Years ago, long before mobile phones with digital voice recorders, I used to carry a dictaphone around with me, the kind that uses mini-cassettes. My awareness of the world is probably about 95% visual – looking and seeing is how I learn and think and understand – but when it comes to listening, I’ve always known that that voices are something special.
I’m fascinated by accents and dialects. Hearing English spoken in all its global and regional variations it never ceases to amaze me how different it can sound, and I love listening to languages of all kinds. I’ve been known to follow people in the street just to carry on listening to the strange and wonderful sound of their unintelligible conversation, and whenever I hear something unfamiliar I can’t resist trying it out, getting my mouth to form deliciously unexpected vowel sounds. (Consonants defeat me; the subtleties of Urdu seem to be beyond the capabilities of my tongue and hard palate, but given a chance I can make a convicing imitation of the vowel sounds of Ireland, Australia, South Africa and various parts of the United States and I speak Spanish with an accent that is unfortunately far too plausible so that people think I’m fluent when sadly I’m absolutely not. I can’t seem to help it – I’m like a parrot, compelled to imitate strange sounds as accurately as I can for the sheer fun of it.)
When I was learning Spanish twenty years ago I used to record myself reading from the newspaper or from children’s books, and listen critically to hear where I was going wrong. I still have these tapes and they are a vivid reminder of what I was doing at the time, but here and there amongst the stories and articles are other recordings that I made on the spur of the moment for different reasons entirely, and some of these have captured a moment in time with such clarity it feels like magic.
Going through these tapes the other day I found a fragment of conversation that took place in the house of an old friend who has since died. I don’t know what prompted me to start recording; we are all laughing so much that at times it’s hard to work out what’s going on but the voices are so clear, so real, that I’m suddenly and completely transported in time. Nobody knew I was recording, so everyone is talking naturally and hearing his voice with all his idiosyncrasies of expression, his accent (american, and his spanish uniquely awful even after half a lifetime in Spain), his interjection as he suddenly thinks of the word we’re all looking for and above all, his laughter – I’m instantly there again, in that moment, filled with the same sense of fun and happiness that we all shared that lunchtime in his kitchen.
Memories of friends who have died are always poignant but this feels like something more than memory, and it’s something that I will always treasure. What is it about a voice that can have this power? Does sound, like smell, reach deeper into memory and touch emotion the way no image can? Probably. No photograph could do this. Much as I’d like to think that some of the pictures I take might one day remind me of who I was with and exactly how it all felt, I know this isn’t true.
I need to do more listening.