Human Voices

319386Human Voices
by Penelope Fitzgerald
1988 / Kindle (2013)  144 pages
rating 8 / contemp fiction

The setting is WWII (1940)  England in the offices and studios of the BBC where the remaining staff tries to accommodate the new facts and needs of life including making sound recordings for the Archives if not for broadcast.


Penelope Fitzgerald

The character of the Recording Programme Director, Sam Brooks, is called by his position’s acronym, RPD,  while Jeff Haggard is D.P.P. or Director of Programme Planning. Meanwhile Lisa and Vi are known as RPAs (Recording Program Assistants).  The BBC is itself something of a character – with lots of attributes –

The book is quite funny what with the stiff upper lip,  the muddling through,  the masked stodginess as they go about unplugging a French general,  practicing emergency procedures,  etc.  I even laughed out loud every once in awhile.

Yes, there is a plot – when the young Annie Asra, whose childhood is briefly explored,  is hired for keeping track of the recordings. As a result of being the daughter of a piano tuner Annie’s hearing is trained  This was 1940 and  tea-rationing had just started – noted in the book.  🙂

Anne is assigned to one Mr. Waterlow who is aptly named and possibly daft as well. She proves herself nicely capable from the start.


Broadcasting House – London

One theme might be “confidence” how to boost it in the English,  what will deplete it,  which employees have it,  which don’t,  etc.  They also work on being “adequate” and “honest.”  lol

“As an institution that could not tell a lie, they were unique in the contrivances of gods and men since the Oracle of Delphi . As office managers, they were no more than adequate, but now, as autumn approached, with the exiles crowded awkwardly into their new sections, they were broadcasting in the strictest sense of the word, scattering human voices into the darkness of Europe, in the certainty that more than half must be lost, some for the rook, some for the crow, for the sake of a few that made their mark. And everyone who worked there, bitterly complaining about the short-sightedness of their colleagues, the vanity of the news readers, the remoteness of the Controllers and the restrictive nature of the canteen’s one teaspoon, felt a certain pride which they had no way to express, either then or since.”

Fitzgerald worked for the BBC during the Second World War and in 1941 she married Desmond Fitzgerald, an Irish soldier.

I’ve read 5 of her 9 books – I like them in this order:
The Blue Flower
The Bookshop
Human Voices
At Freddie’s


From the Daily Mail archives:
The remarkable moment the BBC were forced to pull plug on World War II birdsong broadcast as bombers flew overhead

Review of Bio by Hermoine Lee:

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