La Voix Humaine

Jumped on a tram on Princes Street the other day heading west to Ingliston Park & Ride next to Edinburgh Airport where I’d left my car.  It beats sitting gridlocked in the chaotic late afternoon Edinburgh traffic.  £1.60 single, unless you go one further stop to the airport terminal in which case the fare is exorbitant.  Why are prices so hiked in airports?  One of the great mysteries of life is that everything in Duty Free is much more expensive than everything everywhere else.  Creating the tram lines turned out to be expensive as well.  Bit of a disgrace – like the cost of the construction of the Scottish Parliament.  But at least they both got built.  I confess I’m not a fan of the Parliament building.  It could easily turn into a slum.  I recall Edinburgh’s Old Royal High School, a neoclassical building next to Calton Hill that has been unoccupied for years was mooted as a site for the Scottish Parliament.  One rumour has it that the then Labour government voted against that because the building was too iconic.  Personally I would have gone for Donaldson’s School for the Deaf, a magnificent Grade A listed edifice (Playfair, 1851) in its own substantial grounds in the west end, that’s currently being turned into residential flats.  Meanwhile it has been suggested that the Royal High School now become the new site for St Mary’s Music School.  That would be good.

Anyway, back on the Princes Street tram, there was this guy in a sharp suit standing at the back of the rear carriage conducting a voluble conversation with himself.  Only a few years ago you might have concluded that he had mental health issues, but in fact he was merely taking a phone call on a hands-free system.  He was making expansive bilateral hand and arm gestures which was odd as his interlocutor could not see them, but I suppose he was just absorbed in the conversation.  He had the appearance of somebody making a public address, which, indeed was exactly what he was doing.  He might have been cabin crew on a jet issuing safety instructions.  “The emergency exits are located as shown; be aware the nearest exit might be behind you…”  He must have got on the tram at the York Place terminus or St Andrew’s Square and as we travelled through the west end it became evident this was not going to be a short conversation.  He was clearly in the corporate world.  He seemed to be a senior figure in some kind of international conglomerate.  At first I was mildly irritated that he felt the need to share his business with an entire tram-load of people.  But then I developed a sickly fascination for the whole performance, and I rather hoped that when I alighted at Ingliston – my trip would take about 35 minutes – he would still be talking.  I suppose it was rude of me to eavesdrop, but then I hardly had any choice.  And besides, it began to sound to me like a prose poem in the form of a dramatic monologue, or rather dialogue with one part inaudible.  Francis Poulenc made an opera out of such a scenario – La Voix Humaine, with libretto by Jean Cocteau – in which a woman of a certain age has a long and very painful telephone conversation with an ex-lover.  I heard Dame Felicity Lott give a wonderfully agonised performance.  The conductor was Stephan Deneve.  Maestro Deneve told a charming anecdote about a performance in an opera house.  When the conductor came up from the pit on stage to take his bow, a lady in the audience asked her friend, “Who is that?”  Her friend replied, “That must be the gentleman on the other end of the telephone line.”

Would you conduct a protracted piece of business, mezzo-forte, in a public place?  I wouldn’t.  But then I’m used to sitting in the dining room of West Highland hotels in which everybody speaks to one another in whispers.  You sometimes come across test scenarios in textbooks of medical ethics which pose a problem as follows: you are a junior hospital doctor on an Edinburgh tram on your way home from hospital after a weekend on call.  Your irate consultant phones you because the computers have crashed and he can’t access your record relating to a critically ill patient you’ve just clerked in.  Would you be so kind as to give him a quick verbal summary?  What do you do? A Hang up B Blurt C Give the facts but disguise the names D Say you’ll phone back from home E get off the tram?

The solution is to conduct the conversation using corporate managerial-speak.  Then nobody will have the slightest notion what you are talking about.  This is why I have little compunction about reproducing the monologue of the man in the sharp suit.  Despite the length of the conversation, I could not figure out what goods or service his conglomerate purveyed.  I have an idea it wasn’t something concrete like food, drink, or clothing; but rather something nebulous like – I don’t know… Futures.

…got to be in Stuttgart tomorrow morning…

Yah; yah-yah… yah

Maggie?  Well you know the trouble with Maggie

With Maggie it’s you know, load, fire, aim…

Haymarket, please have tickets and smart cards ready

The thing is the solution’s got to be bottom-up not top-down


The thing is it should never have crossed my desk in the first place

It’s the sort of thing that should have been cut off at the pass…

Yah yah but I never said that; I never said lower echelon

All I’m saying is she’s skiing off piste   


So when you chair the eleven o’clock

Put it in Any Other Competent Business

So everyone’s desperate for coffee and it gets kicked

Into the long grass or at least

On to the next meeting when we can

Do a proper workshop.

Yah.  Three sixty feedback plus…

Yah yah yah   

Balgreen… Saughton… Bankhead… the man in the suit paused momentarily to glance across at the Aston Martin showroom… Edinburgh Park Station… change here for main line services… Edinburgh Park Central…  It crossed my mind to alight.  I like Edinburgh Park, a business park that never existed when I was a medical student in this city.  From the tram it looks exactly like an artist’s futuristic impression of an idyllic space with glass buildings fronted by lawns, tree-lined paths and water features, inhabited by strolling Lowry stick figures.  I thought to take a walk past the sculptures of literary luminaries, Edwin Morgan, Norman MacCaig, and my kinsman Sorley Maclean.  Kinsman!  That’s a bit of a stretcher.  My mum’s cousin is Sorley’s brother’s widow.  Sorley was very deep.  He had the persona of a magus.  He and Norman MacCaig were once attending a recitation and Sorley was asked to read one of his poems.  Sorley composed himself, looked upwards, pursed his lips, and cleared his throat in a sonorous way with a series of coughs and groans.  He lapsed into a premonitory silence.  MacCaig gave him a gentle nudge, and said, “Sorley, I think they mean for you to recite aloud.”  I will pause by Sorley’s bust and read a few lines from Creagan Beaga

…south-east of Sgurr nan Gillean

Blaven, and the stainless moon…

But no.  I’m stuck with my prose poem.

…squidgy Brexit.  Could be floppy Brexit

Could be priapic Brexit who knows

Gyle Centre please have tickets…

But we must get the mood music right

More Gordon Ramsay than Gordon Lightfoot

More Oasis than Blur yah

Edinburgh Gateway… Gogarburn

Next stop Ingliston Park & Ride thank God

Passengers not bound for Edinburgh airport must alight here…

The elegant white carriages swished to a halt and I passed out on to the platform, conscious of a vague sense of diminuendo.

But then you see that’s Maggie all over all over again.  It’s her lunar cycle don’t quote me on that…

Yuh.  Yuh…




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