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In defence of mumbling: there's a poetry in our quietness | Laura Barton


The BBC's Tony Hall has got it wrong. The world has got too loud, but I sense the whisper of a quiet revolution

Everything seems loud these days. Ringtones, radios, car horns. Bus passengers bellowing into their mobile phones; cinema surround sound, aeroplanes, Muzak. The persistent hum of refrigerators, air conditioners, neon lights. The sudden blaring of the advertising break, and the continuity announcer whose voice whoops and whirls past our ears. All this noise, all this racket, fighting to fill the air. Even the written word seems more thundering now: across Facebook, Twitter, comment threads, blogs, comes the constant tumble of voices.

And yet amid it all, some people have trouble hearing what is being said. In the latest edition of the Radio Times the BBC director general, Tony Hall, fields questions from readers. "Are all your sound engineers 25?" asks one. "Have you got any 55-year-old ones who realise that it can be difficult to hear programmes because of background music?" inquires another.

It isn't just music that is the problem. Hall seizes upon recent accusations that actors and presenters are muttering and mumbling their way through scripts. Last year, Eddie Redmayne in particular was criticised for mumbling in the BBC adaptation of Birdsong, and there were similar complaints about historical drama Parade's End. "I don't want to sound like a grumpy old man, but I think muttering is something we could have a look at," says Hall. "Actors muttering can be testing … you find you have missed a line." Indeed in one review of Birdsong the critic noted how its actors "gave the impression of not so much delivering their lines as quietly burying them".

I have spent my whole life being unheard, misheard, asked to speak louder. I'm not a mumbler or mutterer, but I do speak softly. Often in my company people are moved to remind me of the episode of Seinfeld in which Kramer finds a new girlfriend who speaks so quietly it leads to an elaborate misunderstanding. "She's one of those low-talkers," notes Jerry. "You can't hear a word she's saying! You're always going 'excuse me, what was that?'"

It frustrates me to be told to speak up. My instinctive response is to tell them to listen harder, or to clam up entirely; very rarely I will explain that if I speak louder it not only feels forced and unnatural, but it also hurts my own ears. Mostly I just wish for a quieter world, a world that would see fit to lean in a little closer. I often wonder if one of the reasons I write for a living might be because throughout my life it has been the only way to ensure that people can hear my words.

Reassuringly, for a while now I have felt the stirrings of a quiet revolution. There's been the rise of mumblecore, a film genre known for its naturalistic dialogue. Susan Cain's book Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking, which takes as its mantra Mahatma Gandhi's insistence that: "In a gentle way, you can shake the world." Even the more muted delivery of dramas such as Birdsong has given me hope that we might be grasping the idea that actors are communicating human experience in all its variegated colours and textures and volumes.

Some time ago I read The Right to Speak by the legendary voice coach Patsy Rodenburg. I was struck by a passage on quietness and silence. "Linked with the denial of grief," she wrote, " the 'lump in the throat' is the habit of pushing down the voice. In order to block pain and contain it the voice feels literally clumped in the throat like a mass which we neither swallow nor expel. Expression is obstructed."

I was reminded of Robert Frost's assertion that, "A poem begins with a lump in the throat, a home-sickness or a love-sickness. It is a reaching-out towards expression; an effort to find fulfilment." And it led me to recognise that for all the pushed-down, unswallowed muttering, there can be a poetry in our quietness; all of us mumblers, soft-speakers, low-talkers are after all just reaching out, we are lifting up our voices as high, and as beautifully as we are able. "O, but Everyone/ Was a bird;" wrote Sassoon, "and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done."

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