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Human Voices
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Group reads > Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald (September 2018)

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message 1: by Susan (last edited Jul 16, 2018 08:37AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Susan | 10602 comments Mod
Our September read is Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald published in 1980.

From the Booker Prize-winning author of ‘Offshore’, ‘The Blue Flower’ and ‘Innocence’, this is a funny, touching, authentic story of life at Broadcasting House during the Blitz.

The human voices of Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel are those of the BBC in the first years of the World War II, the time when the Concert Hall was turned into a dormitory for both sexes, the whole building became a target for enemy bombers, and in the BBC – as elsewhere – some had to fail and some had to die.

It does not pretend to be an accurate history of Broadcasting House in those years, but ‘one is left with the sensation’, as William Boyd said, reviewing it in the ‘London Magazine’, ‘that this is what it was really like.’

This novel goes really well with our September Mod-Led Read:
Auntie's War: The BBC during the Second World War Auntie's War The BBC during the Second World War by Edward Stourton


Susan | 10602 comments Mod
This is a fairly short novel and I hope that some of you have been able to find it fairly easily. It really does make a great companion read to Auntie's War, if anyone manages to read both.


Hugh (bodachliath) | 751 comments I really enjoyed this book. Fitzgerald was a master at creating comedy from her own personal experiences.


Susan | 10602 comments Mod
Great to hear, Hugh. Glad you enjoyed it.

Here is an interesting review of the book: https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytim...


message 5: by Jan C (new) - added it

Jan C (woeisme) | 1289 comments It has been available lately on Kindle for $1.99 in the US.


Elizabeth (Alaska) I usually get British humor, but I found nothing funny in this one. It also seemed to lack either characterization or plot.


Susan | 10602 comments Mod
That's a shame, Elizabeth. I read it immediately after Auntie's War, so I was enjoying guessing who was meant to be who. I also liked the dry absurdity of Fitzgerald's writing, although I didn't think of this as being a humorous novel, as such.

I haven't read many books by Fitzgerald, although I have enjoyed the ones that I have read.


Susan | 10602 comments Mod
I meant to say, without giving spoilers, that some of this book reminded me of the wonderful Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes.


Hugh (bodachliath) | 751 comments I have read all of Fitzgerald's novels and a book of short stories and this was one of my favourites.


message 10: by Judy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4673 comments Mod
Interesting to see that there are different opinions on this. I haven't started it yet, but have downloaded it from Scribd and am looking forward to it - certainly sounds as if it will be a good combination with Auntie's War.

You have whetted my appetite with that Mollie Panter-Downes comparison, Susan.


message 11: by Susan (last edited Sep 01, 2018 12:23AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Susan | 10602 comments Mod
I would certainly like to read more by her and I did really enjoy this. I am keen to read The Knox Brothers The Knox Brothers by Penelope Fitzgerald about her uncles, one of whom was Dilly Knox, who worked at Bletchley.


Pamela (bibliohound) | 533 comments I enjoyed this at the start, but then it took a path which didn't interest me, the characters I liked drifted away, and I ended up thinking it was just OK. The best bits for me were the more descriptive elements that captured the BBC at the time.


message 13: by Val (new) - rated it 3 stars

Val | 1709 comments I enjoyed this one, but tend to agree with Pamela that the descriptions of the BBC were the best part, the story was quite slight.


Susan | 10602 comments Mod
It was almost like a series of different scenes, rather than a traditional plot, I agree.


Elizabeth (Alaska) As an American, I didn't even see that there was much about the BBC. But maybe I was just irritated about her using so many acronyms that I could never remember what they stood for.

I said I didn't find much humor, but I looked just now at my highlights and find two.

‘How do you know he’ll turn up at all?’ asked Teddy. Lise replied that she was psychic, with the result that she had a certain sensation in the points of her breasts when Frédé was near at hand.

I’m not sure I’ve made myself absolutely clear about my wife. Leaving London was her idea, not mine. I don’t want you to think she’s in any way out of the picture, just because she’s never here. She sent me a photograph of the tractor,

I'm pretty sure this last got a loud hoot out of me.


Susan | 10602 comments Mod
There were a lot of acronyms, Elizabeth. Presumably people used these, rather than titles, which I thought was the point - that sense of self-importance and fussiness that the BBC is so well-known for :)
I couldn't always remember what they stood for either though, I will admit!

The non-fiction title, "Auntie's War," also had a lot about the French, which mirrored this novel.


message 17: by Hugh (new) - rated it 4 stars

Hugh (bodachliath) | 751 comments I think the acronyms were a way of alienating the uninitiated, and they are meant to be a little confusing. Fitzgerald worked in the BBC so she knew what it was like...


Pamela (bibliohound) | 533 comments That sense of the self-important, closed community was one of the aspects I thought was done well - the acronyms, talking in programme running orders, the hierarchy and the two secretaries who schemed away to preserve things as they 'should' be.


