Helen Simonson hails from Sussex, land of rolling chalk downs and many, many sheep.I recently drove seven hours from my home in the Washington DC area to the Hamptons. Driving alone, with just my dog for company, I listened to a wonderful set of CDs my mother had given me called The Spoken Word: British Writers, one in a series produced by the British Library Sound Archives. On three CDs, famous writers, including Virginia Woolf, Rudyard Kipling and Somerset Maugham, spoke, lectured or were interviewed about writing. It was haunting to find myself barreling up I95, listening to writers, some of whose voices were only just able to be caught and recorded. The recordings are soft, the words often mumbled and the scratchiness of early technology (shellac discs) is evident. None of the writers had been given ‘media training’ and it was fun to hear the long pauses, coughs, striking of pipe matches and clinking of tea cups or train announcements in the background of various interviews. The voices too, spoke an English long disappeared; even from the royal family. They used ‘e’ instead of a short ‘a’ - so that Pall Mall became Pell Mell, and happy became heppy.
In a 1958 TV interview, Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, was asked if the coming of recording technology spelled the end of the written word and if all novels would become spoken. He mused on the economic difficulties of publishing and suggested that the cheaper spoken word might be a way out, though it would require novels to give way to shorter pieces. It was strange to realize that the current debate over the rise of the e-book is really as old as the gramophone. I am comforted that if the eight-track tape recorder did not spell the end of books, that even in the internet age, they will survive. It is one of the joys of my email inbox, by the way, to hear from people who have read me on Kindle, or some other e-reader, and write to tell me they have then rushed out to buy a copy. It seems the books we truly love demand a physical presence in our homes.
In scraps of a 1937 radio piece, the only surviving recording of her voice, Virginia Woolf spoke of English as an ancient language where every word comes freighted with echoes of the ways it has been used before; such that the writer’s task of combining words in new ways is made almost impossible. I thought of the word (and place), ‘Agincourt’ and how difficult it would be to use it without conjuring Shakespeare’s Henry V. I thought of putting a posy under a ‘bell jar’ and how Sylvia Plath had taken those words out of circulation; much as a famous baseball jersey might be retired. Most of all, I decelerated to an unacceptably slow pace for highway driving, as if this might somehow extend the joy of hearing the real Virginia Woolf talking to me.
Meanwhile, Rebecca West, journalist, critic, author and early suffragette, spoke to her interviewer, in 1958, of what a shame it was that so many people were now being taught to read and how this post-war expansion rendered it much less feasible for any one person to distinguish themselves in the art. She seemed to genuinely deplore the mediocre masses being granted access to the treasure of books and education. This was a sad reminder that even the most progressive of people may hold bigoted ideas in some areas. And isn’t it funny how the advancement of others is fought so hard by those who already hold all the advantages? If Rebecca West had been in charge of post-war education, I might have been trained to run a sewing machine instead of being introduced to Shakespeare and Chaucer!
As I walked my dog in a highway rest area or tried to eat a hard-boiled egg while negotiating a toll booth on the New Jersey Turnpike, I thought about all the writers we will never hear on CD – those who lived before the advent of sound recording. I will never hear Jane Austen talk about Emma, or poor Boswell defend his obsession with Samuel Johnson. I gained a new appreciation of the importance of capturing, in sound and video, writers talking about their work.
Accepting that writers belong in a multi-media world is not a easy position for me. I’m not that comfortable on video (no close-ups please!) and I’m suspicious of recording devices – too many politicians have been caught making off-color remarks into open microphones. I want people to judge my work independent of what they might think of me and I’m afraid of being captured and preserved in some awful dress and unfortunate hairstyle (is that Helen Simonson with the mullet and caftan?). However, it was just too wonderful to listen to Somerset Maugham sum up his life’s work and muse, in 1949, whether a few of his stories might survive the ages. I wanted to talk back and let him know he was still read and had a new biography out! I realized that I want to hear and see all my favorite writers and I think this means I need to stop being afraid of the video camera myself. So I’ll be looking for more of these British Library sound recordings and I’ll be seeing you on YouTube, folks!