chords, and countless genetically inherited physical factors (I'm often struck by how different my father, my brother and I look, but how similar we sound).

My accent.  This is of course another matter.  It is the product of the geographical locus of my early years, my upbringing, education and other influences.  I can alter my accent if I want to: I remember a boy who used to talk dead ordinary when we were at school in north-east London but who, when I met him again in our 20s, sounded as if he'd been to Eton.

My speech patterns and vocabulary.  While these, too, were formed by my familial, social and educational background, they have developed and changed over the years, shaped by my occupation, my reading, those with whom I share my life and spend my time, and countless other subtle influences.

I speak (and sing) in public a lot - mainly in church.  I am used to projecting my voice, and am conscious that this sometimes makes the volume of my non-public speech a touch higher than it needs to be.  My colleague and I often say to each other in ordinary conversation: "You don't need to shout - I'm standing right next to you".  This may be an occupational hazard.  But when I hear myself on voicemail, I am dismayed.  In my head, my accent is Received Pronunciation ("the standard accent of English as spoken in the south of England" - OED) but in reality what I think is my "unaccented" southern pronunciation is corrupted by flat Estuary vowels and glottal stops.  The timbre of my voice seems mealy-mouthed and slack: its "colour" a sort of light brown.  Awful.

I was drawn to consideration of this by a recent experience in an airport departure lounge.  I was sitting in one of those rows of seats which has an identical row behind it facing the other way - so that someone sitting immediately behind you is as close as someone sitting next to you.  Because the person sitting behind you can't see you, he or she feels no need to lower the volume of their conversation - which you cannot easily ignore.  The person behind me on this occasion was an youngish-sounding American woman; and were it not for the fact that I was also mesmerised by it, I was so irritated by her voice that I would have pointed my wheeled cabin-bag to the other end of the lounge and removed it and myself thereto pretty sharpish.

The timbre of her voice was unattractive but unexceptional - no worse than mine - and she sounded reasonably educated.  It was the verbal tics she employed that did for me.  In conversation with her neighbour, she must have used the word "like" - both in the now-familiar sense of reporting conversation ("I'm like - you can't be serious!") and for general emphasis ("She was, like, so not listening to me") about 1000 times in the space of 20 minutes. Secondly, she made liberal use of Questioning Intonation - that habit of going up at the end of a statement so that it sounds like a question?  And thirdly, she employed what is called vocal fry - a way of pitching the voice below its normal register so that it becomes hoarse, rasping and possibly, supposedly, sexy.

I know what it is about departure lounges.  Once you're airside, you're formally in no-man's-land; you are in a notional interstice between countries and their jurisdictions; your bearings have been removed and you are sort of weightless.  The sense of disorientation this generates is exacerbated by windows of tinted glass which lend an unreality to the outside world (a strange, unpeopled place called Greater Airport) and depressingly pointless shops selling things that you could have bought for half the price outside.  They are not places where I generally feel buoyant.  Otherwise, I might not have taken against this (probably charming) lady as I did.  But it made me realise the extent to which I dislike these aberrations of speech, and resent their insidious spread.

They, and perhaps others, may have originated in the affluent young female population of the San Fernando Valley - essentially a sprawling suburb of Los Angeles - and disseminated via the powerful media industries of that vast city.  These "Valley Girls" with their "Valleyspeak" are, when you come to think of it, an extraordinary phenomenon - their "likes" and rising inflections now as much part of ordinary speech in Burford as in Burbank.  I do not have children - and if I had, they would probably be grown up by now - but I remember how strict our father was about unacceptable speech patterns my brother and I brought home from school, and wonder how I would prevent their modern equivalents taking root in my own offspring.  Maybe make them listen to themselves on voicemail.

Tuesday 4 September 2012

Under African Skies

I grew up in the 1960s and 70s when South Africa was never out of the news.  Bulletins featured black heroes and martyrs called Tutu, Mandela and Biko, snarling right-wing white politicians with Dutch names and off-putting accents, apartheid (which term our geography teacher, in a tone heavy with meaning, explained was pronounced apart-hate), sanctions, and things called townships where black people lived in shacks.  We - the UN, the civilised world - were unequivocally, righteously hostile in our view of the regime: we signed petitions, demonstrated, and refused to play cricket with them or buy their oranges.  If you went there (which you were not encouraged to do for fear of "legitimising" it by your visit) it took hours longer than it needed to because of overflying restrictions.

The issue was, emphatically, race - the anti-apartheid struggle perhaps the biggest race-based conflict since the American Civil War - and Britain in those years was a country coming to terms with its own recently acquired multi-racial character. Collectively, we were not at all sure of where we stood on this highly ethical, super-sensitive, profoundly human subject; and South Africa was at once an awful warning and a beacon of hope.  In our uncertainty, we relocated our anger and fear, our doubts and hopes, to the far south - partly, I suspect, so that we did not have to look at ourselves too closely.  This led to some extraordinary expressions of bigotry and self-righteousness, and also some of true heroism and towering humility.  For a good 25 years, it was impossible for the ordinary Briton not to have a view about South Africa - and there was really only one respectable view.  With strong competition from the Vietnam war, it became the political cause célèbre for a whole generation of young Westerners.

