I don’t have a good memory for faces – it may be because I’m quite short-sighted – but voices stay in my head for decades after I’ve heard them. (No… I don’t mean I hear voices telling me to do things!) My grandmothers died in 1966 and 1979 respectively and I can still hear both of their voices clearly. One of them had quite a strong Lincolnshire accent, with flat vowels and little modulation. “That’s what you do” was one of her customary expressions, as in: “You need to be more careful; that’s what you do.” The other, who came from Kent, had spent all her life ‘in service’, so the way in which she spoke was more genteel, but I suspect that her long-drawn-out vowels and rather slow way of speaking were Kentish in origin. She often coloured her speech with proverbs and other regularly-used sayings: “Never say die; up man and try!” (used for both sexes) and “Red hat… no drawers!” (pleasantly spicy!) were two of her favourites. As a schoolgirl, I had a permanently exasperated teacher who prefaced almost every sentence with “Yes, but …” – another Lincolnshire voice, this one crackling and rising with irritation.
Harder to remember are the childhood voices of people, now adult, with whom I have always stayed in touch. I can still remember many of the things my son said when he was small, but hearing the exact voice in which he said them, though not impossible, requires quite a lot of concentration as I work back through the layers of adult and teenage years. “Building socite” and “Arndale socentre” were entertaining confusions, whilst “clothes-banger” and “otnineen” (see image) were two words he minted as a toddler, his voice high and piping and full of laughter.
People with no voice – as far as I am concerned – are intriguing. Their mystique is partly owing to the fact that I can’t hear them. Margaret Thatcher was in power during a period in my life when I owned no television and rarely listened to the radio, so she was years into her premiership before I first actually heard her. The result was disappointing; she sounded just like what she was: a Lincolnshire lady who had had elocution lessons, a type from my own childhood.
I feel teased and frustrated by never being able to know how authors spoke in the past. I have listened to recordings of writers who have died relatively recently – Tennyson, for example, and Virginia Woolf – but it is impossible to be able to tell whether they really spoke like that, or whether the sound has been corrupted by primitive technology or the passing of time.
And, of course, no-one will ever be able to do more than guess about the myriads who died before the end of the nineteenth century. Do we think of William Shakespeare with a colourful Brummy accent or are we seduced by the voices of actors who deliver his ‘immortal verse’ into thinking he sounded like royalty?
One thing I am sure of: the voices of my fictional characters sound loudly in my head.