Human Voices, by Penelope Fitzgerald

Fierce is the wind tonight,
It ploughs up the white hair of the sea
I have no fear that the Viking hosts
Will come over the water to me.
–“The Viking Terror,” Irish anon. 9th cent.

This is a fictionalized memoir of the author’s experience as one of many female RP Junior Assistants at the BBC Broadcasting House, Department of Recorded Programmes, during 1940. The office has an unmenacing but comic bureaucratic feel to it, like 1984 or A Clockwork Orange in watercolours. Names and offices assume acronyms and are lost in the ABCs–BH for Broadcasting House, RPD for Recorded Programmes Director, DPP for Director of Programme Planning, ADDG for Acting Deputy Director General, and so on.

The building is compared to an ocean liner early on, then called the “Seraglio” because of the number of young women employed there, and eventually becomes an island of safety during the Blitz. Workers hardly left for weeks at a time, bunking in the concert hall (which gave rise to a headline in the Daily Mirror, “THIS IS THE NINE O’CLOCK SNOOZE”):

The sleepers were obscurely tormented by the need to be somewhere in five, ten, or twenty minutes. Awakened, quite often, by feet walking over them, they struck matches whose tiny flames wavered in every corner of the concert-hall, and had a look at their watches, just to be sure. Yet some slept on, and the walls, designed to give the best possible acoustics for classical music, worked just as well for snoring. Accommodation, who had provided so much, had never thought of this. No barracks or dormitory in the country produced snoring of such broad tone, and above that distinctly rose the variations of the overwrought, the junior announcers rehearsing their cues, correcting themselves and starting again, continuity men suddenly shouting: ‘… and now, in a lighter mood …’, and every now and then a fit of mysterious weeping.

Affairs are begun and broken off amidst the dust and splinters. One of the young women has a boyfriend in the French forces who is evacuated to London. Soldiers stand about waiting for their next assignment after Dunkirk. A French general (not de Gaulle) attempts to broadcast his own wakeup call to the western forces but is stymied by a BBC executive who figures him out and cuts the mic. Life during blackout required counting your steps during the daytime to be able to get about at night. The novel avoids sentiment without being clinical.


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