Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Talking Posh at the Reunion

This wonderful musing on the recorded voice of Anita Brookner was posted by A Super Dilettante.

"I was dazzled by her at the Courtauld", Neil McGregor, Director of British Museum. PHOTO: Anita Brookner [Art Historian/Novelist] Image Credit: Corbis

I must admit that the best highlight of my weekend was hearing Anita Brookner's voice for the first time on the wireless. I know there are a few people who read this blog know that I adore Anita Brookner's novels. And also we know that she rarely gives interviews so one shouldn't be surprised that one's never heard of Anita's voice.

It was an unexpected pleasure to listen to the BBC Radio 4 programme, The Reunion (the radio programme which reunites a group of people intimately involved in a moment of modern history).

In this edition, the radio presenter, Sue MacGregor reunites five past pupils of London's Courtauld Institute of Art, which pioneered the teaching of art history, has produced countless stars of the art and museum world. Click here to listen to the programme.

Anita Brookner taught Art History at the Courtauld for many years. One of her students (the artist, John McLean) later wrote about Anita as follows, "She gave very elegant lectures. I had never seen anyone so metropolitan and poised".

Dr Sarah Symmons, a former student, who is now a lecturer at the Department of Art History and Theory at the University of Essex, remembers, "'She had a small office at the top of the building and we went in and there was a lovely smell of scent – she always wore a very nice scent. She had the window open and she was spreading seed for the pigeons on the windowsill; she said that she wanted to stop them cooing while she gave the seminar. This was so disarming and pleasant, so different from what all the other staff at the Courtauld were like... [She] was an elegant, stylish figure, always beautifully dressed. In tutorials she would produce a pack of cigarettes. They were non-tipped ones, quite low-grade – I was very impressed'.

I love the bit about the Courtauld in the programme, it was described as a place where smart young ladies used to go to read art history in between their flower arranging course and then, in the afternoon, they would have tea and home made scones provided by the Courtauld tea lady, Mrs Winkle. It sounded all very civilised and a vanished world to me.

The voice of Anita Brookner - it is unmistakably "plummy" (in a very Oxbridge educated voice from a bygone era). It reminded me of elegant ladies who go to lunchtime concerts at Wigmore Hall wearing their best fur coats and floating the luxuriant scent of Vol de Nuit perfume as they enter into the room. The writer, Julian Barnes summed up the way Anita Brookner speaks perfectly when he said, 'One of the most remarkable things about her is that her conversation has perfect punctuation, so that you hear every colon and semi-colon; and this makes you aware that your own grammar in spoken English is very sloppy. It's not a deliberate trick to make you feel uneasy; it's simply how she is.'

Her voice is distinctive and gloriously deep (though not as deep as for instance, the voice of the journalist, Katharine Whitehorn. In those days, the ladies were taught to speak in a deeper voice. Reference book on how to speak eloquently: The Magic Key to Charm by Eileen Ascroft, introduction by Joanna Lumley] but it's incredibly charming upper class drawl. It is not affected in the way the Sloane Rangers speak. She speaks charmingly with open vowels very clearly. I think Anita's voice is a kind of voice that became enriched by years of living in France drinking the most elegant French wine and talking about Delacroix, Goya, Manet and Courbet.

There were other beautiful art historian voices in the programme too. I found the director of British Museum, Neil McGregor's radio voice is incredibly appealing, mellow and addictive to listen to in contrast with a high-mannerist, theatrical, canary squeak of the art critic, Brian Sewell. The radio presenter, John Humphrys once remarked, "Brian Sewell, the only man I have ever met who makes the Queen sound common." His voice reminded me of one of my old art history professors at the university who talked just like him. During his first lecture, he said in his cut glass accent, "First slide, please" to one of my classmates. He sounded so posh that I couldn't stop laughing and I almost fell off from my chair. On the other hand, the voice of the founder of the Art Newspaper, Anna Somers Cocks is utterly cultivated. It has got the eloquent and clipped tone - it's such a clear diction and every word is very pronounced and very well spoken.

Near the end of the programme, Sue MacGregor asked Anita Brookner what the Courtauld Institute of Art gave her as a lecturer. She replied without a hesitation, "A whole life". I thought it was such a profound statement. It reveals that she had so much pride in what she did. It gave her life meaning and a sense of purpose. She even went on to claim that her success as a writer was less interesting than her life at the Courtauld. After listening to this programme, I thought how all these voices and their precise diction echoed the airwaves. They were so interesting, so sophisticated and so individual. Compared to their voices, how bland it is to listen to some of our politicians' voices. The guests in The Reunion programme have unapologetically highbrow, serious, educated, RP (Received Pronunciation) voices which we rarely heard these days. Such voices are not heard very often - not even on the BBC radio and the news programme on television. The presenters have toned down their voices. We have dropped our "t" in the same manner as we drop our trousers down below our waists. The days of Alan Keith (the late presenter of BC Radio 2's programme, Your Hundred Best Tunes) were long gone. In fact, a good standard spoken English is becoming a rarity in places like London and Manchester.

Jonathan Cecil was right when he once wrote, "Good speech is a matter of clarity and the unselfconscious enjoyment of the spoken language".

A singular woman, Mick Brown interview with the novelist Anita Brookner. The Telegraph newspaper, 19 Feb 2009


  1. What a pleasure it was to read the above article on Anita Brookner. I too am a big fan of hers and this was from a different angle to the usual reporting about her.
    Thank you very much.
    Best wishes,
    Steph Lonsdale

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