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He Do The Police In Different Voices

Performing writing

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

Every writer I know dislikes the sound of their own voice, in fact so many people cringe when they hear themselves recorded there’s a psychological term for it: voice confrontation. As reading your work aloud is such an important part of a writer’s job, representing a precious opportunity to promote our work, there’s a lot of pressure to do it well. I was confronted with the shortcomings of my voice some years ago when I was about to embark on a book tour to promote Four Fathers, a collection of eight stories about having and being a father by four male authors. Our publisher hired a voice coach to judge our reading. She had nothing but praise for James Nash’s confident, southern middle-class delivery, and thought that Tom Palmer and John Siddique, from Yorkshire and Lancashire respectively, had ‘warm and natural northern accents’. In contrast she found my voice rather flat and lacking in emotion.

Ironically I was the only one who’d welcomed the idea, eager to learn any techniques that might improve my reading, so I was very touched when the other writers sprang to my defence and suggested she hear me reading a passage from ‘Letting Go’, the story about my daughter. This was the one I usually read, in which another child jumps in front of my daughter in the playground to grab the swing when it was her turn. I imagined how my father, a very emotional and frequently hilarious man with an explosive temper, would have reacted:

[…] there’s a secret part of me that desperately wishes I could act like my father would have done in this situation. His inability to control his ferocious temper, his ignorance of what constituted acceptable social behaviour seems, right now, heroic and liberating. How I would love to explode like him. To subject this boy to the kind of blistering display of anger I remember so vividly from my childhood.

Feck off out of it ya little whelp ya, that’s my daughter’s swing. If you don’t give it to her right now, I’ll give ya a bleddy clout round the gob!
[…] But I am not a poor, downtrodden Irish migrant. I was born here, I know how this society works, I know its codes and assumptions from the inside. I will hate myself if I let go like that and terrify this boy. So, instead, and this feels a very poor second best, I simply stand there and give him a cool look to let him know that I mean business. I even say ‘Thank you’ without too much sarcasm when he reluctantly gets off the swing.

This received a much more positive assessment from the voice coach, but what really stayed with me was her comment, ‘What a difference, that’s where all the passion is.’ What I had wanted from the voice coach was a second opinion on my ‘natural’ voice, so had deliberately avoided choosing a passage that I knew worked well. Her response confirmed my suspicion that my emotions were too often buried under my adopted English middle-class persona and only fully emerged when I adopted the voice of my characters.

I have become much more confident about my voice in the years since, but only after accepting that I don’t have a natural one, but rather a smorgasbord of different voices that I’ve inherited and mimicked. My family are Irish, and I grew up in Wales, where I picked up the rises and dips of the accent which softened and gradually erased the harsher edges of my Irish voice, which in turn faded. However, I only have to go back to Wales or Ireland for a week for a friend to remark on my return, ‘You’ve gone all Welsh/Irish’. I can also do a passable ‘toff’ or cockney accent, and can rarely tell a story about someone without mimicking them, something I inherited from my family, where performing was highly valued.

According to Rébecca Kleinberger, a vocal researcher at MIT, ‘Your voice is also very linked to how you create relationships. You have a different voice for every person you talk to.’ There’s the voice for talking to your mother, your lover, your best friend or your boss, and so on. Kleinberger’s concept of the voice as a mask offered a whole new perspective on how I related to my voice and its role for me as an author: ‘Just like the Ancient Greeks used “personas” to express a character and project louder, our voice is a mask in a way as well… It projects into the world, and it’s also a marker for fluid identity.’ This accords with Jung’s idea of the persona as a front we present to the outside world, according to the demands of the situation, but one that doesn’t represent our true self.

For a writer the idea of the voice as a mask offers a playful and creative way to present your work. Ezra Pound’s persona poems are narrated by fictional characters, allowing him to be sardonic about them, yet he also sometimes seems to agree with the opinions they express, breaking with the lyrical tradition where the poem is seen as being in the voice of the poet. This creates an interesting ambiguity, and the kind of reading that I am drawn to most is when the writer seems to merge with their characters, stepping into and out of their own voice so that the boundaries are blurred, a process that seems magical to me.

Last year I went to see the poet Martina Evans reading Now We Can Talk Openly About Men, a pair of dramatic monologues by two women in 1920s Ireland. Never once glancing at the book she held, Evans became those two different women as she read, switching seamlessly from the garrulous and comical Kitty to the anxious and hesitant Babe. She also read her poems this way, again without ever needing to look at the page. I asked Martina if she was conscious of performing her work in character.

‘Yes definitely and obviously in the dramatic monologues…the voices take a long time to grow, they are probably a mixture of any voices along with my own. But the poems which are about me — as I said, that voice could be another mask and that’s something I will need to think about as I go forward. It’s obviously unconscious and probably something which I have been developing on some level since I was very young. I grew up in a dramatic storytelling family, everyone performed. And that was contagious and exciting. It was a big family so there were a lot of voices. We always craved funny stories, sharp descriptions.’ The same was true for my family, and it makes sense that the need to perform was formed early and took hold so strongly.

I wonder if wearing a mask and performing is more closely aligned in poetry than prose. Over to Martina again: ‘I am not sure if poetry can be separated from performance because the words themselves are the events. You can’t paraphrase a poem. The poem is its own performance, even on the page the words are performing. The poet doesn’t have to be ‘dramatic’ for that to happen. Poetry precedes print, it comes out of a much older oral art, so its roots are bound to be performative.’

I identify with much of what Martina says: from the moment I begin to read my characters’ dialogue they feel like real people, and I enter their world. T. S. Eliot’s working title for The Waste Land was He Do the Police in Different Voices, a reference to Sloppy, a character in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend: ‘“You mightn’t think it, but Sloppy is a beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the Police in different voices.” The visitors again considered it a point of politeness to look at Sloppy, who, looking at them, suddenly threw back his head, extended his mouth to the utmost width, and laughed loud and long.’

Like Sloppy, I love to do the voices. My voice is a collection of masks, formed not only by my Irish background and Welsh upbringing, but by the various friends and people I’ve admired whose way of speaking, favourite expressions and verbal tics I’ve absorbed, and by the adjustments, concealments and mirroring that have marked my journey from the working-class child of poor immigrants to published author and university lecturer. I still get very anxious before a reading, but now, for me, reading aloud has become one of the most fulfilling things about being an author.

Ray French is the co-editor of I Wouldn’t Start from Here: The Second Generation Irish in Britain, and End Notes: Ten Stories About Loss, Mourning and Commemoration. He’s also the author of All This Is Mine, Going Under and The Red Jag & Other Stories.

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