The Most Famous Voice in London
A ride on the Skytrain inspires longing for the sounds of the Underground.
WHEN I STEP ONTO THE SKYTRAIN, I think of her. She is a stranger, apart from her voice, but it seems that is enough. To know that voice is to know her. Her pronunciations of “Tottenham Court Road,” “Leicester Square” and “Piccadilly Circus” run through my head as I sit and watch the cities of Surrey and New Westminster disappear out the window.
I’m passing through colonial substitutes en route to Vancouver, but by those names I can almost let myself believe I’m riding the London Underground, except for one unforgivable thing: the automated SkyTrain announcement that belongs more to a computer than a human. It’s not at all like her voice. I try to recall how she dresses up “Westminster” so it matches the grandeur of the Abbey and the Houses of Parliament. The “st” combination softens as her voice rises on “min” and falls on “ster”—pronounced more like “stair.” Her cadence hangs in the air like mist.
She welcomes you into the dirty bowels of the tube with thousands of other strangers and makes you feel at home among the briefcases and side-by-side thighs. She plays the perfect hostess, inviting you through her doors with a warm intonation that indicates you are in the right place. She won’t let you go without giving fair warning; she calls out your stop and watches over your departure. “The next station is Oxford Circus. Mind the gap.” You don’t mind her telling you this for the hundredth time because she never sounds nagging. Always gentle and polite, she is the epitome of British civility. Your tense shoulders drop back in her presence. Like Jonah, you’re in the belly of the whale, riding in the dark except for one small candle, her voice, flickering overhead.
The most famous voice in London belongs to Emma Clarke, and hers is the kind of recognition, if any, I would like for myself. Important enough to be missed, but not important enough to stalk. The paradox about Emma is that she gets to be famous and anonymous. A comedy writer as well as a voiceover artist, she’s been in the news for creating spoofs of her own Underground announcements. But I would prefer her to remain a secret. As one of her spoofs states, “Passengers are reminded that, like all voiceover artists, I probably look nothing like you imagine and may turn out to be somewhat of a disappointment.” There’s no disappointment if you just listen. Let her do what she does best. Talk to you. Ride with you. Keep you company in the belly of the beast.
In a world that sees before it hears, Emma is an anomaly. Nowadays, we want pictures before meeting people, whether it’s for a blind date or a job interview. Very rarely do we know only a disembodied voice floating in the air without flesh to ground it. But without Emma’s voice, London would be a little less. The businessman who finds the same seat each morning to read the Daily Telegraph, the homeless man whose most pleasant interaction is with the voice over the PA system, the international student who modelled her British accent on Emma’s inflections—the voice is such a regular part of their days that they might not think twice about it, but its absence would immediately uproot them. When she speaks, she sounds like home.
Home to everyone except one person: her ex-boyfriend. He broke up with her shortly after she announced her exciting news. My mind fills in the details of their romance with the starts and stops of the SkyTrain.
Metrotown. He loves her voice, and now he has to share it with the world. He’s not ready for such a magnanimous gesture at twenty-four.
Joyce-Collingwood. He’s been reading too much Hannah Arendt in philosophy class and is convinced that nothing personal, like love, can be shared in the public sphere without being extinguished.
29th Avenue. He worries that the sound that drew him to her will be the thing that pushes him away. So he dumps the person to save the voice, surprising himself with his sacrifice.
Nanaimo. When she tells him the news, they’re sitting in a restaurant. The dim lights refracted by the window dance circles over her head. A piece of steak gets trapped in his throat. She looks like church. He leaves her for the same reason he left God. “I’ll hear you everywhere,” he finally says. But she always has the last word. Months, years later, she’s still telling him where to go next and to mind the gap. I imagine he no longer rides the tube, an inconvenient decision in a city where it requires more work to avoid it than to confront it. But he’s not the only one.
Commercial-Broadway. The woman in front of me abruptly stands up to leave as if awakened from a bad dream. I place her in London. Her coiffed hair, trench coat and purse travel beside her as she listens to Emma. She liked the voice until it grew eyes that followed her from the home she shares with her husband in Hampstead to her lover’s house in Golders Green, just one stop north. She doesn’t feel so anonymous anymore, and neither does Emma. Lately, Emma’s voice sounds more and more like her own. After the sixth trip, she buses instead.
Neither the woman nor the ex-boyfriend holds onto the hope of a replacement because Emma’s immortal words are recorded for eternity. They will likely go on living underground even after her body is buried. Connected in life, connected in death. London will never let her go.
“The next station is Waterfront. Terminus station.” The mechanical voice on the SkyTrain jolts me out of London. I have arrived back in a city of glass as cold as the voice that accompanies it. I am home, apparently. I leave the train and follow the signs to the exit. I’ve left the “Sky” part of the Train in the suburbs and now make my way out of the dark hole beneath downtown.
On the escalator, I watch people riding the opposite side, descending as I ascend. I think of all the strangers who plunge these depths each day and come out a little different than when they entered, how the very act of submerging and resurfacing can change someone. In comparison to Vancouver, London moves fast. Such a place needs Emma. The city needs a constant. Change her voice and you change the hipsters and politicians, punks and mothers, business execs and artists who have found a home in her tempo and tones, in the soft cadence that comforts them when they think they are dreadfully and drearily alone. A blessing to most and a curse for some, Emma’s voice is a London special you will visit one day in the Transport Museum. She will be riding the Circle Line with her signature phrases playing on repeat, and tourists will come from all corners of the world to sit with her voice and let it carry them home.