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an equal speaking

Beyond our small patch of pasture and the newly-planted cider apple orchard can be seen the tower of St. Nectan’s, Stoke, the highest in Devon, that of our parish church. It was built as a thank offering and a landmark by Countess Gytha for the preservation of her husband’s life in a tempest at sea. Sometimes called the ‘cathedral of North Devon’, the church is large and quite disproportionate to the number of people who live in the parish.

I enjoy preaching here even though the front pews are so uncomfortable hardly anyone sits in the first nine rows. What I particularly treasure is the absence of a public address system. Mikes are anathema to me. When I was at St. John-at-Hackney and St. Martin-in-the-Fields they were amplification-free, and I like to think they remain so. I suspect that, as even our modest Methodist church has a microphone at the minister’s desk, they will have succumbed.

We took a Japanese visitor to Midnight Mass at Wells Cathedral. Preacher, celebrant, and even lesser luminaries, sported radio mikes. The juxtaposition of medieval masonry and contemporary gizmo was surreal. In my modest anarchic way I saw a window of opportunity for latter-day George Foxes and John Wesleys: bring your own mike, break in on the waveband and present the congregation with an alternative theology. With a bit of technological wizardry we could operate from a central studio and sabotage dozens, nay hundreds, of sermons. If this seems too complicated one could at the least generate feedback.

Foundations poorer than a cathedral and with audio electronic ambitions may have to make do with only one radio mike. Here the congregation is likely to be treated to a novel addition to ritual: Transference of the Mike, a delicate and arcane rite involving pins, wires and straps. It won’t be long before clerical catalogues are offering albs with transmitter pockets, ‘double lined and neatly concealed so that only you will know you are carrying one.’

Why consign the mike to Room 101 you may well ask? I am no Shylock, who can give no reason ‘More than a lodged hate and a certain loathing’ for, unlike him, I can contain my urine ‘when the bagpipe sings i’th’ nose’ and I know why I like cats. I do have my reason.

In primo, it is that, despite manufacturers’ claims, the mike and loudspeakers distort the voice. They may be ultra high frequency but they incorporate filters. When we listen to someone speaking we subconsciously pick up subtleties that tell far more than the words, raw and written, or even read to a mike, do. It is no accident that most classical actors and musicians eschew artificial amplification. Projection is a necessary and prized technique. The effort required to speak to the back row of the balcony energizes the communication.

Secundo, the microphone is anti-democratic. He who holds the talk stick holds power and sway. Hitler could not have harangued hundreds of thousands without artificial aid. You don’t stand a chance on a TV show unless someone hands you the mike. The troublesome voice can easily be switched off. Didn’t John Wesley’s preaching touch many more hearts and lives than that of Billy Graham? Smaller crowds but better communication.

Tertio, it encourages a false tone of intimacy, a schmaltzy wooing and cooing. (‘Input gain control for optimum modulation.’) It has dealt, if not a death blow to oratory, at least a life-threatening one. And I suspect it of being behind the dead prose of modern translations of the bible.

It is a commonplace that The King James version was written to be read aloud, and so its phrases roll off the tongue. I have been reminded of the power of its prose in the reading of a biography of William Tyndale, whose own translation makes up 84% of the King James. Simple phrases such as ‘Axe and it shal be given you. Seke and ye shall fynd. Knocke and it shal be opened unto you’ are clear, a joy to proclaim and a pleasure to remember.

So, for its part in the blanding of biblical prose alone, the mike must go.

You may care to argue, for the other side, that the need to fill large empty spaces led to the development of the clerical voice, the voice that Alan Bennett sent up in his Beyond the Fringe sermon sketch, in which the mountaineer climbs higher and higher, vomiting at the peak. It may well be so, and that is a price to pay. But the need probably led also to the development of plainsong and the intoning of prayers, so gain outweighs loss.

We do not need to make a noise to be listened to. It is in the still small voice that the truth is to be heard. I was reminded of this by an interview with a member of the Modern Jazz Quartet. When they started they were playing to audiences that were noisy and rude. Instead of turning up their own volume, as most other groups did, they turned it down: people had to make an effort to hear. It worked.

The same goes for school. Shouting at unruly kids only adds to the general mayhem. Asking questions in a quiet voice brings down the excitement far more quickly than barking orders like a sergeant-major from a brigade of guards.

Before WW II, French was the language of diplomats, business was conducted in Spanish and any half-decent philosopher, scientist or theologian needed to read German. Now English dominates all these fields, thanks to its promotion by the BBC World Service and Voice of America with their mikes and radio masts. This may seem like progress to native English-speakers but the French (and many others) fear their mother tongue may go the way of Cumbric, Cornish, Manx and Norn.

English is not yet the perfect vehicle for diplomacy. A Russian government official told the BBC that his boss and Tony Blair would be having a ‘brainwashing session’ at the President’s hunting lodge.

The mike has a lot to answer for.

September 2002

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