Elizabeth (Alaska) Susan wrote: "that sense of self-importance and fussiness that the BBC is so well-known for :)"

I didn't know that. ;-)

I think this is really for a British audience, and perhaps doesn't travel well.


message 20: by Val (new) - rated it 3 stars

Val | 1709 comments Several institutions went in for precise job titles, which could get long-winded and were then shortened to acronyms. The BBC is probably small enough that it was unnecessary, but the Civil Service, local government, nationalised utilities and so on all went in for it, those bits of them which survived privatisation may still do.


Susan | 10602 comments Mod
Elizabeth (Alaska) wrote: "Susan wrote: "that sense of self-importance and fussiness that the BBC is so well-known for :)"

I didn't know that. ;-)

I think this is really for a British audience, and perhaps doesn't travel w..."


Elizabeth, do you think the US has an equivalent of the BBC? Is there something similar to the BBC anywhere else? I assume most countries have official television networks/stations?

What do we think makes the BBC different - if, indeed, it is?


message 22: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb | 10351 comments Mod
Susan wrote: "What do we think makes the BBC different - if, indeed, it is? "

I think it's linked to the history of the corporation - and specifically the World Service during WW2 - and its reputation as a reliable news service in other countries.


Susan | 10602 comments Mod
Certainly, in "Auntie's War," correspondents said the fact they worked for the BBC gave them a lot of access to high ranking officials after the war.


message 24: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb | 10351 comments Mod
I can well imagine. They were the number one name for many decades. Not sure their reputation is quite so untarnished anymore, or indeed their reputation for impartiality.


Elizabeth (Alaska) Susan wrote: "Elizabeth, do you think the US has an equivalent of the BBC?" ... I assume most countries have official television networks/stations?

No, we don't. An "official" TV/network/stations would be prohibited by our constitution. No state sponsored news here. Our Public Broadcasting System is actually a private non profit corporation. It does get some federal/state funding, but the governments are not allowed to influence news programming content.


message 27: by Hugh (new) - rated it 4 stars

Hugh (bodachliath) | 751 comments I don't think the British government controls BBC programming content directly, though key BBC positions are government appointed and there is a degree of indirect influence, not least the threat to reduce or cut funding.


message 28: by Elizabeth (Alaska) (last edited Sep 03, 2018 07:32AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Elizabeth (Alaska) There will always be a threat to reduce/cut funding of PBS. Some believe tax dollars should go to fund government and not be parceled out to private corporations. No government (federal or state) appoints nor has any control over personnel at PBS or any other private corporation. All of our news organizations report what the governments do, of course, either verbatim or with bias.


Susan | 10602 comments Mod
No, the government doesn't control content, does it, but it has some involvement with funding, etc. It does mean that a lot of services are provided which might not make a profit and, of course, it is not reliant on advertising.

This includes things like educational programmes, and services, for children, making programmes accessible - such as subtitles or audio descriptions - or local television news.


Elizabeth (Alaska) I think all programming here has what we call closed-captioned - transcripts for the deaf. PBS was once called educational TV, but the majority of its funding comes from private corporations and donations from individuals and foundations.


Susan | 10602 comments Mod
Yes, most do here now. The first programme in the UK that was sub-titled though was "Blue Peter," a children's TV show. That was in 1974. So, the BBC was always in the vanguard of such public service advancements here.


Elizabeth (Alaska) The book is about radio. I must admit I don't remember radio because we got our TV Christmas of 1949, just after I turned 4. But my sister and brother talked about old radio shows for years.

FDR started his "Fireside Chats" soon after his inauguration in 1933, and continued them somewhat regularly into the war. This was the first time a president had spoken informally to the people. (I don't know if other president's speeches had been broadcast.) Not having heard them, I still hazard a guess that those during the war would have been much listened to, in somewhat the way the BBC was much listened to at the same time.

It may be worth noting that a question on our 1930 census was if the household had a radio. I'd have to go look to see what the percentage was, but I remember looking at the forms when doing family history research and I would guess about half.


message 33: by Val (new) - rated it 3 stars

Val | 1709 comments Until last year the Director General was appointed by the Board of Governors of the BBC. Now it is the BBC Board, which is a mixture of government appointees (including the Chairman) and BBC ones.
https://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/lat...


message 34: by Judy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4673 comments Mod
BBC news is certainly supposed to be independent of government, although as you say it does have some government appointees.

Another difference from the US is that in the UK all TV news broadcasts on all stations are required by law to be politically impartial - so we can't have any Fox News type coverage here. Of course, the same does not apply to newspapers!


message 35: by Elizabeth (Alaska) (last edited Sep 03, 2018 10:58AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Elizabeth (Alaska) Judy wrote: "so we can't have any Fox News type coverage here. Of course, the same does not apply to newspapers! "

Or NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS, CNN, MSNBC? (all very slanted toward the left)


message 36: by Judy (last edited Sep 03, 2018 11:03AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4673 comments Mod
We can't have any news broadcasters slanted in either direction. But I wasn't trying to get into discussing present-day politics.


message 37: by Elizabeth (Alaska) (last edited Sep 03, 2018 11:07AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Elizabeth (Alaska) Judy wrote: "We can't have any news broadcasters slanted in either direction."

