The other week my flatmate stumbled into my bedroom and surveyed the chaos. “Your room is filled with so much paper” she said as she looked in wonder from the books arranged anarchically across the shelves and puzzled together on the desk, to the gatherings of bills and letters, the postcards pinned to the walls, the mind-maps and the folders of work popping with paper-weights. I feel like my life is an increasingly unruly paper trail: paper breeds paper it seems, every book ends with a Borgesian bibliography which propels you towards an infinite library of more books. But my relationship with texts and with stories began before collections of material papers, before bindings. It began with my mother’s voice.
When I was a baby my mother nicknamed me ‘Frantic Fran;’ I seemed to run on an endless supply of hyperactive energy. I didn’t want to sleep and neither did I want my parents to either, so my mother was required to tell me endless stories. Some of these came from books but the stories I remember best of all, the ones I must have requested a hundred times or more, were the autobiographical stories my mother told of her own life. The unrecorded fable and folklore of the anarchic childhood of her and her siblings, the love story of how she and my father came to meet, the adventure stories about her work in Hong Kong as a designer, and eventually, I suppose, her semi-fictionalised accounts of her first child, Frantic Fran. It is in tribute to my mother then that I’m returning to the oral, seeking out the poem as a work of voice and sound, for it is with voice that my love of literature began.
But my project isn’t just about the oral, it is also about the vernacular and a hunt for the peculiarly local and particular languages which help us to recall and preserve our past. This brings me to my own voice and the rootless limbo which my lack of a mappable accent seems to leave me in. I can’t help longing for a voice which might place me.
I grew up with my parents’ Black Country idioms. If the skies were dark and brooding then they’d say, ‘It’s a bit black over Bill’s Mother’s’, and if you’d taken the long way round to get somewhere, they’d say you’d ‘been all around the Wrekin.’ The Wrekin being a large hill with its own Midland’s folklore and oral history and with a name, as I’ve just discovered, which is first mentioned in an Anglo-Saxon charter in 885 (it turns out that my lost vernacular is Old English after all). It took me a long time to realise just how obsessively local these idioms were and that they had no meaning in the topography of my daily life in Hertfordshire, beyond my family. Like the inflections I gave to bath or laugh or grass or even basketball (which had the other children at school in giggles) I soon realised I had no local and linguistic claim to them. I became too self-conscious of my distance to keep them alive in my own speech.
Over the years my accent has erased all traces of geography, place, and locality, it has erased even its heritage. I have been influenced by my father’s own attempts to neutralise his accent for his work, by the accents of other children at school and the people I grew up with, and by the bland accent-less hinterland of my university days in Cambridge – where everyone’s accent has been provided by their education rather than their hometown. I have lost my vernacular identity.
There is a recording of my lost voice, a recording that is probably lost now too: a redundant cassette tape hidden away somewhere. I’m telling a story, one I had made up, about the rose princess – my accent is in flux, torn between the Black Country trill of my mother’s and the North-London spread of my Hertfordshire displacement. With the long, drawn-out vowels of my hybrid accent, the ‘Rose Princess’ could quite easily be mistaken for a ‘Rogue Princess’, a heroine fallen from grace. In my PhD I’m listening for the voices of irrecoverable recordings, I’m searching for voices from the past. It is with these buried memories and longings that I sit down to do my research and tune my ear to the sounds of Anglo-Saxon vernacular poetry and the resurrection of those sounds in the work of a modern poet – a poet who is also a displaced Welshman and a Celt living, uneasily, with the voice of an Edwardian Cockney.
Francesca Brooks, @frangipancesca
Francesca is in the first year of her PhD at King’s College London, her research looks at ideas of textuality, aurality and oral poetics in Old English manuscripts and the printed poetry of David Jones.
Our editor has been a little cheeky with her words here in order to give you an idea of the brief, but if you’d like to send us ‘The Secret Autobiography’ of your PhD please send 100 words to firstname.lastname@example.org along with a short sentence about your research.