Jason Goodwin's efforts to transcribe his father's colourful life story are suffering all sorts of unusual interruptions.
Oh, for the silence of a city street in lockdown, where the jangle of the ice-cream van is stilled, the cars are tidily parked and the officious sign saying No Ball Games is obeyed at last. The snoopers soundlessly twitch their curtains. There are no buses, no trams, no school run. Peace reigns over the town.
Here, in the country, it’s birds, birds, birds, from dawn until dusk. They’ve never had it so good, not since the war, at least. Traffic is down by two-thirds nationally, but in our corner of Dorset, the roads are deserted, except for the occasional district nurse trundling by on her bicycle or a carload of policemen weaving the lanes looking for trouble. The other day, I heard an unfamiliar rumbling sound when I was out gardening and found myself shaking my fist at an aeroplane, as outraged by the interruption as any uncontacted tribesman in the rainforest.
What news we get comes from the ever-cheerful postman, who has never been so busy, delivering home shopping all up and down the valley. He tells me of a colleague who was pulled over by the police on the A35 last week and asked to account for his movements. ‘I’m a postman,’ he explained slowly, gesturing to the huge red van he was driving, with the words Parcelforce etched in enormous letters on both sides.
I know about the city because my father is in lockdown there, patiently waiting for the next instalment of his memoirs, which I am recording for him. Lockdown finds curious things for us to do with our time. He is an adept with a computer programme called Vegas, which turns raw recordings into acceptable audio and edits out the beeps and pops.
“‘You know,’ he said, ‘the Pyramids? Very boring. But the Sphinx? A little bit crazy.’”
It can’t, however, edit out the background soundtrack of the birds. They trill and tweet and whirr and chirrup at every window — joyous, of course, but making difficulties for the memorialist. The worst, I think, is the nuthatch. He has a very insistent, repetitive note that he is not shy of sharing with the world. The others warble and they sing, but the nuthatch is more of a musical metronome.
Closing the shutters is not enough. I have retreated to the back loo downstairs, which has manageably small windows. I stuff them with cushions and, in there, wedged between the boot polish and the boiler, the batteries and lightbulbs, I sonorously intone my father’s life story into the recorder.
It is curiously agreeable work. I know most of the stories, of course, but there are always surprises. Sometime in the late 1950s, my father flew from India to London and struck up a conversation with a tall, gaunt Swiss in black spectacles in the next seat. At Cairo, the passengers were told the aircraft needed engine work and that they would have a few hours to wait.
The man in spectacles proposed that they should take this opportunity to visit the Pyramids. A taxi took them into the desert. On the way back to the airport, the man leant back in his seat. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘the Pyramids? Very boring. But the Sphinx? A little bit crazy.’
This was the celebrated modernist architect Le Corbusier, on his way home from Chandigarh. I am currently working on Le Corbusier’s voice, giving it just a touch of Inspector Clouseau, but all bets are off until the nuthatch agrees to shut up.
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