Who gets to say what is slanted? (And I just took exception to your thinking only Fox is biased. All news organizations here have their bias. All of them, and we call that freedom of speech.)


message 38: by Hugh (new) - rated it 4 stars

Hugh (bodachliath) | 751 comments ... of course political impartiality, though a fine and worthy ideal, can in itself lead to controversies. In the BBC's case this tends to involve covering both sides of an argument where 90% of informed opinion is on one side of the argument.


message 39: by Elizabeth (Alaska) (last edited Sep 03, 2018 11:09AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Elizabeth (Alaska) By the way, I believe it is impossible to not have biased reporting. Reporters choose what to report about. That choice is inherently biased. Not reporting on something is biased, which words are chosen to report on something is biased, the placement of a story within the broadcast is a bias.


message 40: by Val (new) - rated it 3 stars

Val | 1709 comments The political mid-point in the UK (and much of mainland Europe) is a little to the left of that in the US, which is why Fox News tends to spring to mind as the broadcasting company with obvious bias. Fox and CNN are also the two US ones with greatest availability here, and CNN is closer to that mid-point.


Elizabeth (Alaska) Val wrote: "The political mid-point in the UK (and much of mainland Europe) is a little to the left of that in the US, which is why Fox News tends to spring to mind as the broadcasting company with obvious bia..."

Both are extremely biased, and I emphasize extreme.


message 42: by Val (last edited Sep 03, 2018 11:48AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Val | 1709 comments Perhaps I should delete that 'a little'.


message 43: by Judy (last edited Sep 03, 2018 12:01PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4673 comments Mod
Hugh wrote: " In the BBC's case this tends to involve covering both sides of an argument where 90% of informed opinion is on one side of the argument. ..."

Yes, that's definitely true, I agree, Hugh - this can also lead to one or two politicians/experts on the other side of the argument getting too much coverage.

If someone puts in a complaint here (in the UK) saying that a report was biased, the regulator Ofcom can rule on it and fine them - the rules are extremely detailed:

https://www.ofcom.org.uk/tv-radio-and...


Susan | 10602 comments Mod
Interestingly, Churchill accused Reith of being biased against him, as he was refused airtime. There are some articles on the "Auntie's War," discussion about their dislike of each other - which was completely mutual!

Certainly, one of the reasons that Churchill was probably not given airtime was because he was not toeing the party line and they were embarrassed by his constant warnings about Nazi Germany.


message 45: by Lynaia (new) - added it

Lynaia | 468 comments Elizabeth (Alaska) wrote: "By the way, I believe it is impossible to not have biased reporting. Reporters choose what to report about. That choice is inherently biased. Not reporting on something is biased, which words are c..."

I agree with you 100%. I believe that even if we try to be unbiased, we will not be completely successful. You can not help but lean towards what you believe and that will color your statements on any given subject.


message 46: by Lynaia (new) - added it

Lynaia | 468 comments Val wrote: "The political mid-point in the UK (and much of mainland Europe) is a little to the left of that in the US, which is why Fox News tends to spring to mind as the broadcasting company with obvious bia..."

Fox News is so far right because it is reacting to the far left of all of the rest of the news media. It is the only major news network that gives voice to the right side of the arguments. If the rest of the networks had been less biased to the left, Fox News may have never been started. When only one side is consistently presented, it is inevitable that someone will come along to counter that and slant everything they present to the other side.


Susan | 10602 comments Mod
I have never thought of the news, in the UK at least, as having a particular bias. Certainly, with both the BBC, and Sky, I don't feel they comment in any particular way on news stories, to give credence to a particular political party. There are discussion programmes, in which people may, of course, air particular views.

In the US at the moment, the media is really under attack. There is an interesting, and relevant, point in this novel, with Mac (a thinly disguised Ed Murrow). Murrow was certainly not an unbiased observer of the war. He was, in fact, keen to gain empathy from his US listeners and hoped to bring them into the war. Perhaps the media should not always be unbiased. Perhaps, if you, as a journalist, witness something you feel very strongly about, you have a duty to tell that story...

Someone also made the point about this book being about the radio, rather than the television. I thought it was funny that, at the start of the war, the television was simply taken off (not that it was a great service - showing only in London and only for a few hours per day),without any warning, or explanation. That does really encapsulate, 'Auntie Beeb,' just making a decision and not feeling that they have to tell anyone about it!


Elizabeth (Alaska) Susan wrote: "In the US at the moment, the media is really under attack. "

This is not the first time. It happened in the last administration, but probably others didn't notice since it was the other way.


message 49: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb | 10351 comments Mod
The BBC have been accused of going too far down the road of impartiality. For example, say, Climate Change. The scientific community is pretty much unanimous that it's happening and yet the BBC will often feel duty bound to find someone to present an alternate opinion, thereby suggesting it's unclear.

Another example, during the EU referendum, the people invited to discuss both sides of the argument were frequently lacking in factual information and intent on discrediting the other camp. A more dispassionate exploration of the facts, the difficulty of the process, and the pros and cons, might well have resulted in a different outcome. It would certainly have given people a bit more to think about and allowed them to make a more dispassionate decision.


message 50: by Roman Clodia (new)

Roman Clodia | 5670 comments Mod
Yes! Excellent examples of where neutrality can end up being counterproductive, Nigeyb.


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