'The strangest project: telling the truth'

HUMAN VOICES By Penelope Fitzgerald Houghton Mifflin 160 pp., $12

Unless you're an Anglophile, over 60, or besotted with British history, I doubt this funny, keenly perceptive slice of BBC life in London during World War II will be your cup of tea. "Human Voices" has little plot, suspense, or space between staff meetings for the development of character.

But don't underestimate Penelope Fitzgerald's skills as a entertainer. This is the seventh of her nine novels to be published in the US, and she's bang on form as she re-creates the endearing eccentricity of the radio types she got to know during her own BBC wartime days - and nights.

We may not become attached to these people - or even get to like them - but their quaint stoicism helps us to understand how Britons survived the bombing and how the BBC committed itself to "the strangest project of the war ... telling the truth."

Although I didn't work at BH (Broadcasting House) until many years after the sandbags and searchlights, I can vouch for Fitzgerald's observations. Even in the late 1950s, the canteen smells she describes still lingered in those soundproof corridors; those neatly angled "National Cheese" sandwiches were still on the menu; everyone wore those "frightful" BBC house ties; and pecking orders remained as rigid as a gun barrel.

Until recently, BH still resounded with loud and fruity "Southern English" voices that rationed words the way the government once rationed eggs and oranges. Why waste a phrase when an acronym or a few initials will do!

This bureaucratic shorthand is laced through the story and the pronouncements from the "bitterly loyal" and "warmly unreasonable" DPP (Director of Programme Planning), who is in favor of trimming anything that will facilitate his trip to the Langham Hotel for refreshment before he helps the DG (Director General) and the DDG carve out air time for morale-building FO (Foreign Office) announcements.

On the lighter side, the flirtations that spill from the office into the concert-hall-turned-dormitory are never quite as titillating as one is led to anticipate; and they are ultimately less satisfying than the novel's best feature, its benign portrait of an institution that was - and still is - venerated by millions of listeners, despite its tendency to behave like "a cross between a civil service, a powerful moral force, and an amateur theatrical company that wasn't too sure where next week's money was coming from...."

*Kim Shippey is a former BBC staff announcer.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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