Some years ago a pack of my sisters (a gaggle? a murder?) went to Ireland and stayed at a B&B run by a cousin. When a customer asked for more tea, my sister A. helpfully offered to fetch it, but when the cusomer tasted it, there was something wrong, and A. confessed, to the horror of the locals, that she had re-used the leaves from the previous pot. When Shelster and I visited the same B&B five years later, they still remembered the incident of the used tea leaves.
I thought of this story when I was reading Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices, a novel based on the author’s experiences working at the BBC in 1940. At one point the government suggests that citizens conserve tea by brewing two pots with the same leaves. Fitzgerald assumes the reader will know what a grim and desperate expedient this was. In fact, one of the real pleasures of the book is its affectionate but untreacly recreation of period detail: just on the subject of tea (two ounces per week), there is the communal spoon at the BBC cafeteria that patrons were expected to stir their tea with, kept on a leash like a bank pen, and the scene where a young woman, paying a visit to a colleague, brings along part of her tea ration to contribute to the obligatory pot.
The events that form the background of Human Voices will be more or less familiar even to those who haven’t just been reading Churchill’s memoirs, as the book takes us from the end of the Phony War (or Sitzkrieg) through the fall of France (there is a fight in a London park between Frenchmen who have signed up to fight on with De Gaulle and those who just want to go home), the Battle of Britain (every account mentions the amazingly sunny weather–only in England is sunshine in July considered bizarre) and finally the Blitz. It is hard not to admire the homey courage of the English in 1940, exemplified by the fairness of the rationing; in one scene the four young interns of the Recorded Programs find themselves with three oranges, the miraculous gift of a semi-mythical American correspondent, and, and they carefully work out how to cut them up so that everyone will get an equal share.
The risk here is sepia-toned sentimentality, but Fitzgerald, who always seems to have one eyebrow raised, is far too detached to let her writing degenerate into Masterpiece Theatre. It’s worth noting that she includes no 20-something university women from intellectual families (as she herself was)–the female characters are mostly working-class, and either fresh out of high-school or middle-aged. The main male characters (especially RDP, the Recorded Programs Director) are lovable in the way of nerds who have largely lost track of the real world and any life they might have in it. As is fitting in a comedy of manners, their creator feels a tenderness for both groups even when she is telling us how selfish and deluded they can be.
But I do go on, and rather than talk about her style, I will give an example. The BBC had to prepare emergency sleeping quarters, since commuting became very chancey in the Blitz, and to that end converted their old concert hall into a rough-and-ready dorm:
It was not much use trying to get to sleep. Total blackout was Security’s rule, and since the tickets didn’t bear numbers, and and couldn’t have been read if they had, newcomers clambered and felt about in search of an empty corner, swarming across the others like late returners to a graveyard before cockcrow. Time, indeed, was the great concern. 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 concedrt-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 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.
My favorite bit is the graveyard, which comes out of nowhere, reorients the whole scene, and is gone in a few words. Nicely done, as is the whole stately snarky paragraph.
The title is apposite enough for a novel about the BBC to stand on its own, but I’m pretty sure it’s a reference to the last lines of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and one does also think of RDP’s habit of crying on the shoulders of the female interns
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown: