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Mick Jagger, 1976 (Graham Wood/Getty)

A mirror to the soul: ‘our voices are gaping wounds’

Essay | 15 minute read
Voices are vessels of character that transform over a lifetime, and come back at us from the dead. The first in a series on 'Sound and Silence', Nick Coleman reflects on the meanings behind the voices of John Lennon, Mick Jagger - and his late father

I have been hearing my father’s voice again lately, both in dreams and while awake. I can hear it now. This is in spite of the fact that he died 15 years ago.

He was eaten up by cancer, as so many are. By the end, his face and body were destroyed, his cognitive powers ruined, and it came as something of a relief to everyone in the family when he finally departed quietly in the dead of night, with barely a whisper of sound. His suffering had been considerable and for too long.

I was the last in the family to see him alive (although you may take ‘alive’ in this instance to be a technical description only). I rushed into his room at the hospital in the small hours of the morning, a little ahead of my mother who had stopped to talk to the nurse on duty, and arrived there in the stifling near-dark just in time to hear a long exhalation. It had an element of whistle to it and another element of sigh. And then he was silent. It was the last sound he made and it was not his voice. We do not use our voices when we sigh, only our breath. I had not heard his voice in weeks.

But for some reason, fifteen years on from that sorrowful night, I keep finding his voice in my head again. I hear it at odd moments and in unexpected contexts, as if he has just stuck his head round the door for a quick word: ‘Hello. Just a thought …’ He had a word this very morning in Sainsbury’s, in fact. I am always pleased to hear what he has to say.

Except that I don’t hear what he has to say. I only infer it. What I hear is his voice speaking but I don’t actually register what the words are. I get only the sound of his voice. This morning, I didn’t hear him say the words ‘Don’t forget the muesli’ in Sainsbury’s, but somehow I got the gist and went directly to the cereals aisle. It’s as if the meaning of what he has to say resides in the sound his voice makes rather than in the language he is using.

Am I disturbed by this? No, not at all. I certainly don’t feel uncomfortable, or as if I am being haunted. I know he isn’t really there in my head; it’s just my unconscious mind, calling him into a sort of being. He’s not an earworm. He is patently not Hamlet’s dad, returned to the battlements with a life-changing message to deliver. He is always welcome, and as casually as he likes. But I do wonder what brought him back after all this time. Is this some kind of renewal of grief, a decade and a half on? A psychic reflux or flashback? Or is something else going on here, some psychological parlour game I don’t yet know how to play? Is his renewed presence in my head pointing to unfinished business, perhaps? Come on. Am I missing something obvious here?

It’s an odd one. All I can usefully add by way of context is that my dad’s vocal apparitions started last month, following the death of Sir Peter Hall, the theatre director, at just the age my father would have been this year too, had he lived. I watched the BBC’s quick-turnaround television tribute to Hall, broadcast a couple of days after his death, and I was filled with a sense of grinding melancholy. It was as if an old door had been opened onto a forgotten ache.

Sir Peter Hall, 2000

I had always been something of a Hall admirer. I grew up thinking of him as a great eminence. For all his slightly superior (although never mandarin) air, he stood for weighty and worthwhile things in the post-war cultural settlement, most obviously for his role in the creation of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the establishment of the National Theatre on the South Bank but also for the artistic detail of his work with actors and theatrical texts and ‘how Shakespeare/Aeschylus/Pinter should be spoken’; not forgetting his vivid contribution to the great debate in this country during the 1960s and ’70s about the state subsidy of art. Without his influence our world might have felt perceptibly different over the past fifty years or so, even if you were unlucky enough never to have seen Richardson and Gielgud in No Man’s Land. His like probably won’t be seen – or heard – again.

Yet there he was again last month on television, animate on film throughout the twenty years of my childhood and youth: bearded and pudgy, magisterial and reasoning, talking away about important things with a kind of simmering but restrained authority that seemed to have endless scope to it, as well as a slightly strained quality of Job-like patience. It was impossible not to listen closely to what he had to say. He took his time and he talked quietly, as if he wanted you to know that he might well be concealing a big stick somewhere. His voice seemed like the most important part of him.