This, and what has happened there since those dark years, has inevitably coloured my view of this huge, complicated country.  I have recently returned from a 10-day holiday in the Western Cape - which some will tell you is not the "real" South Africa (let alone the "real" Africa) at all.  Its Mediterranean climate and its Western social attitudes - not to mention its extraordinary beauty - provide a highly sympathetic point of entry for the urban liberal. And if you can contrive not to take in the glimpses of the townships that rise along the motorway from the airport into Cape Town, if you restrict your subsequent range to your ocean-view apartment, city-centre restaurants and beauty spots, you can pretty much avoid contemplation of recent history and its legacy.  You can eat very well and very cheaply.  You can (if you're the type) surf and paraglide in idyllic surroundings.  You can visit pristine vineyards, admire their contemporary art installations, and taste the very fine and varied wines of Constantia and Stellenbosch.  You can wander the exquisite Kirstenbosch botanical gardens which nestle into the side of Table Mountain.  You can bathe in the warmth of these smiling, hospitable people - who will switch without missing a beat to English from their native isiXhosa or Afrikaans to welcome or help you.  You can go to church - this is still a very religious country - in large, often racially and linguistically mixed Anglican congregations, and feel entirely at home.  If you want, you can ignore the other stuff.

Except you can't, really.  You can't ignore a train platform populated entirely by black people (out-of-town whites commute by car).  You can't ignore people toiling along hard shoulders miles from anywhere, hitching lifts if they can (I am mildly haunted by the sight of young men lying impassively on piles of timber or furniture in the back of pick-up trucks); you can't ignore the vast, dense, tumbling shanty settlements of the Cape Flats, with their dodgy-looking electricity poles and kids playing football on waste ground.  You can't ignore the men who appear from nowhere to help you park your car in the hope of small "donation".  Most of all, you can't ignore people standing, sitting, eating, even sleeping, at every crossroads and motorway junction, waiting for God knows what or whom.  And, on the flipside, you can't ignore the gated security, and the bars at every window of the smart houses of the leafy, silent white suburbs, patrolled in police fashion by ubiquitous ADT vans.

It's too easy to slip into a bleeding-heart guilt-trip about all this - especially on the basis of a short visit to what is probably one of the most affluent corners of the entire African continent.  But it is salutary (and perhaps simply human) to be aware of the inequalities, and of how little income disparity has changed since the abolition of apartheid (in fact it has increased).  And it's clear that the poor are generally black and the rich are generally white. That's not unique to South Africa, of course; but it is certainly more graphically obvious there than it is in the UK.  As far as I could judge, nobody much expects this to change in a hurry: there is much cynicism about the present ANC government, which many - of all races - believe to be riven with corruption and nepotism; and the economy of this country - fertile, resource-rich, and bursting with potential - is flatlining. But the visiting, well-wishing foreigner finds it hard not to be hopeful.  It's simply a lovely place, and its people so damned nice that it's hard to regard it as anything but blessed.

Post script.  On the day I got back, the BBC ran a TV programme documenting the hot water that American singer-songwriter Paul Simon had got into over his landmark album Graceland.  Simon had rather stumbled into the South African controversy in 1986 when he went there to record songs for the album, breaking the "cultural boycott" of South Africa which was by then in place.  He collaborated with the then exiled and since deceased black South African singer Miriam Makeba ("Mama Africa") but, most famously and controversially, with the indigenous male-voice group Ladyship Black Mambazo.

I vaguely remember the fuss at the time; and I also remember largely ignoring it.  This was partly because, by the mid-80s, boycotting South Africa had become reduced to a sort of background noise; but mainly because I regarded (and still regard) Simon as a poetic genius and Graceland as a work of musical art.  Its fusion of African tribal rhythms and harmonies with Simon's lonely urban mysticism is a - possibly timeless - triumph and, as far as I know, a truly unique undertaking.

So I had not realised how badly affected Simon - an apparently liberal and humane man - had been by the criticism which he had attracted by his unwitting "legitimisation" of the Pretoria regime. The programme suggested that, 26 years on, his album caused offence that has only just been forgiven by some former anti-apartheid activists.  This made me smile: in the Cape Town department stores, restaurants, bars, souvenir shops and airport lounges in which I had found myself days before, I could not escape the strains of Paul Simon's poignant celebration of Africa, and of human memory:

Joseph's face was as black as night;
the pale yellow moon shone in his eyes.
His path was marked 
by the stars of the southern hemisphere
and he walked his days under African skies.

This is the story of how we begin to remember.
This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein.
After the dream of falling and calling your name out,
these are the roots of rhythm
and the roots of rhythm remain.

Listen here: