17 Aug 2021 / My Arvon Journey
Perhaps it all begins with the voice.
What I remember most clearly now is Mrs Jenkins reading to us from The Hobbit in her soft Welsh voice. Low and gentle – an excellent thing in a teacher. Twice a week she took the whole class on a journey with her, instalment by instalment. We never skipped ahead to see what would happen next. We stopped fidgeting and lay our heads on our desks – like very small children – and listened to the story. This may have been the point at which I became a true listener. In thrall to the potency of a single voice.
The way that it could summon a whole, imaginary landscape and invite you in.
Long before that, I remember learning to read by myself:
“I am helping daddy to wash the car,” says Peter.
“I am helping mummy to lay the table,” says Jane.
Peter and Jane’s daddy has smooth, black hair. It glistens with Brylcreem. I know exactly how it smells. He wears rough tweed trousers and a moss-coloured sweater with leather patches on the elbows. He smokes his pipe while digging in the garden. He looks just like my own daddy in his weekend clothes.
Peter and Jane’s mummy visits the local shops wearing a twinset and headscarf; a tiny wicker basket over her arm. Her lips are painted scarlet. She looks like a film star. There is not much room in her basket for shopping.
Peter and Jane eat a lot of apples, drink large glasses of milk, and seem quite happy to go to bed. They are surrounded by a network of benign, contented adults – The Milkman, The Postman, The Farmer – beaming constant approval.
How much I want to inhabit that cheerful, sunlit world.
How much I long to be there too.
To be them – my new friends.
Not Peter perhaps, with his neat parting and silly grin – making bonfires with his father. No. I want to be Jane – helping to make the beds and chatting to her smiling, laughing mother.
“Yes,” says mummy, “I will let you help me Jane. You are a good girl.”
Perhaps this is where it really begins. The escape from one world into another. The yearning for something just out of reach, but so real – it almost hurts. Pictures inviting you to come inside. And then the stepping-stones of words. Slowly, sentence by sentence, the bridge is built. The journey begun.
“You’ll ruin your eyesight” – they warned me – “all those books and never enough light to read by…”
They may have been right after all. How frustrating now – this obligatory hunt for mislaid spectacles before I can even open a book, or switch on a laptop to peer at a brightening screen. Technology presents new challenges to the act of reading. Some days the choreography of hand, eye, brain and mouse eludes me. I am clumsy, big-fingered on the keyboard. My neck is stiff. My focus skitters. I lose my place. Everything distracts. There are no soft pages to caress, to smell. I cannot lose my self in the old way. Some days I think – this is growing old! Sometimes it feels like despair.
If words are living things, do they live most vividly on the page, or in the voice and through the ear?
This is a question that interests me more and more.
Radio is fast becoming what books once were to me. That place of self forgetting. A refuge for the tired and ragged mind that cannot cope with yet more zoom. And throughout the extended solitudes of lockdown, its long and fretful nights – I seek out the comfort of radio like the company of old friends. This way the journey is lightened. And what feels unbearable has become bearable again by morning, because it is shared.
BBC audio producer, Eleanor McDowall, describes writing for the ear as “an act of co-creation with the listener. Your words will act in counterpoint with the silence or sounds that surround them. For many people, podcasts and radio will be something they’ll experience alone, often whispered into their ear through headphones as they teeter on the edge of dreams. I’d imagine this single listener as you write – it’s not going to be spoken to a crowd in a lecture hall, or declared from a stage, it’s close and it’s echoing in the private spaces of people’s lives”.
Perhaps it is this, the special intimacy of radio, and its private alchemy, that gives it such potency. That provides such solace.
How paradoxical, then, that radio might also be the best medium for conveying what is missing in our communication as human beings.
For expressing what is absent and unsaid.
For giving voice, in the end, to silence.
You can listen to Mokadi, written and read by Sarah Baylis and produced by Eleanor McDowall on Radio 4’s Short Cuts: Silence here. Broadcast May 18 2021. With special thanks to Jane Feaver and Laura Barton – fine Arvon at Home tutors – for their encouragement and support.
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