It was an ‘accentless’ voice, which really means that he spoke with a middle-class BBC accent. He did not drawl. He didn’t sound posh or regional or actorly. He was “neutral”. He spoke evenly in complete sentences, rolling them out like carpets. His voice was very like my dad’s. In fact, give or take the odd modish glottal stop, it was incredibly like my dad’s – in tone, trajectory, timbre and hush, as well as in its honed-down, facetless accent. It was the sound made by a certain kind of man whose life had taken him on a particular kind of journey.

This vocal equivalence was no coincidence, I think. They were born within a year of one another, Sir Peter and my dad, into similar strata of the inter-war English class system, Hall the son of a railwayman in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, my dad the offspring in Woolwich, South East London, of a recruiting sergeant for the Royal Artillery and a butcher’s daughter. Both men had been clever boys and found themselves attending grammar school and then, simultaneously, Cambridge. I am not aware that they ever met there but they may have done. Their colleges were separated by 300 yards of pavement on King’s Parade.

Thereafter their paths diverged, Hall going on to become the pre-eminent theatrical potentate of his generation, equipped with sufficient brains, self-confidence and charisma to spar with governments and Larry Olivier, for which service he was knighted; my pa working quietly for Cambridge University Press, eventually becoming Publishing Director of bibles and religious books (for which he was dignified with a Lambeth Degree). They were men of their time. And because they were clever, they were both beneficiaries of the particularly dramatic form of social mobility that distinguished the middle decades of the British 20th century. Their voices evolved as they did socially.

Obviously, I have no access to the notes my father’s voice struck when he was an artilleryman’s son growing up in south-east London in the 1930s. Of course I don’t. I can only begin to imagine how his voice must have been. The voice I do know – the one that I am hearing now in my head – is not a little boy’s voice. There’s no gunnery in it. It is the voice of an educated but not posh man of parts and hinterland: soft but not without a certain middling weight, sandy in texture, occasionally hesitant, as if always negotiating internally for just the right word or turn of phrase, but consistently measured and thoughtful in delivery with a wisp of wondering to it, as if airborne filaments of dreaminess are constantly snaring themselves on the harder wires of his intellectual processes. My father’s voice is what I remember of him in the most detail.

‘That is, I believe, a guppy.’

I used to hear it coming over my shoulder when we rock-pooled together, bent over like wading birds on our skinny legs on Broad Ledge in Lyme Bay when I was five and six. I felt close to him then and as if we shared something.

We used to sing together too, for our sins. His singing voice was not half as attractive as his speaking voice – and I am afflicted with the same defect. We did not make a pretty noise. Once my presentable boy treble had been not so much broken as pulverised by puberty, I was left with an ugly husk of a voice, with no range whatsoever and precious little fluency, serrated with an edgy, throaty texture that often failed to hold its intonation and sometimes even its tuning – very much like my dad’s. We were English baritones but we might just as well have been the exhaust system on a bin lorry for all the loveliness we brought to the senses of the world. Yet – and it’s a big yet, as far as I am concerned – when we sang in harmony, all our ugliness was mitigated by that strange quirk of genetics that makes familial voices resonate well together. It’s a kind of magic. We were very far from the Everly Brothers, but we certainly added up to Coleman & Son, and that was good enough for the fourteen-year-old me. To my ears we sounded OK when we sang together, and I used to feel connected to him on those occasions too.

Voices are not things, obviously. They have no material substance. They cannot be fixed with tools or have their parts replaced when they become defective. Voices are nothing more than a vibration, an idiosyncratic ethereal vibration engendered in biology. Voices have no heft. But they have a kind of object value because of how we project on to them – even as they, the voices, first project themselves onto us, their listeners.

