Niall Hodson reflects on Voicewalks, an event at Durham Book Festival to launch a new collection that explores the voices we hear in our heads. The day featured readings from four contributors: Adam Steiner, Martyn Halsall, Roz Oates, and Iain Sinclair.
The chapel at St Chad’s College has been a regular feature of the Durham Book Festival circuit over the past few years. It’s an unusual little building, a white wood-framed hut, nestled in a garden metres away from Durham Cathedral. The chapel is at its best on a night like Saturday last: dark, rattling with rain, warmed with near-oppressive antiquated orange heat lamps. On a similar night during the 2011 Book Festival, it memorably played host to Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, reading from their joint venture Edgelands. (The latter returned to speak at Durham University last year and recently won the Forward Prize for his collection, Drysalter.)
A healthy congregation filled the chapel for this latest event, the launch of Voicewalks, a special issue of Stepaway Magazine, produced in collaboration with the Hearing the Voice project at Durham University. The works in the collection explore the voices we hear in our heads as facets of our inner experience. These voices range from everyday inner speech, to the echoes of heard and remembered voices and troubling experiences of auditory hallucination.
Four authors were present to read their contributions to the issue. The first, Adam Steiner, read a short story entitled “They Say Jump!” in which the oppressive voices of a hot city Saturday are heard in counterpoint to the agitated inner monologue of an individual uncomfortable in a crowd:
It’s full of voices, voices singing from the stereo and other people singing along to them, and talking about lists and the rest shouting above the rest. It messes up your thoughts so you can’t even see straight, never mind to think what you’re supposed to.
Next, Martyn Halsall read a poem, “Sanctuary,” in which a woman visiting Carlisle Cathedral finds herself stifled by the noises of a silent space. This sanctuary is filled with “deafening Amenning echoes” and “words bombasted in the language of stone and brass.” In common with many of the works in the collection, Halsall’s poem offers glimpses into the conflicted territory of voices in the mind. Seeing another woman at prayer, the poem’s protagonist “saw that her lips barely moved, and knew she made/ the same sounds as voices clamouring in her head,/ sometimes from the powerbroker, sometimes from memories.”
Halsall’s reading was followed by that of Roz Oates, whose short story “Behind the Wall” features overheard but unseen voices which seem to commentate on the life of the story’s female narrator: “Two voices, which meant they could talk about me.” These voices are at once frightening and fascinating, as they emphasize the woman’s loneliness, and yet also offer a perspective on her life, a clue to her state of mind:
I […] concentrated on the voices. “She’s spending a lot of time alone,” a male voice said.
“She likes it that way. No boyfriend, I expect,” another man’s voice, nasal and brittle, replied.
I felt numb. How did they know that? Were they spying on me?
The range of heard voices in these works, internal and external, imagined and real, blur the distinction between what is normal and abnormal; by exploring its creative potential, the writers challenge the perception of hearing voices as something confined to the realms of mental illness.
The final speaker—introduced by the co-director of Hearing the Voice, Dr Angela Woods—was the writer Iain Sinclair, who read a specially-commissioned piece, ‘Scoring Silence’. This short story—notably featuring Sinclair’s regular semi-autobiographical character Norton in his first-ever journey outside London—recalled the author’s experience of a visit to Lindisfarne 40 years previously. The story, in a nod to Kafka’s Surveyor in The Castle, sees Norton visiting Durham tasked with tracing the sound of the peeling bells of the Cathedral, and locating the point at which they become inaudible. It is a journey that takes him through the landscape of the county, but also through history, literature, and his own experience:
When Norton marked the spot where the peeling of hours could no longer be heard with any certainty, he was through the woods and up against the farm, the Sewage Farm.
Out west, beside the River Browney, he registered the remains of Bearpark. Water confused the issue. Sometimes, at home on the Lea, white bears with their paws hacked off, were found floating. Beating the bounds was mapping a field. Undertaking the task Kafka’s Land Surveyor was never permitted to begin. Here again was a demonstration of Norton’s defect (which was also his talent): an overwhelming experience of simultaneity. Synthaesthesia.
Norton’s journey eventually leads him to Lindisfarne where he is confronted with another bell, which both returns him to Durham and returns him home: “The sound he had lost in Durham. A solid bell gravid with compacted language and stopped songs. Then the word came, loud and clear, from the other side of the low wall: Haggerston.” In this way, sounds followed, scored, remembered, and heard become a key part of the character’s journey through the landscape: “The hallucinatory voice, coming over the wall into the Holy Island burial ground, confirmed the futility of his long traverse.”
The event concluded with a Q&A session with Sinclair, led by Angela Woods, which further explored the issue of the density of auditory experience, and its cumulative effect on the mind over time; a subject which united the works of all four writers. Sinclair pointed to the many quotations and references in his piece, which provide a kind of catalogue of sounds building up in the mind. Indeed, in many of the works in the Voicewalks collection heard voices seem to be borne with a weight not dissimilar to knowledge or memories: they can inhibit and stifle the mind and yet simultaneously offer comfort and a spur to creativity.
Sinclair offered some interesting insights into his practice as a writer and psychogeographer; referring to his activity of gathering voices, images and words from the city as that of a “scavenger of sound” and comparing his walks around London, collecting the noise of the city, to the musician Bruce Gilbert’s habit of capturing sound recordings as he goes about his day.
Asked by Angela Woods whether all writers hear voices, Sinclair reflected that all writing was the articulation, or channelling, of a voice or voices, and returned to the anecdote with which he had prefaced his talk: a meeting with the poet Allen Ginsberg, who had spoken of reading the works of William Blake and hearing – channelling – the voice of the English poet in his mind.
The chapel at St Chad’s will be the venue for a number of other events in the Hearing the Voice series on Saturday 19th October, with a day dedicated to the theme of Voices, Memory, Forgetting – an ongoing discussion about memory, creativity and mental health led by some of the UK’s leading journalists, writers and psychologists, in collaboration with The Memory Network.
Durham Book Festival continues until 20th October.