Someone told me last weekend that I'm a good listener. My reaction to this was both to be flattered and to be rather surprised -- my inner self is convinced it talks far too much and to far little avail. But in the midst of my surprise I could feel myself nodding, just slightly. Because, you see, I like to listen. I like the sound of voices. Voices matter. They can make all the difference.
The soundtrack to my life is BBC Radio 4. Having spent most of my working life as an educator, I'm used to voice-heavy environments. Indeed, they feel normal to me, and I find it easier to work while others are speaking than I do in silence or to music. I'm not exactly listening to the content -- I frequently realise that I have effectively tuned out an entire show and have little idea what it was about -- but I do hear the voices. And, apart from jazz (sorry, jazz fans, I just don't like jazz, despite extensive exposure), the one thing that is most likely to pull me from the writing fugue is the sound of posh Conservative politicians on my radio. I rise from my concentration like a particularly cranky kraken, and, uttering dire imprecations, change the station.
Because, you see, to me, voice is all about class, and Conservative politicos telling me what's good for me just hits me on a hot button. I'm a first generation lower middle class mostly-Welsh woman from Coventry, and upper class southerners often sound, to me, like they aim to patronise and control. A Chinese colleague once asked me to teach him how to tell what social class background British people came from, and I realised that, although I can identify the social class of people I meet -- and people I hear -- pretty quickly and accurately, it wasn't an ability I could explain or teach easily or quickly. It's something I acquired in early childhood, growing up with the accents of Coventry and Birmingham and the Black Country, with Herefordshire (my father's family) and South Wales (my mother's). Strongly accented voices were the comforting norm; the less marked sounds of the upper classes and the south belonged to outsiders, and outsiders with power at that. The first prime minister I remember was Harold Wilson, a man with a marked regional accent, and the leader of the party my parents supported. When he was replaced in the 1970 election by the Conservative leader Edward Heath, the latter sounded all wrong -- and he made my father, in particular, very irritated. Heath came, in fact, from a working class background, but he had acculturated upwards: he sounded like the class he had joined and represented. The distinction I made between them, as a very young child, was purely rooted in my parents' preferences, but, as with many such early experiences, it's deeply bound into me. Scrolling down many years, I never felt safe with or about Tony Blair -- he sounded too much like the smooth-talking types I associated with the upper classes and the right. But Gordon Brown -- he sounded fine to me, and I was far more willing to trust him, partly because of that.
I would be the last person to say that my prejudices about voice are rational. But underneath it, I remain aware that voice matters, and that it is one of the core ways we British tell each other apart and make judgements about each other. If I list a few regional accents at you -- Geordie, estuary, Liverpool, Home Counties, Edinburgh -- what do you think and who do you think of? The voices we approve -- and the ones we distrust or dislike -- speak volumes about how we see ourselves and where we think we fit within the UK. If you heard me speak -- and I know a number of you who are regulars on Charlie's blog know me or have met me -- I suspect I sound fairly neutral -- between Welsh mother and Herefordshire father, and living all over the Midlands as a child my accent has evened out, until you hear me say the words math and path and castle. Those mark me out at once as someone not from Southern Britain and raised in the social ranks of lower middle and below. I pronounce all those words with a short 'a' (like the initial one in 'ass'), rather than the longer 'ah' sound, and when I arrived at university aged 18, my lower-than-average class origin was there for all to hear -- and to comment on and make assumptions about. I drew conclusions about them from their voices, too, I will add, and I realised fairly early that there weren't that many people at this particular institution who sounded like me and had my social class background. (There was another student from the same area in my college, but they came from much higher up the social ladder and didn't register where I came from until I told them -- and socially we had nothing in common.) I married (well, moved in to live in sin) into a higher social class than the one I come from, and much of my social circle were born posher than me. Most of them don't seem to notice the difference -- we operate mainly according to their set of familiar social behaviours and rules -- or even claim that there is no class any more. But every once in a while, my friend Y (who is also first generation lower middle class) go and drink coffee together and shake our heads over the ways of those from higher echelons.
And my Chinese friend? I thought long an hard about how to answer him, and in the end suggested he look at what people ate and when and how, which is clumsy and wide-ranging, but a lot easier to explain than the tiny variations in voice.