I grew up attaching meaning to voices, whether I understood the meaning of the words uttered by those voices or not. And whenever meaning was elusive, as it often was, I always ascribed emotion – just as voices evoked emotion in me. I presume that everyone does this, to a greater or lesser extent. I certainly have a very clear early memory of thinking that John Lennon’s voice carried more baggage than Paul McCartney’s, even if I had no concept of what that baggage might be or even what it meant to “carry baggage”. I had no idea of who these people were, these Beatles, not as people, but I could tell from the vivid differences expressed in their singing that they were qualitatively different from one another with quantifiably different experiences of life. I would register that feeling inchoately even as a six year-old who knew nothing of life. I can remember thinking that the voice which snarked its way through ‘Ask Me Why’ and ‘Money’ on my Beatles EP (bought for me by my parents in 1964) compared awkwardly with the sweetly ingratiating voice singing ‘PS I Love You’ and ‘All My Loving’ on the same four-track 45, and that this was somehow terribly significant, even if I didn’t know what the significance was. McCartney’s voice was nicer, more musical, more wholesome, more loving. Lennon’s had more content.

John Lennon, circa 1960

Similarly, I was terrified as a small boy by the implications of Mick Jagger’s watering-can bawl. But excited too. I would later come to the conclusion, after many years’ devotion to the idle art of listening to rock music, that Jagger’s voice was an actor’s voice, and though it was not pretty, it was certainly adaptable to whatever role was required by any given song – and was therefore garishly expressive of the ideas ingrained in that song; whereas Lennon’s was an authentic agent of self-revelation, each and every one of his songs presenting a new opportunity to inhabit and explore the emotions implicit in the very act of singing that song – one an act of expression through self-concealment, the other an act of expression through self-exhibition; both entailing acts by the singer of unwavering commitment to the moment.

Our voices are gaping wounds, every bit as much as they are vessels of character and registers of information. Even as we try, as we sometimes must, to conceal ourselves in our voices, we reveal something: of our feelings, of our identity, of our delusions, of our past as well as of the person that we wish to be taken for in the present.

We never listen as closely as when we listen to others speaking or singing. Then, if we’re minded to, we listen as if our very lives depend upon our listening – as often they do. We listen not only for information but also for emotion, for ambivalence and ambiguity and subtext as well as for surface message. We listen for connection, for affirmation, for closeness, for glimpses of the truth and of what is not true. Listening to voices is something the vast majority of us do well without actually thinking about how well we’re doing it.

And sometimes, when we listen closely to the voices of others and are held by them – both for what they have to say and the manner in which it is said – we then internalise those voices and integrate them into our own inner landscape and its abundant provisions for the self, as if the voices of others really are an essential part of whom we believe ourselves to be. I have never believed myself to be the container of much McCartney, but I have more than once felt the gargling presence of Jagger slopping in my tanks as I go too fast around a corner.

Before he died, in the weeks and months of his fading, my father spoke less and less. He had never been a garrulous man or shown much interrogative interest in the inner life of his first-born, but he had always been thoughtful about the world, and principled and gentle in what he had to say about it. Towards the end he had precious little to say.

When he did speak, he spoke increasingly in a voice I’d never heard before. It was light, this voice, and hesitant and it seemed to carry a burden of abstract enquiry, as if it had much to learn and was worried about whether it had the capacity for all the learning that was necessary. I would sometimes look up from my lunch at his bedside in the expectation that I’d see an anxious boy there, tucked up, unsure of what has happened to him and struggling with the prospect of what is yet to come. Sometimes he would be smiling faintly, sometimes not.

And his accent changed too. More and more I’d hear the flattened vowels and the attenuations and the twists and stops of what I presumed to be the south-east London of his boyhood. I’d hear the presence of letters in words that I’d never heard before: ‘talk’ would acquire a hint of W and come out as ‘tawk’. I began to hear the voice of my father as I’d never heard it before and had always longed to hear it. And there was a gratification in that.

Though sadly I did not hear it that way in Sainsbury’s this morning.

Nick Coleman’s new book, Voices: How A Great Singer Can Change Your Life, is published in January 2018 (Jonathan Cape)