Hearing Voices

Just read a new memoir by Studs Terkel.
If you haven’t heard of Studs, you should check him out.
Studs is now 95 and has therefore, obviously, been around.
He’s done a lot in that time, radio presenter, writer, oral historian.
For years he took out his tape recorder and interviewed people, “ordinary people”, about the experiences of the Great Depression, racism, the Second World War.
His memoir, Touch and Go, takes its title from Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas, or more precisely the Rev Eli Jenkins’ prayer. “For whether we last the night or no/I’m sure it’s always touch and go”.
With nine decades under his hat, Studs would be forgiven for having little more than lasting the night or no on his mind.
But he’s not that sort of guy.
After listening, really listening, to people for God knows how many years, he now has a few observations of his own.
One should strike a cord in offices up and down the country. It’s a lament for “human noise”.
Studs cites the newspaper office as an example. Once, he points out, the city desk of any paper was a place of voices, people hollering back and for, running this way and that.
Today, it isn’t so. And many journalists would agree.
“The young journalists are seated side by side, staring into their terminals,” he writes. “They are a foot away from each other, yet miles apart.”
I suppose they are emailing each other, one reason why human noise has become quieter.
Studs tells a story to illustrate something else that’s taken over.
He’s at an airport where they have just installed trains to the terminal. The train is packed. A robotic voice comes over the PA system to say where they are: “Concourse One”, etc.
Just as the doors are closing a couple rush in and pull them aside. They collapse with their bags.
The robot voice booms: “Because of late entry, we are delayed thirty seconds”.
Everyone in the carriage glares at the late-comers.
Studs smiles, he’s had a drink, and he cups his hand over his mouth. “George Orwell, your time has come and gone!” he booms back.
There is silence. The crowd now takes Studs into its stare. He realises there are suddenly, in his words, “three of us before the firing squad”.
The human voice is cowered, but not Studs.
There is a little baby sat in the lap of a Mexican woman. Studs bends down. “Sir or Madam,” he says addressing the babe in arms, “what is your opinion of the human species?”
There’s a pause. And then the baby giggles.
“Thank God,” says Studs. “A giggle. The sound of a human voice. There’s my hope.”
:: Big Issue Cymru, February 11-18, 2008

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